Saturday, January 24, 2015

DEATH ON THE NILE 1978

On the occasion of having completed a collection of Agatha Christie mystery novels gifted to me by my partner this Christmas (in hardback yet!), I’ve taken the opportunity to revisit 1978’s Death on the Nile, the second film in the unofficial Poirot Trilogy from British producers John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin (Murder on the Orient Express -1974, Death on the Nile -1978, Evil Under the Sun - 1982).
Released in the fall of 1978 at the height of American Tut-Mania born of the 1976 - 1979 tour of The Treasures of Tutankhamun museum exhibit, Death on the Nile was a less stylish, not quite all-star follow-up to the wildly successful Murder on the Orient Express, and marked the first appearance of Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. It seems Albert Finney declined the opportunity to reprise his Oscar-nominated performance from that first film after considering the rigors of applying and wearing the extensive Poirot makeup and prosthetics in the triple-degree heat of the Egyptian desert. Lacking, for my taste anyway, the star quality Finney brought to the role which made him more an equal participant in the proceedings, Ustinov nevertheless brings a character actor’s zest to his interpretation of Poirot, making the character uniquely his own. Ustinov would go on to play Christie’s Belgian sleuth in two more feature films (Evil Under the Sun and the awful-beyond-imagining Appointment With Death) and three contemporized TV-movies.
Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot
Bette Davis as Mrs. Marie Van Schuyler
David Niven as Colonel Race 
Mia Farrow as Jacqueline De Bellefort
Simon MacCorkindale as Simon Doyle
Lois Chiles as Linnet Ridgeway
Jack Warden as Dr. Bessner
Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Salome Otterbourne
George Kennedy as Andrew Pennington
Maggie Smith as Miss Bowers
Jon Finch as Mr. Ferguson
Olivia Hussey as Rosalie Otterbourne
Jane Birkin as Louise Bourget

As a huge fan of Murder on the Orient Express but having missed the opportunity to catch it on the big screen, I made sure to see Death on the Nile the day it opened. I recall the audience as being sparse but appreciative, and I remember enjoying the film a great deal; albeit more for its cast and surprising twists of plot (it’s quite a puzzler of a mystery and hands-down the bloodiest film in the series) than anything particularly noteworthy about its execution.

Murder on the Orient Express was a glamorous, cinema-inspired recreation of an era, purposefully romanticized, and steeped in nostalgia. Death on the Nile, under the journeyman, traffic-cop guidance of large-scale-logistics director, John Guillerman (The Towering Inferno, King Kong), is, on the other hand, a murder mystery well-told, but one devoid of either mood or atmosphere. The claustrophobic tension of a luxury passenger train is traded for the more scenic vistas offered by a majestic paddle steamer cruising down the Nile, and while Anthony Powell’s dazzling, Academy Award-winning costume designs do most of the heavy-lifting in the glamour department; the visual splendor of the British countryside and sunny, travelogue-worthy scenes of Egyptian landmarks offsetting the otherwise straightforward, TV-movie-style cinematography highlighting the lavish, stagy sets.
  
Putting the best spin on it possible, Death on the Nile’s competent but indifferent direction and utter lack of visual distinction immediately put to rest any inclination on my part to compare this film to its (to my taste) far superior predecessor. Divested of any expectation to duplicate that film’s elegant, diffused-light visual style or compete with its first-class pedigree cast, I was able to better appreciate Death on the Nile on its own modest, nonetheless worthwhile, merits.
Intelligently and wittily adapted by playwright Anthony Schaffer (Sleuth) from Christie’s 1937 novel (which began life as a stage play alternately titled, Moon on the Nile and Murder on the Nile), Death on the Nile finds Poirot (Ustinov) vacationing in Egypt aboard a river vessel jam-packed with potential victims and suspects. Poirot’s distinguished friend, Colonel Race (Niven) is aboard investigating a mysterious passenger; an imperious dowager and her mannish nurse (Davis and Smith); a dipsomaniacal romance novelist and her soft-spoken daughter (Lansbury and Hussey); a pompous Austrian physician (Warden); a peevish Socialist (Finch); a calculating American lawyer (Kennedy); a rancorous French maid (Birkin); a too-rich, too-beautiful, too-happy couple on their honeymoon, (Chiles and MacCorkindale); and a woman scorned (Farrow).

