Thursday, March 13, 2008

BLACK WIDOW (20th Century-Fox 1954) Fox Home Video

Based on Hugh Wheeler’s rather tawdry bit of nonsense first serialized in Cosmopolitan Magazine, Nunnally Johnson’s Black Widow (1954) is an obtuse and not terribly engaging melodrama that fails to generate much spark or intrigue: all about social climber, Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner) – a would be writer turned corpse inside the apartment of noted Broadway producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin).

All the evidence collected by Det. Lt. C.A. Bruce (George Raft) seems to point to an affair between Peter and Nancy – especially after an autopsy confirms that Nan’ was pregnant. In the days before DNA testing to verify who the father might be, what’s a sweet-talking innocent nice guy like Pete to do?

Prompted by the gossipy speculations of her best friend, superficial fashion plate and actress, Carlotta Marin (Ginger Rogers) Peter’s wife, Iris (Gene Tierney) begins to suspect the worse about her husband. After all, he did admit to meeting Nancy at one of Carlotta’s woefully dull social gatherings – and furthermore – to giving Nancy a key to their apartment while Iris was away visiting her sick mother.

Worse for Peter is the seemingly genuine confession by Nancy’s roommate, Claire Amberly (Virginia Leith) to suggest Nancy was throwing over a proposal of marriage from Claire’s brother John (Skip Homeier) in favor of wedded bliss to Peter after revealing to them both that she was going to have his baby.

At first, Peter’s friend Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner) – who also happens to be Carlotta’s husband – attempts to patch together a plausible case for self defense. However, before long he finds himself on the other end of the hot seat and with far less ammunition to convince the police that in fact he didn’t kill Nancy Ordway.

Black Widow is a fairly abysmal affair. Although the principles never left the Fox backlot Zanuck sent a crew to the Big Apple to photograph doubles on exterior locations to add an air of authenticity. If only more care had been taken with Nunnally Johnson’s leaden screenplay the resulting film might have been more engaging. Instead, it's a hapless mish-mash, convoluted and void of any suspense.

A stale performance from Peggy Ann Garner kills the final act; a 'big reveal' of Nancy as a gold digging backstabber. Ginger Rogers take on a ‘great lady of the theater’ is severely overplayed as a haughty ham. Gene Tierney is wasted in a cameo performance as the proverbial too good to be true spouse. Honestly, would any wife – even a trusting one – permit her husband to move a total stranger into their home while she's away?

Van Heflin’s amateur sleuthing aside, the criminal investigation is a bungled mess of clichés and plot twists. The great tragedy of the film is that it summons together some very fine thespians for a pathetically second rate excursion. In the final analysis, Black Widow is more disappointing than anything else; a fragile attempt to breathe life into a dead end tale where even the usually delicious vices of deception, murder and betrayal are unable to liven up the proceedings.

I'm perplexed by Fox Home Video's inclusion of this title as part of their ‘Fox Film Noir’ series. The film has none of the earmarks of a genuine film noir. Rather, it's part melodrama/part murder mystery and all pulp photographed in glossy color by DeLuxe.

The anamorphic widescreen Cinemascope image exhibits rich colors that are in keeping with the vintage film stock. Occasionally, this palette becomes slightly muddy. There are also several instances where age related artifacts are quite obvious. Ditto for a noticeable film flicker. On the whole, the image is adequate and generally pleasing though far from reference quality.

The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and adequately recaptures the six track stereo experience of the original theatrical engagement. Extras include an audio commentary, two featurettes – one on Ginger Rogers, the other on Gene Tierney – theatrical trailers and an interactive press book.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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