BR: Black Widow (1954)

June 16, 2019 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  October 16, 2018

Genre:  Film Noir / Melo-Noir

Synopsis: A Broadway producer must do his own investigating after he’s wanted by the police for murdering a pretty girl.

Special Features: 2008 Audio Commentary by film noir historian Alan K. Rode / Isolated Stereo Music Track / 2 x 2008 Featurettes: “Gene Tierney: Final Curtain for a Noir Icon” (6:17) + “Ginger Rogers at Twentieth Century-Fox” (8:31) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




Although esteemed and longtime Fox screenwriter Nunnally Johnson was responsible for a slew of classic films – The Grapes of Wrath (1941), Roxie Hart (1942), My Cousin Rachel (1952) – he only directed 8 films, of which 2 were very early CinemaScope production – Night People (1954), shot on location in postwar Berlin, and Black Widow (1954), a noir-melodrama (melo-noir) top-heavy with major stars.

Johnson’s adaptation of Patrick Quentin’s novel Fatal Woman (a pseudonym for Hugh Wheeler) is almost as slick as this stellar big screen production. The fluid script flips between different time-frames, some of which are recalled by central figure Peter Denver (trim Van Heflin), a major Broadway producer who meets fledgling / wannabe writer Nanny Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner) at a party hosted by Lottie Marin (Ginger Rogers), his next-door neighbour and star of his latest production.

Peter and Nanny hit it off as newfound friends, and the supportive mentor loans the newbie writer use of his swanky flat (!) while absent wife Iris (Gene Tierney) aids her mother’s recuperation at a distant hospital. When Iris returns, she finds Nanny swinging from a rope in the bathroom.

The film’s remaining two-thirds have Peter being suspected of and soon fingered as the chief suspect in Nanny’s murder. He mounts his own hasty person-to-person investigation, always hopping a few steps ahead of lead Det. Bruce (George Raft) from apartments to pubs, sorting through details which reveal even close friends are convinced he was having an affair with a very young & naïve scribe.

While a mild noir (if not a frothy whodunnit), Black Widow never maintains much of an edge in part because Peter’s escape from the claws of the law and his agility in meeting the right people at the right times are far too neat, and yet Heflin sells the nonsense with his deft, underrated performance, and has Peter’s desperation often hovering close to explosive violence.

A meeting with a pub hostess (stage actress Hilda Sims in a rare film role) starts tense but is ratcheted down when he gets frank details and insight, but his visit to Nanny’s supposed friend & flatmate Claire Amberly (Virginia Leith) gets nasty: the heavy throat-grabbing is jarring and improbable, but it’s designed to show Peter’s desperation and ability to kill.

Like a classic whodunnit, the suspects are ultimately assembled in one locale where Det. Bruce sifts through the revised facts, and eventually hones in on the real killer in a scene that features a rare solid moment from otherwise stone-faced Raft.

In his commentary (ported over from Fox’s 2008 DVD), noir specialist Alan K. Rode rightly cites a few parallels to Fox’s other tale of a usurper in NYC’s theatrical world, All About Eve (1950), in which a young, hungry actress does everything possible to sabotage the marriage and career of an aging Broadway star and take her place. While Eve was no murder mystery, the two productions share a special lushness which is pushed to meticulously detailed extremes in Widow – a move that takes away some of the story’s edge, because everyone and everything is so damn beautiful.

It’s a case where the production and costume designers may have over-transcended the story’s elemental plotting with sleek sets, actresses decked in stunning coats & dresses, and the pastel colour palette severely dominated by classic 1950s creamy powder blue.

Cinematographer Charles G. Clarke (The Captain from Castile, Violent Saturday, The Sound and the Fury) may have had too real estate to cover with CinemaScope’s early 2.55:1 ratio, but the colour design and lighting are still dreamy, almost superseding the film’s dark story. The grisliest image of Nanny’s noosed cadaver is a clean shadow, rendered like a magazine sketch using quick, lean dark brushstrokes over a dark turquoise canvas, whereas one of Clarke’s most artful moments has him framing the neon lights in the pub like brushstrokes when Peter talks closely to the hostess.

If the story fails to offer much meat, the look and feel ensure Widow is one of the most beautiful melo-noirs; neither the actor blocking nor any background objects and ornamentation are ever out of place. The very wide ratio does create problems with group shots, however; without the flexibility for dynamic camera movements, non-speaking actors frequently pivot and reposition themselves in robotic movements, sometimes with backs to the camera so our focus is on key speakers.