As is to be expected, not a single soul aboard the good ship Karnak is there merely by chance, and all the character's lives connect and intersect in the most intriguing, mysterious ways. The fun to be had in Death on the Nile is seeing these diverse personalities clash, the entertainment is found trying to stay one step ahead as the details of the masterfully intricate mystery at the center of the story come to be revealed.
Bette Davis  looks to be channeling a future Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, while Maggie Smith is putting out a serious Tilda Swinton vibe

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Death on the Nile is one of those movies that plays much better today than when it was released.
When Murder on the Orient Express opened in 1974, its all-star cast and artful recreation of a bygone era rode the crest of the 70s nostalgia craze and the public mania for star-studded disaster films. But by the time Death on the Nile was made, the cultural climate had changed significantly. Thanks to TV’s The Love Boat and several dozen unbearable disaster films (Airport 77, The Swarm, Avalanche) all-star casts no longer meant glamorous...they became synonymous with cheesy. And while not officially a sequel to Murder on the Orient Express (although conceived as one) Death on the Nile was perceived as one in the minds of the public, and thus fell victim to the overall cultural disenchantment with the glut of uninspired sequels Hollywood churned out in hopes of duplicating the success of 1974s The Godfather Part II (Jaws 2, The French Connection IIThe Exorcist: The Heretic. etc.).
People seeing Death on the Nile today see the classic stars of All About Eve, My Man Godfrey, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Rosemary’s Baby, The Manchurian Candidate, Romeo and Juliet, and The Great Gatsby, all appearing in the same film. But back in 1978, the film's biggest stars, Bette Davis and David Niven, were appearing on TV or in low-rent Disney movies, Peter Ustinov was best known as "That old dude in Logan's Run," Mia Farrow had not yet hitched her wagon to Woody Allen, Angela Lansbury was better known on Broadway, and George Kennedy was like the James Franco of the disaster genre (he seemed to be in all of them).
Time has been kind however, and the biggest treat now is being able to enjoy all these great stars - many of them no longer with us - in a handsomely-mounted old-fashioned film, looking so outrageously young, entertaining us with the kind of marvelous, once-in-a-lifetime talent it was once so easy for us to take for granted.
Swag
If you ain't got elegance you can never, ever carry it off
PERFORMANCES
Just to lodge two main performance complaints from the getgo: 1) Lois Chiles is drop-dead gorgeous, but I've never understood how she landed so many plum roles in high-profile films. When it comes to flat line readings, she really gives Michelle Phillips (Valentino) a run for her money. 2) Simon MacCorkindale's performance would have improved tenfold had he just been given a scene or two shirtless or pants-less. It's a proven fact (See: Evil Under the Sun / Nicholas Clay).
Dressed to Kill
I love ensemble films, but its almost impossible to write about individual performances without appearing to intentionally slight those not mentioned. I like the cast assembled for Death on the Nile, the weaker actors benefiting from roles requiring them to play a single note; the stronger ones running with the opportunity and creating memorable, ofttimes hilarious, characterizations. Anyone studying acting should keep their eye on David Niven, his silent reactions - whether exasperation at having to play audience to one of Poirot's frequent self-aggrandizing speeches, or delighting in seeing his friend taken down a peg - are more eloquent than most of the film's dialog.

