Film: Very Good
Extras: Very Good
Label: Twilight Time
Released: October 13, 2015
Genre: Neo-Noir / Suspense
Synopsis: A government agent risks her career to track down and stop a ‘black widow’ serial killer from marrying and murdering another wealthy magnate and claim a piece of his empire.
Special Features: Audio commentary with film historian Julie Kirgo and producer Nick Redman / Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.
The term neo-noir is a bit loose in the sense that it can be applied to films with significant but not necessarily exacting noir tropes with characters and stories set in the present day, and the 1980s and 1990s were certainly ripe with directors trying to craft their own tales of betrayal.
Bob Rafelson’s 1981 adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice can’t be credited with launching a resurgence of noir in the 1980s (the honors to some degree probably belong to Lawrence Kasdan’s competing, sweaty 1981 neo-noir classic Body Heat), Rafelson did revisit the genre a couple of times with a TV movie adapted from Raymond Chandler’s unfinished Poodle Springs (1998), and the neo-noir No Good Deed (2002), based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett.
Rafelson’s post-Postman career contains some significant gaps, but he was never a steady and prolific director. After co-creating and directing episodes of The Monkees and its spin-off film Head (1968), Rafelson directed Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s further transition from body builder to actor in Stay Hungry (1976). Black Widow is significant because it marked Rafelson’s return to filmmaking after a 6 year gap.
Ron Bass’ screenplay – his second into a hugely successful career – is a weird thing, and it’s not a leap to suggest a present day studio would’ve demanded some serious changes. The first act kind of smash cuts between vignettes before the two central characters engage in a lengthy game of ‘Go ahead, try and stop me!’ and that’s when the film settles into a more unified, even flow for the last (and vry solid) hour.
The early scenes aren’t incoherent, but they’re handled with part economy / part impatience, as though director and screenwriter were unified in wanting to get through the most obvious genre clichés – showing how the mystery woman lures, woos, weds, murders, and absconds with the fortunes of corporate titans – and gearing up to the good stuff, which as film historian and Blu-ray co-commentator Julie Kirgo points out, is unique, even within noirs: a woman detective (really a government analyst) finally getting her dream to go out in the field and experience some danger, applying her geek know-how to an ongoing case of which she’s the prime and only detective.
Who can blame spinster Alexandra (Debra Winger) for feeling stir crazy, having worked in a government office whose windows are literally covered with algae green paint that seemed to have been vomited and sun-dried over many summers instead of applied with any creative direction or aesthetic purpose. It’s an environment that would’ve driven anyone cuckoo, and Alexandra snatches an opportunity to track black widow Catharine (Theresa Russell) to the fancy-schmancy environs of upscale Hawaii where a hotel developer (A Band of Outsiders‘ Sami Frey) is slated to become the next dead CEO.
In spite of their brevity, the opening montages of Catharine’s doomed husbands (played by Dennis Hopper and Nicol Williamson) don’t feel perfunctory. One scene is a standout: lacking proof, Alexandra can’t even warn the doomed museum benefactor (Williamson) that his pretty new wife will kill him in the coming months; her correct prediction of his death is what turns an investigation to an outright obsession.
The first act builds up Alexandra’s mounting fascination with her killer subject, and in one rather quaint scene, she clicks through dual slide projectors to match up wall-splattered images of Catharine, matching the black widow in newspaper and publicity photos from side-glimpses to rare head shots, connecting the various identities of the methodical murderess. Alexandra’s early legwork involves cross-referencing winnowed data from a computer onto which she’s taped “I hate this computer”, and offers a one-woman, lo-fi approach to tracking a killer compared to the FBI sleuthing in Jonathan Demme’s bigger box office hit The Silence of the Lambs (1987), in which agent Clarice Starling and her team track down a sick serial killer with a strange set of fetishistic preferences.