Although his Main Title music makes use of the same mega-booms in his score for Broken Lance (1954), Leigh Harline’s lush music still hones in on darker moments as Peter finds himself implicated in a relationship and murder that will ruin his career and marriage. The recurring use of Richard Strauss’ “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome, though, is overbearing; the theme is incessantly played by Nanny, and while it does capture her naivety as an earnest romantic, its tone is too heavy-handed..

At 95 mins., Widow is well-paced, and much of the momentum comes from the rhythms of the starry cast. Tierney’s role is small but essential, and it’s a modest performance by a major Fox star whose career would come to a quick close within a year as mental illness and personal anguish could no longer be suppressed. Also retained from Fox’s 2008 DVD is a short bio featurette on the star’s tragic shift from the big screen to a sanitarium, and the brutal shock treatments which robbed her of memories, and the ability to perform major roles. After The Left Hand of God in 1955, the actress would remain absent from film until 1960.)

Rogers clearly had fun spouting snooty quips at snooty socialites, and as Rode points out, Lottie is cut from a similar cloth as Eve’s Margo Channing, as is Lottie’s long-suffering husband Brian (Reginald Gardiner). Fancy clothes notwithstanding, stone-faced Raft actually looks the part and almost manages to deliver a performance, conveying authority through his firm voice.

As Tierney’s career was coming to a close, those of Garner and Leith were transitioning to what should’ve been long-term rises to major parts, but things didn’t work out in their favour. Garner, who won a Juvenile Oscar for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) is fine in an adult role, but she immediately returned to episodic TV, where she remained for the next decade, appearing in just two more features – The Cat (1966) and Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978).

Perhaps key challenges in playing Nanny were the character’s limited details – in flashbacks she’s seen as a genial ingénue, almost devoid of edge until a handful of brief moments that still fail to show her as an evil schemer but a misguided fool. Garner’s also plagued by a weird hairstyle that always looks unkempt, and a shade of orange-blonde – either deliberate designs to heighten Nanny’s desperate hunger to fit into NYC’s creative elite, or bad makeup & hair design.

Whereas fellow child actor Skip Homeier managed to fair better in adult roles, playing a truly amoral, ruthless blonde (!) killer in Cry Vengence (1954) and innumerable TV appearances, Fox failed to renew Leith’s contract after some buildup in Violent Saturday (1955), On the Threshold of Space (1956), and the noir classic A Kiss Before Dying (1956), which co-starred rising Fox players Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, and Joanne Woodward.

The former model was always striking on film, but she had a limited range and eerie, distant persona which may have hindered her ability to stand out among the studio’s other newcomers. Leith did appear in some TV series, but she’s sadly immortalized as the decapitated talking head in the infamous bad movie classic The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962).


Whereas the American artist had clearly never bothered to look at a picture of Gene Tierney…


… The Italian artist got her right…


… But there is NO such long-haired, red-headed babe in the film!


Widow doesn’t quite live up to its image as a dark, chilling noir with edgy characters – the original poster art infers more drama with weird caricatures of the cast, including a non-existent, long-haired sorta-blonde ‘black widow’ and a rendition of Tierney that’s more Lauren Bacall – but as a slightly bitter cream-filled pastry, it’s an indulgent amusement. It’s also fun to watch the unique amalgam of new and veteran stars, such as ever-reliable Otto Kruger as Nanny’s uncle, and an unbilled, gawky Aaron Spelling, future hitmaker in television (Charlie’s Angels, The Love BoatBeverly Hills, 90210).

Twilight Time’s Blu features a crisp HD transfer with clean, radiant sound, and a few extras from the Fox disc were retained – Rode’s excellent, hugely informative commentary, an isolated stereo track of Harline’s score with some studio chatter, bio featurettes on Tierney and Rogers – whereas the pressbook and stills gallery remain exclusive to the 2008 DVD.

Julie Kirgo’s appreciation pays particular homage to actor Gardiner and his quite delicate balancing act in playing a cinema cliche – the untalented husband who offers comfort, companionship, and sex to the glamorous, domineering wife. Also noted are the men behind Patrick Quentin, a pseudonym for Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night MusicCandide, and Sweeney Todd), and occasional collaborator Richard W. Webb.

Nunnally Johnson’s films as director include Night People (1954), Black Widow (1954), How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955), The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), Oh, Men! Oh, Women! (1957), The Three Faces of Eve (1957), The Man Who Understood Women (1959), and The Angel Wore Red (1960).

Other features adapted from novels by “Patrick Quentin” include Homicide for Three (1948), The Strange Awakening (1958), Ladies Man (1960), and screenplays for Five Miles to Midnight (1962), Something for Everyone (1970), Travels with My Aunt (1972), and Nijinsky (1980).



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





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