As a fan of camp and bitchy dialog, I find every scene with Bette Davis and Maggie Smith to be pure gold. Their pairing is really inspired. Jack Warden is the master of comical bluster, George Kennedy cleaned up isn't half bad, and I like seeing Mia Farrow and Lois Chiles, who played best friends in 1974s The Great Gatsby, reunited and playing a sly tweak on that relationship. It helps that Farrow is much more compelling as a woman on the edge than she was as Gatsby's dream girl.
The radiant Olivia Hussey (last seen sliding around on bookcases in Lost Horizon) and the late Jon Finch. Finch, looking thinner here than he did in Macbeth, was diagnosed with diabetes in 1974. 
Even after having read three Hercule Poirot novels, my mental image of the detective is not so defined as to find any fault with Ustinov's portrayal. Although I personally prefer Finney, Ustinov's more sensitive take on the detective (he has a marvelously heartbreaking exchange with Farrow near the end) is quite good.
Although I read somewhere that the actress feels she went a little over the top in the theatricality of her performance, I absolutely adore Angela Lansbury in this. Light years away from Murder She Wrote's Jessica Fletcher, or her Miss Marple in 1980's lamentable The Mirror Crack'd (but with a hint of Sweeney Todd's Mrs. Lovett) Lansbury's tipsy romance novelist:  "Snow on the Sphinx's Face", "Passion Under the Persimmon Tree" - is the comic highlight of the film for me.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Death on the Nile's only Oscar win is also its only Academy nod. Anthony Powell won Best Costume Design for his eye-popping period creations; costumes which indelibly establish the identities of each member of the sizable cast with style, wit, and considerable theatrical panache. Although I'm surprised to learn his astonishing designs for Evil Under the Sun failed to get a nomination, as a six-time nominee and three-time winner (Travels With My Aunt, Tess, Death on the Nile), I don't suppose Powell is losing any sleep over it.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I get too much of a kick out of the surprise and suspense of movie whodunits to ever wish I’d read Agatha Christie earlier, but I must say that reading Death on the Nile after the fact had the pleasant effect of filling in some of the narrative blanks and backstory impossible to include in a film.
What I liked so much about the film version of Murder on the Orient Express is that in addition to a crackling murder mystery, it offered by way of subtext a poignant illustration of the manner in which a single act of violence can have a rippling effect resulting in the harm done to one ultimately wounding a great many others. The film version of Death on the Nile I’ve always felt suffered from being too much of a tale told expediently. It’s a great mystery with interesting characters and many surprises, but I never felt it had anything larger to express. Certainly nothing to justify that aforementioned choke in Poirot’s throat at the end of the film.
Poirot and Colonel Race call the attention of the ship's manager (I.S. Johar) to a matter not at all pleasant
Happily, the novel (which, short of a few excised characters, was faithfully adapted for the screen) expounds upon the larger thematic threads connecting the characters and their actions. Themes relating to the secrets kept, risks taken, and fatal sacrifices made in the name of protecting those we're afraid are incapable of taking care of themselves.
And while I feel fairly safe in stating that little to none of this actually factors in John Guillerman's film adaptation, keeping it in the back of my mind as I rewatched Death on the Nile did wonders for my reappraisal of it.


BONUS MATERIAL
Because so many fans of Death on the Nile feel so shortchanged by Simon MacCorkindale remaining fully-dressed throughout, by way of compensation I offer this screencap of Mr. Mac from the 1987 straight-to-video film: Shades of Love: Sincerely, Violet. A least that director knew (gay) man cannot live by Sphinx alone.
Simon Says: Eat your heart out

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, January 16, 2015

BLUE JASMINE 2013

By now I'm convinced that Woody Allen could shoot a science fiction film on the surface of the moon and it would still come out looking as if it took place in New York.
As filmmakers go, Allen is a little like those American tourists who travel all around the world only Westernize the experience: staying at American chain hotels, eating American food, interacting with other American tourists, and insisting on speaking only English. Ever since Allen went to the UK in 2005 to remake Crimes and Misdemeanors…I mean, to film Match Point…critics have been falling over themselves praising the revitalizing effect locations like France, Spain, and Italy have had on his work. I've been a fan of Woody Allen's films since 1969s Take the Money & Run, but for all the local color they reflect, I think his recent spate of off-the-continent films feel more like General Foods International Coffees retreads of his old stuff.
But just as one resigns oneself to copious amounts of rear-screen projection when one seeks a Hitchcock film, it comes with the territory (so to speak) that no matter where a Woody Allen film takes place; you're going to get Manhattan.

