When a movie starts by showing an actual black widow, with on-screen narration about how it’s a female spider that kills its mate, you know exactly what type of movie you’re getting. Black Widow is very much of the 1950s domestic picture wherein murder and mayhem happen because of a heavy dose of melodrama and sexual hijinks. Written and directed by Nunnally Johnson, who had a banner year in ’54 with this and Marilyn Monroe’s How to Marry a Millionaire, Black Widow does suffer from the typical pratfalls of the era but is a fantastic showcase for the dark depths of supporting actress, Ginger Rogers.
Peter Denver (Van Heflin) is a Broadway producer in a happy marriage with his actress wife, Iris (Gene Tierney). When he meets the shy Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner), Peter feels sorry for her and brings her into his world. But when Nancy ends up dying under mysterious circumstances in Peter’s home it will force him to discover the true history of the young woman he’s met.
It’s interesting because the 1950s could easily be perceived as the decade of the woman. As people fled the cities and moved into the suburbs, ushering in the era of Donna Reed and Ozzie and Harriet, cinema took note and simultaneously brought in a bevy of “woman’s pictures.” And because television was firmly aimed at housewives many of these movies, in response, were just as soapy and melodramatic. Black Widow borrows liberally from the likes of All About Eve (1950) and A Letter to Three Wives (1949) with its story of privileged Hollywood types as they navigate intrigues in a New York high-rise.
But like Johnson’s other feature, How to Marry a Millionaire, it often feels like the soapiness is at the expense of what, ten years ago, would have been a film noir. Van Heflin’s Peter Denver is a nice guy bordering on the woefully naive, who takes a shine to Nancy Ordway because she’s normal. Peter sees a woman who isn’t blinded by the glitz of the New York types he lives above, and though their relationship is chronically reminded to the audience as being chaste, he certainly knows how dumb he’s acting. Where this is meant to be Heflin’s story the true gem is Peggy Ann Garner, who makes a big splash transitioning into adult roles after her amazing turn in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). The role was initially given to Maggie McNamara and, I’ll confess, she would have been better.
Garner is certainly no slouch, however. Where Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington had an inherent glamour which made it hard to believe she was all she seemed, Garner truly makes you buy her simplicity and meekness. When she meets a wealthy woman and her brother, there’s never any indication – till it’s revealed in the third-act flashback – that their interaction was anything more than fate. So it’s all the more frustrating when the third act turns Nancy into little more than a lovesick woman who was once interested in climbing the social ladder only to throw it away for money and a man who’s little more than a weakling.
Meeting Garner with the challenge of changing her persona is Ginger Rogers, who plays the vain, ruthless actress Carlotta Marin. Originally written for Tallulah Bankhead, Rogers is so cunning because she takes her established comedic timing and ability to throw out a jab and tweak it just enough that the character has little redeeming value. Her opening party where she insults a woman’s husband – “but if he’s a banker, why did he buy you that ugly hat” – is perfect. Rogers played her fair share of mean girls, especially in Stage Door (1937), but where those films saw her as the scrappy working-class girl having to cut down a member of the elite, here she is the elite and she’s just cutting people down because she can. It’s unfortunate that poor Gene Tierney is flat-out wasted as the sweet wife who spends 2/3s of the film caring for her sick mother. Compared to Rogers and Garner’s venal performances, Tierney is the kindhearted wife in a role any good actress of the 1950s could have played.
Black Widow feels very much like a movie of the mid-1950s. The locations are sumptuous though nothing special. It’s more of an actor’s showcase than anything else, especially for the change in persona of Rogers and Garner becoming a full-fledged adult actress. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray looks fantastic, especially if your only experience with this has been on FX Movies screenings.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.