Melo-Noir: Black Widow (1954) + Slightly Scarlet (1956)

June 16, 2019 | By

Under the umbrella of film noir (ostensibly post-WWII suspense-dramas of scarred, haunted characters reconnecting with crooks to commit doom-laden crimes, falling for hot double-crossing dames, or becoming involved with seedy activities, including selfish acts culminating in murder) there exists colour noir (the aforementioned, but filmed in moody colour, extending from the 1940s into the mid-fifties); and neo-noir (revisitations of genre tropes through outright remakes, homages, or hybridized tales of sordid woe in cross-mixed genres, usually occurring in spurts from the 1970s onwards, and set either in the past, the present, or a dystopian future).

One can also add another splinter, perhaps best branded as the melo-noir, a hybrid of 1950s melodrama and classic noir elements in which there is sex, murder, double-crossing, greed, and a re-balancing of moral scales after one side had been seriously overburdened, plus the visual lushness associated with glossy melodramas.

Although the two works covered here weren’t intentionally collated, they sort of fell into place when I sought out Allan Dwan’s Slightly Scarlet (1956), which was frequently referenced in the excellent commentary track that accompanied the original Fox DVD and subsequent Twilight Time Blu-ray of Dwan’s underrated The River’s Edge (1958), a colour noir that appeared quite late after noir had started to wither from the big screen.



Dwan directed somewhere between 200-400 shorts and feature films in an extraordinarily long and prolific career, and while VCI’s DVD of Slighty Scarlet is in dire need of a redo – someone needs to bring the film to Criterion or Arrow Video’s attention NOW – it’s still a decent package, largely because Max Allen Collins’ superb commentary covers the film’s place as an unjustly maligned adaptation of a James M. Cain novel, a colour noir with roots in fifties melodrama, and one of the last great noirs prior to the genre’s migration to TV in shows like Peter Gunn (1958-1961).

It’s a weird little naughty film with striking characters, a fine cast, and superb cinematography by John Alton. It’s also one of several films Dwan made for producer Benedict Bogeaus that was released by dying studio RKO. (RKO’s fifties output remains paltry on DVD, and more so on Blu.)

The emerging conflicts within Scarlet eventually distill into the fractured relationship between good girl-bad girl sisters and a slightly less odious mobster, whereas in Black Widow (1954) – also released by Twilight Time – the drama is collectively tied to the wife who abandons a Broadway producer on the run for murderer; the star who eschews any aide from her important creative ally; and the dead girl he’s supposed to have wooed (and more). His quest for innocence is wholly affected by the misconstrued testimony of the dead girl’s supposed flat mate, and an itinerant hostess.



Nunnally Johnson was renowned for adapting classic and contemporary novels for longtime studio Fox, and a knack for sharp dialogue and strong female roles. Noir historian and commentator Alan K. Rode acknowledges the obvious to film fans – that Black Widow is a noirish riff of All About Eve (1950), packaged like a creamy pastel pastry with a little spice and sleek melodrama, as enacted by a very star-heavy cast.

If Widow has aged into a pretty but very fluffy noir, then Scarlet‘s matured from a supposed dud to a genre hallmark; it doesn’t follow all the rules, but its sex quotient is high, as are the testosterone chest-butts between rival gang lords – the founder and the young “genius” who usurps the top spot. A great deal of screen time is devoted to Scarlet‘s two sisters, and in Widow, Ginger Rogers has more than a few short but memorable scenes as a barbed-tongued wit.

Dwan directed a variety of genres for Bogeaus, including westerns, and I’ll eventually sample that sizable group which is still available from VCI. Also in the works are spotlights on some of the non-horror productions by Hemisphere, the production-releasing firm Severin recently showcased in their separate Blood Island and Hemisphere boxed sets, which I’ll cover over the summer.

Coming next: Edward Dmytryk’s robust western Warlock (1959) from Twilight Time.

Thanks for reading,



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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