I've been entertained by, but haven't really liked, a Woody Allen film since 1994s Bullets Over Broadway (interesting distinction, that). And in spite of my fond feelings for Annie Hall, Radio DaysManhattan Murder Mystery, September, Broadway Danny Rose, September and The Purple Rose of Cairo, the only Allen film I think of with a great deal of affection is Love and Death (1975), and that's chiefly because it's wall-to-wall funny.

All of that changed for me with Blue Jasmine, a movie that, while taking place both in Allen's beloved New York and a strange, Allen-esque San Francisco where all the working-classes speak with Jersey accents; is nevertheless the very first Woody Allen film in I don't know how long that was able to take me by surprise. In addition, I believe it's the only Allen film I've ever been moved by. His most urgent, vivid film in years, Blue Jasmine teems with an energy and I haven't felt in any of the director's recent going-through-the-motions efforts, and thanks to the monumental performance of Cate Blanchett, becomes a kind of flawless portrait of human weakness.  
Cate Blanchett as  Jasmine "Jeanette" Francis
Sally Hawkins as Ginger
Bobby Cannavale as Chili
Alec Baldwin as Hal Francis
Peter Sarsgaard as Dwight Westlake
Andrew Dice Clay as Augie
As is his wont, Allen disavows any intentional allusions to either the Bernie Madoff case or Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in this tale of a chic New York socialite (Jasmine, née Jeanette) whose life falls apart after her husband’s illegal business dealings lead to the abrupt dissolution of her marriage, wealth, status, and tenuous grip on reality. Destitute, disgraced, and more than a little delusional (the penniless Park Avenuer still travels First Class, dressed in Chanel, carting an array of Louis Vuitton luggage); Jasmine is forced to depend on the kindness of strangers. More “estranged" to be exact, as Jasmine flies to San Francisco to live in a manner she’d really rather not grow accustomed to with her adoptive sister, Ginger, a working-class divorcee with two kids and a taste for guys who speak in dese, dems, and dose (cue the Ed Hardy clothing and Jersey Shore douchebag haircut).
"Tip big, boys. Tip big because you get good service."
Jasmine, who has fallen on extremely hard times and in minutes will tell her sister she's "Worse than tapped out," thinks nothing of tipping a cab driver $100  

Years spent living a princess’ privileged existence on Long Island and Park Avenue have left Jasmine singularly ill-prepared for coping with the steady bombardment of class-based culture shocks and workplace wake-up calls she encounters in her attempts to start a new life. Attempts thwarted by her own deluded sense of entitlement; a tendency to zone out and talk to herself; and a crippling nervous anxiety she medicates with fistfuls of Xanax washed down with Stoli martinis with a twist of lemon.
As flashbacks reveal the contradictory reality behind the veils of illusion, self-invention and self-deception Jasmine relies upon to get through life, we come to better understand not only the poisonous, disruptive  effect she has on those around her, but ultimately how her self-sabotaging ways have caused her to be the instrument of her own destruction.

Blue Jasmine brings thorny cringe-comedy and a surprisingly unflinching emotional intensity (especially for a Woody Allen movie) to an irresistible premise which set class tensions, familial rivalry, accountability, guilt, remorse, ethics, consequence, and identity as the backdrops for a character study of an intriguingly neurotic woman hanging to life by a tether.
"I want to get my degree and become, you know, something substantial!"
Penniless and possessing zero marketable skills, Jasmine is forced to take a "menial" position as a dentist's receptionist

