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  Black Widow Rude GingerBuy this film here.
Year: 1954
Director: Nunnally Johnson
Stars: Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, George Raft, Peggy Ann Garner, Reginald Gardiner, Virginia Leith, Otto Kruger, Cathleen Nesbitt, Skip Homeier, Hilda Simms
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Peter Denver (Van Heflin) bids goodbye to his wife Iris (Gene Tierney) at the airport as she is off to visit her sick mother, but before she goes she orders him to attend the party of Carlotta Marin (Ginger Rogers), the lead actress and Broadway star who is about to open his new show, he being a big shot theatrical producer. He reluctantly agrees, but on arrival he finds nothing to interest him, especially Lottie's flighty and gossipy ways, so ends up trying to work out his excuses to leave on the balcony of her swanky apartment. There he notices a young woman who complains that nobody has talked to her since she showed up, and introduces herself as Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner), an aspiring writer. But Peter would be advised not to get involved...

Not that he has an affair with the woman, but Black Widow operated as a cautionary tale to married men not to strike up friendships with younger ladies, or indeed even bother speaking to them for no matter what interaction you wish, they are trouble with a capital T. This was one of the rare colour films noir from around the point that the form was beginning to adapt into other animals, a new realism in thrillers becoming the order of the day rather than the at times restrictive routes noir demanded of its characters. Of course, Tierney had been the ultimate colour noir femme fatale in Leave Her to Heaven a few years before, but that was before her public troubles and she was not asked to deliver anything like as interesting a reading here.

With a title like that, you might anticipate a husband-murdering femme fatale as with the eighties Debra Winger/Theresa Russell thriller, but that was not what was on offer, as the victim was Nancy who is found early into the plot hanging dead in Peter's apartment which he was allowing her to use so she could write in peace. It seems like a suicide, and the rumours quickly begin to fly that Peter was having an affair with Nancy which he hotly denies, but when the police represented by detective George Raft (yet again making you marvel that he had any sort of acting career after the nineteen-thirties) get involved, the stakes are raised, especially when a post mortem reveals the girl was murdered by an unknown assailant.

Well, they say unknown, but all fingers and evidence are pointing towards Peter, leading him to effectively go on the run to clear his name. Needless to say, as a credible narrative this was far from believable, and the bright hues and shades of Technicolor, coupled with Cinemascope were where it was clear director Nunnally Johnson had little idea of how to utilise them to any degree of accomplishment, so this was a somewhat desperate attempt to keep those television viewers visiting the theatres complete with stars who had seen better days but were recognisable to an audience who had drifted away from the picture palaces, but had been ardent patrons in the previous decade or two. It was also one of the first Hollywood movies to use the word "pregnant", when scandal upon scandal Nancy is found to be with child.

Now, Heflin was a dependable thespian and as our protagonist worked out well as an innocent man trying to clear his name, but that left the issue of who the real murderer was, and if you had not guessed that by the time the opening credits had announced who we were about to watch, then it was time to hand in your deerstalker and outsized magnifying glass because they could not have made it more obvious if they had tried. Johnson was a famed wit and the author of many a revered Hollywood screenplay, but as a director he was less accomplished, sort of a disappointing Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and Black Widow was not among his works of note at the helm (only Oscar-winner The Three Faces of Eve would count for that, and it has not aged well). As for the other cast, Rogers chewed the scenery as a waspish socialite and showbiz monster, Reginald Gardiner (he of the famed Trains monologue) was her cowed husband, Virginia Leith (The Brain That Wouldn't Die herself) muddied the waters of Peter's innocence, and way down the cast Hilda Simms, a stage actress who many observed would have been a huge star had she not been both black and blacklisted, added interest with a vital clue. Camp aside, nothing special. Music by Leigh Harline.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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