Black Widow Has Bite

Black Widow Has Bite
In October of 1954, just weeks before the film Black Widow was to premiere in New York, The New York Times ran an article about a little girl in Queens who was bitten by a black widow spider. Within days, reports of black widow sightings swamped the authorities.

Had Google been around at the time, searching for “black widow” would have resulted in few hits for the film. The city was crawling with bothersome city-dwelling arachnids and that was big news.

Within a few weeks, citizens were assured that there was no increase in the black widow spider population and there was nothing to fear. The spider stories quickly fell out of interest.

Similarly, the film opened to a strong box office, but faded within a few months despite its all-star cast.

Although Black Widow is not an example of exceptional film noir, it has a sufficient amount of mystery and intrigue. What’s more, it is the casting – or rather the “casting against type” – that makes the film worth watching.

The structure of the film is based on a familiar suspense formula. An innocent man is accused of a violent crime and, as irrefutable evidence mounts against him, he is forced to solve the mystery on his own in order to clear his name.

In this case, the accused is Peter Denver (Van Heflin), a successful Broadway producer. While his actress wife, Iris (Gene Tierney), is away, he takes a struggling young writer named Nanny Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner) under his wing. When Iris returns a few weeks later, she discovers Nanny’s dead body, swinging from a rope in the bedroom.

Rumors circulate that Peter and Nanny were having an affair, and a letter from the deceased corroborates those rumors. When it is revealed that Nanny was murdered, the only logical suspect is Peter.

Ginger Rogers plays larger-than-life stage star Carlotta Marin. Many critics felt her portrayal was over-the-top, but considering director Nunnally Johnson had originally offered the part to Tallulah Bankhead, it is easy to conclude that Rogers played the part the way the director had envisioned: as a flamboyant and always “on” theatrical diva.

With few exceptions, most of the performers were cast opposite of type, including George Raft, Gene Tierney, and Reginald Gardiner.

Casting the film this way can lure the viewer into a state of mistrust, which is exactly what is needed to make this formulaic script work. Expect the unexpected.

There are also some bit parts filled by familiar faces. Look for Bea Benaderet (Petticoat Junction) as a party guest at the beginning of the film, and Aaron Spelling (television producer) as Mr. Oliver appearing near the end.

You might also notice a deliberate color scheme throughout the film. Starting with the beginning titles, the screen is – more often than not – awash in blue tones, a popular color in the 1950s. Apartment walls, books, lampshades, jewelry, and the majority of costumes are in shades of blue. The abundance of the color is almost distracting at times.

With all of its flaws, the film still provides an entertaining experience. And, if you are watching for the first time, there’s the challenge of solving the case before the police.

Black Widow may lack the sting of others in the genre, but it is not without bite.

NOTE: I screened this film at my own expense using Amazon Prime. Free-to-view versions are available digitally on YouTube and may also be available through other subscription-based services.




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Content copyright © 2019 by Lucinda Moriarty. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Lucinda Moriarty. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Lucinda Moriarty for details.