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Blue Jasmine has many terrific things going for it from the outset, starting with the jittery and highly unreliable narrator that is Jasmine French (she’s so unreliable we don’t even know if French is her real maiden name or one she made up). Embodying as she does the worst of the kind of upscale New Yorker Woody Allen vacillates between admiring and resenting (think Interiors), a great deal of pleasure is derived from seeing this insufferable, Paltrowesque snob brought low by her circumstances. But the beauty of the script (and Blanchett’s performance) is that our attitude toward Jasmine grows into something resembling, if not sympathy, then perhaps compassion, in direct proportion how little of her fragile sense of self the film is willing to leave her with. She's a difficult, largely unlikable character, but it's surprising how much I found myself just hoping she could stay out of her own way long enough to pull herself out of the mess she'd created.
The Times of Your Life
I love the narrative structure of Blue Jasmine. Half of the film's most compelling dramatic and comedic conflicts arise out of the forced social interaction of radically dissimilar characters with conflicting/opposing objectives. The second half is like a forensic psychology dissection of Jasmine's earlier life, exposing the glaring and telling discrepancies between reality and the kind of desperate self-centered survivalism that lay behind Jasmine's penchant for turning a blind eye to everything...particularly herself.
Jasmine in Happier Times
A vision of the morally poisonous allure of wealth worthy of Fitzgerald, Dreiser, or Flaubert

PERFORMANCES
When Cate Blanchett was awarded the 2014 Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Blue Jasmine, she always made it a point to thank Woody Allen for his screenplay. I specify screenplay and not performance because, based on everything I've read, Allen, he’s one of those hands-off directors who leave actors to shape their performances for themselves.
I’ve already expressed the opinion that Woody Allen doesn’t really do anything but Woody Allen, and on paper, Jasmine is just another in a long list of his fragile, flinty neurotic females. Had he written it in the 90s, she would be played by Judy Davis; the 80s, Mia Farrow; the 70s, Diane Keaton. Jasmine isn't anyone Allen hasn't introduced us to many times before; it's just that in the very capable hands of Cate Blanchett, she turns a Woody Allen "type" into a real person. Arguably the first real person ever to inhabit a Woody Allen movie.
Another Man, Another Chance
Jasmine's sister, Ginger, meets nice guy, Al (Louis C.K.) 
The Australian-born Blanchett (who in 2009 appeared in a Liv Ullman directed production of A Streetcar Named Desire) is as affecting with the scenes requiring stylish élan as she is in the scenes revealing Jasmine’s rapid mental and emotional deterioration. Blanchett is genuinely heartbreaking in these moments, the sprawling messiness of her character’s inability to grab hold of anything real within herself, single-handedly redeeming some of Allen’s more familiar and clichéd bits. (Allen exhibits no feel at all for San Francisco – which very well may be the point – and seems most in his element when giving voice, through Jasmine, to a certain cluelessness as to how regular people go about the business of living without benefit of buckets of money).
Cate Blanchett - Armani spokesmodel and Vogue fashion plate (top) - has a look ideally suited to credibly portray an elegant member New York's elite super-rich. Playing a character whose identity and sense of self-worth has always been wrapped up in how others perceive her; Blanchett is at her most poignant when showing us a woman struggling not to let others see how hard she's fighting to maintain what is essentially a steadily crumbling facade.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Outside of Blanchett’s amazing performance, one of the major reasons I've come to rate Blue Jasmine as my #1 favorite Woody Allen film is because it deals with so many of the themes and subthemes I tend to seek out in movies. I've always been drawn to human-scale stories that hold the potential for emotional violence (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?Carnage, Reflections in a Golden Eye), so a combustible character drama with plenty of strained conversations and heated exchanges like Blue Jasmine is practically an action film to me.
Jasmine's ideal life turns out to be anything but
I also love movies that ask us to examine our notions of wealth and the American success myth (The Day of the LocustA Place in the Sun), and why it is so many of us are willing to trade our souls and compromise our ideals in its pursuit.
"But a cheat is a cheat."
Jasmine's ethical code goes MIA when she gets the opportunity to start anew with
European diplomat, Dwight, a "substantial" man of wealth and position  
I've a weakness for films that dramatize our limitless capacity for fooling ourselves, and not since Shelley Duvall's Millie Lammoreaux (3 Women) has there been a more absorbing depiction of delusional behavior run amok than Blanchett's Jasmine French.
Struggling to find the line between reinvention and self-deception
Although it's Blanchett's show all the way, the entire cast of Blue Jasmine turn in impressive performances. Particularly English actress, Sally Hawkins, who was terrific in Allen's underrated Cassandra's Dream (2007), and Bobby Cannavale, who I liked so much in Annie. (I recently saw the film, Lovelace and enjoyed seeing both Cannavale and Peter Sarsgaard - who share no scenes in Blue Jasmine - in the cast).