Catharine researches her targets, gains their trust, kills them, and seems to feel genuine remorse, although in present day theorizing, it’s probably a case where the serial killer feels sad the journey is over; that once again she’s all alone; and in allowing herself to go through a mourning of a lost life, Catharine builds up the resolve to regain composure, focus, and tackle a new target – a warped version of renewal, and hope.
Bass may not have added that level of subtext and discrete machinations to the characters, but the actors fill in enough material to vivify what could’ve been a thriller with smart verbal jabs and cleverly ironic phrases from hunter and killer. Winger is great: she’s hungry for excitement and has to confront her own degree of self-dislike when she ‘befriends’ Catharine, athletic, sophisticated, stylish, and privileged. There’s also Rafelson’s longtime composer Michael Small who crafted a quiet score that evokes noir within modernist writing (although the two source songs heard at Frey’s parties are pretty dreadful).
The canvas which really solidifies Black Widow as a solid neo-noir is Conrad Hall’s extraordinary cinematography. Noted for the B&W seminal true crime docu-drama In Cold Blood (1967), the glossy pastel colours of The Happy Ending (1969) and scores of classic 1970s works by indie-minded directors (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Fat City, Electra Glide in Blue, The Day of the Locust, and Marathon Man), Hall hadn’t shot a film since the 1977 teleplay It Happened One Christmas (1977) – a factor noted by several critics who praised the film’s look as well as Rafelson’s return to filmmaking in their original reviews.
At times the hair and clothes may be big and gaudy, but this is a beautiful production with lighting that adds texture, subtext, and reflects the psychologies of the two lead characters; everything feels natural while being dramatic, but Hall’s approach is never slick or overtly commercial. Its subtlety ensured Hall’s subsequent works would often be with independent minded filmmakers, including screenwriter-turned-director Robert Towne (Tequila Sunrise, Without Limits), Bruce Robinson (the underrated thriller Jennifer Eight), and Sam Mendes (American Beauty, and his last work, Road to Perdition).
Kirgo certainly cares enough for the film that she and Nick Redman recorded a hefty commentary track for Twilight Time’s lovely Blu-ray release, and her enthusiasm and defensively is matched with Redman’s own stances on some of the film’s virtues, including co-star Russell, whom he rightly pegs as having an interpretation and realization of characters that often comes off as, well, odd. It’s easy to see her as a pouty, almost teenage model, cast for looks than acting skill, and her early scenes – perhaps because they have that economic pacing – feel weak but when given more dramatic meat in the Hawaiian scenes, she’s perfectly suited to portray Catharine as a complicated, somewhat fuzzy anti-heroine whom audiences want to see caught but succeed just a little bit, given all that effort put into so much hard work. Among rare and more prolific male serial killers, she’s hardly a slacker; every minute of her life is devoted to executing a flawless plan.
There’s one technical device that Rafelson applies with regularity that’s quite strange, and adds to the abruptness of the film’s first third: scenes fade to back but cut straight to the next scene’s opening shot instead of a fade-in or dissolve. Why do this? Maybe it’s an attempt to staple together classic noir with neo-noir, literally splicing two approaches reflecting the aesthetics of very different periods linked to common genre tropes.
Among the excellent minor cast are Terry O’Quinn (TV’s Lost) as Alexandra’s boss, James Hong (Blade Runner) as a sleazy noir detective, Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart) as a greedy widow, Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000, The House of the Devil) playing the diving instructor that gives Alexandra the plum chance to interact with Catharine, Christian Clemenson (TV’s The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Boston Legal) as Catharine’s main research aide for her second victim, and David Mamet (who scripted Rafelson’s Postman remake) in a tiny role as a poker player.
TT’s disc also includes TV spots and a trailer, and Small’s beautiful score isolated in stereo on a separate track. The composer’s subsequent credits include Rafelson’s Mountains of the Moon (1990) and Poodle Springs (1998), Alan J. Pakula’s Consenting Adults (1992), and one of his finest works, George Butler’s superb documentary The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition (2000).
© 2016 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review