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
At 79, Woody Allen is a filmmaker clearly out of touch in a lot of not-so-great ways: as usual, the only substantial roles for blacks you’ll find in Blue Jasmine are on the film's jazz soundtrack (there's something very Jasmine-like about Allen's love of black culture and antipathy for its people); but as one of the few directors still working with real people (not action figures), in actual locations (OK, so everyplace feels like New York, at least it’s not greenscreen), with stories that are actually about something…Woody Allen is also old-fashioned in a lot of ways that got me interested in film in the first place.
Which is to say, by recalling the bravura, female-centric dramas and character studies like Klute, A Woman Under the Influence, Images, and Diary of a Mad Housewife; Blue Jasmine feels like a film made in the 70s. And if you're at all aware of my fondness for that decade, cinematically speaking, you'll know what a major compliment that is.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, January 9, 2015

BLACK WIDOW 1954

Today to get the public to attend a picture show,
It’s not enough to advertise a famous star they know.
If you want to get the crowds to come around...
You’ve got to have Glorious Technicolor,
Breathtaking CinemaScope,
And Stereophonic Sound.
Cole Porter -1955 Broadway musical "Silk Stockings"

“The first big murder-mystery in CinemaScope!”, “The first crime-of-passion story in CinemaScope!" - Thus screamed the poster and newspaper ads heralding the 1954 release of 20th Century-Fox’s all-star, all-color, widescreen film noir, Black Widow. Well, seeing as I somehow never even heard of this movie until just last year (how that is even possible given the prominent role The Late, Late Show played in my movie fan developmental years is beyond me), I’m going to have to take their word for it being a "first" in the annals of CinemaScope. What I can attest to is that by combining the backstage bitchery of All About Eve (1950) with the murder-mystery-told-in-flashback structure of Laura (1944), and burnishing it all to a garish, high-gloss color palette reminiscent of How to Marry a Millionaire (1953); Black Widow succeeds in being a pleasingly campy goulash of disparate genre tropes and style conventions in search of a unifying tone.
Ginger Rogers as overbearing diva of the New York stage Carlotta Marin
Van Heflin as slow-witted theatrical producer Peter Denver
Gene Tierney as patrician stage star Iris Denver
George Raft as the Beau Brummel of the NYPD, Detective Lt. C.A. Bruce
Peggy Ann Garner as  Southern-fried "purpose girl" Nancy Ordway
Reginald Gardiner as lapdog househusband Brian Mullen
Promoted by movie studios in the 1950s to compete with the escalating popularity of television, CinemaScope is, like today’s mania for 3-D (that ship has struck dry-dock by now, hasn't it?), a technological advancement devised to enhance the moviegoing experience which doesn't necessarily translate to enhancing the actual film itself. In its time, CinemaScope was a spectacle-based invention that proved ideal for epics (The Robe – 1953), musicals (How to Marry a Millionaire – 1953), and scenic adventure films (Beneath the 12-Mile Reef – 1953). Black Widow, a murder mystery based on the novel, Fatal Woman by Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd) was an early experiment by Fox to try out its widescreen process (with blistering color by Deluxe) on a less visual, more narrative-driven genre.

Set in the glamorous world of the New York theater (although no one in the film ever sets foot on a stage), Black Widow feels more like Americanized Agatha Christie than full-blown noir. It throws together a colorful assortment of cliché Broadway luminaries, bigwigs, hangers-on, and bohemian Greenwich Village types, then stands back as this close-knit group of professional pretenders grows progressively unraveled by the inconvenient intrusion of a murder into their sheltered enclave. 
Virginia Leith as Claire Amberly
Although I always associate Leith with Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying (1956), fans of MST3K will recognize Leith as the disembodied talking head in 1962s The Brain that Wouldn't Die
While Black Widow is built around the noir staple of having an individual's life spiral out of control due to being falsely accused of a crime, missing-in-action is the hard-boiled dialog or requisite climate of fatalism necessary to make this overlit whodunit feel like a genuine sample of the real thing. Not helping matters is the fact that time better spent fleshing out character motivations or tangling them more convincingly into the central web of the mystery is given over to draggy amateur sleuthing that leans heavily on coincidence and relies too often on slow-witted police work.
Skip Homeier as John Amberly
Plot: Naive to the point of thick-headed producer, Peter Denver (Heflin), befriends guileless 20-year-old wannabe writer, Nancy Ordway (Garner), while his stage star wife is out of town (Tierney). However, the platonic nature of their friendship fails to prevent the raised manicured eyebrows and wagging, gossipy tongue of neighbor, Great Lady of the Stage, and all-around busybody, Carlotta Marin (Rogers), despite the demurred assertions of her cowed husband, Brian (Gardiner).
At the periphery of this innocent but potentially combustible situation are well-heeled sister and brother, Claire and John Amberly (Virginia Leith and Skip Homeier): she a slumming Greenwich Village artist, he a law student; Nancy’s uncle, Gordon (Otto Kruger), a low-tier stage actor; Anne (Hilda Simms), Nancy's sharp-as-a-tack co-worker; Lucia Colletti (Cathleen Nesbitt), the Denvers’ loose-lipped maid; and, once things take a nasty turn , Lt. Bruce (Raft), the steel-eyed, near-immobile detective.
Otto Kruger as Gordon Ling
The mystery at the core of Black Widow is handled fairly effectively, what with some throw-you-off-the-scent casting and a perhaps unintended lightness of approach helping to generate a few genuinely unexpected twists along the way. Also working in the film's favor is how the film uses the atmosphere of ruthlessness and duplicity common to movies set in the world of show business to create a mystery-friendly environment rife with homicidal potential. And I certainly can't find fault with the production itself, it being a veritable cavalcade of stagy sets, overdone fashions, and the apparent 50s vogue for unflatteringly short hairdos resembling gold-hued bathing caps made of tense, lambswool curls.
But in the end, neither the dark promise of its title, nor the camp excesses suggested by its gaudy visuals are ever realized in sufficient force to make Black Widow more than a handsomely mounted, slightly overdressed crime thriller.
Cathleen Nesbitt as Lucia Colletti

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
It isn't common for a film’s greatest strengths to be found in its weaknesses, but Black Widow is frequently at its most persuasive when serving up a brand of moviemaking so glossily old-fashioned that its patently theatrical artificiality begins to take on the characteristic of something resembling a style.
From the outset, Black Widow embarks on a narrative course endorsing a mode of dress (the crisp, stiff clothes all look like costumes), setting (95% soundstage, 5% NYC locations), and performance (all indication, little believable emotion), all supporting the theory of a concentrated effort on the film’s part to bear as little resemblance to real life as possible.
There's an alien "otherness" to the look of the film created by the lighting and composition requirements of the CinemaScope process. A process that turns New York into a sterile and oddly spacious environment (a basement Greenwich Village coffeehouse looks to be roughly the size of an airplane hangar) that puts it at direct odds with the kind of shadowy claustrophobia one associates with film noir.
The sort of natural, laid-back blocking only CinemaScope could offer
I sound like I'm complaining, but honestly (and this may be mere perversion on my part) I found the discordant visual tone to actually work to Black Widow’s advantage. Based on its initial scenes and not knowing anything about the film before I saw it, I thought Black Widow was going to be a light romantic drama. One of those 50s “woman’s pictures” combining elements of All About Eve (Tallulah Bankhead was first approached for the Ginger Rogers role), The Moon is Blue (that film’s star, Maggie McNamara, was first choice for the Peggy Ann Garner role), or a continuation of Rogers’ own Forever Female (1953), another age-centric rivalry set in the world of theater.
That these posh surroundings, pretty people, and harmlessly waggish conversations are setting the stage for a murder mystery took me totally by surprise. And so it remained throughout: Black Widow's key lit, musical comedy sheen works at such amusing variance with what one has come to expect from noirish suspense thrillers that it inadvertently serves as a device to keep the audience off balance.
Mabel Albertson (left), known to scores of classic TV fans as the smothering mother figure on Bewitched, That Girl, and The Andy Griffith Show, gets a chance to let her hair down (and, by the looks of it, her bosom) as Sylvia, the tough-broad proprietress of a Greenwich Village hangout

PERFORMANCES
Beyond the musicals she made with Fred Astaire, I’m not enough of a fan of top-billed Ginger Rogers to know if the divinely catty character she plays in Black Widow is as much a departure from type as it seems. She always displayed a charming brassiness in films like Stage Door and Golddiggers of 1933, so perhaps this isn't that much of a stretch, but with Van Heflin’s one-note performance and the obvious fragility of Gene Tierney (the actress was in the early throes of a mental breakdown during filming), Ginger Rogers' flamboyant energy is a godsend. Plus, she gets all the best lines.
In a role that amounts to little more than a bit part, Broadway actress Hilda Simms
gives the most  natural, convincing performance in the entire film
For former child star Peggy Ann Garner (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), Black Widow was a a bid for adult legitimacy on par with Patty Duke's Valley of the Dolls...and just about as successful. Given grief by critics at the time for not being a believable "type," I think she succeeds in the role chiefly for that reason. Garner's Nancy Ordway is a far more convincing babe-in-the-woods than, say, Anne Baxter's brazenly transparent Eve Harrington in All About Eve.
Pretty much the entire arc of Van Heflin's character

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
To convey the grand style of the New York theater folk at the center of Black Widow, 20th Century-Fox designer William Travilla whips up a drag queen's wet dream of ostentatious outfits for Ginger Rogers to parade around in. Happily, the longtime dancer is physically up to the task.

Carlotta - To put the kindest face possible on it, the girl was a little horror. A transparent, syrupy little phony with about as much to offer a man as 'cuckoo the bird girl.' Not even Peter with all of his radiant innocence about women could have been stirred for one instant by that dingy little creep.
Peter - Lottie, the girl is dead!
Carlotta - I know...and that’s precisely why I refuse to speak harshly of her!

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
For a movie written, produced, and directed by a single person (Nunnally Johnson of How to Marry a MillionaireThe Grapes of Wrath, The World of Henry Orient, etc.) Black Widow distinguishes itself by being almost completely lacking in distinction. Polished, well-made, and not nearly as vulgar as one might hope given the subject matter, Black Widow looks and feels like Hollywood product, circa 1954, that could have been directed by any number of studio contract professionals.
The tall, lanky fellow holding his hat is future TV producer Aaron Spelling.
Gene Tierney's health problems while making Black Widow necessitated her being seated in virtually all of her scenes
 
And perhaps that's why, for all its slick competence, Black Widow never coalesces into more than just a pleasantly diverting way to  spend 95 minutes. A crime-of-passion movie without passion is a cold affair indeed, and Black Widow, while lovely to look at and fun in a detached sort of way (imagine absent-mindedly playing a game of "Clue") is ultimately most rewarding as a time-capsule view of Hollywood in its final years before it was forced to change in the 60s.

Never intended to break new ground, Black Widow - a 40s noir retrofitted with color and CinemaScope - is but an example of 1950s Hollywood trying to hold onto its audience by giving them brighter and shinier versions of what they've always given them. Sorta like today today's digital, HD, CGI, 3-D opuses.

The black widow, deadliest of all spiders, earned its dark title through its deplorable practice of devouring its mate. 


Copyright © Ken Anderson