BLACK WIDOW: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1954) Twilight Time
Murder most foul usually makes for box office, most profitable – all evidence to the contrary in Nunnally Johnson’s Black Widow (1954), a grotesquely mangled, if somewhat stylish, affair, tricked out in the anamorphic wonders of Cinemascope. The late executive, David Brown once recapitulated the real promise of Darryl F. Zanuck’s then ‘new-fangled’ widescreen process. “We need stories with width,” Zanuck reportedly explained; Brown, pointing out that added girth from side to side did not necessarily translate into ‘depth’ by any barometer of intelligent film-making. There is a tendency by film historians today to glamorize these ole-time Hollywood rajas as unschooled profiteers, who placed artistic merit above crass commercialism. Let us politely suggest herein, that merit and money ran a parallel race – the moguls knowing just enough of the biz to realize they could make a good movie with more frequency (and output) and still hit the bull’s eye enough to yield an embarrassment of riches and satisfy all of their stock holders. Unlike the other majors in Hollywood, 2oth Century-Fox was run by a former newspaper man who read incessantly. Hence, Darryl Zanuck understood the mechanics of a good story and the best way to translate it to the big screen for big yields.
So, the concept behind Cinemascope did not come to Zanuck either accidentally, or as a direct response to the post-war downturn in revenues virtually every major was experiencing, thanks, in part to the influence of television. Henri Chrétien’s anamorphic process had been around since the early thirties – billed then as ‘Grandeur’ and promoted as such by William Fox, but nevertheless emerging as an absolute flop commercially; the moguls then, banding together to boycott it with their ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ mentality. Their shortsightedness then, or perhaps ‘apprehensions’, were two-fold. First, widescreen messed with the whole logic behind composing images for the motion picture screen and, indeed, in the early fifties there would be enough flatly shot Cinemascope movies to suggest, as Vincente Minnelli had, the letterboxed image was useful only for photographing ‘funeral processions’ and ‘snakes.’ Worse, it required an investment in dollars – not only for the anamorphic lenses to shoot ‘scope’ but the even costlier remodeling of all those movie palace prosceniums to accommodate the elongated shape of the screen (remember, studios owned their theaters). Such an upgrade in the 1930’s would have come too soon on the heels of the already expensive retooling from silent to sound pictures. And, on the not so distant horizon, experimental 3-strip Technicolor was already advancing on B&W. The big studios also had the Great Depression to grapple with and the looming loss of the European market, thanks to WWII. So, any attempt at a widescreen renaissance in the dirty thirties seemed profligate at best, and utterly uncalled-for at its worst, especially since audiences did not know what they were missing.
By 1954, the whole anti-widescreen logic had been thrown a curve. Technicolor output rivaled B&W, and, the industry as a whole was as taken aback by the launch of a cumbersome widescreen process that unexpectedly became an overnight sensation: ‘This is Cinerama’ (1952). While Cinerama’s 3-camera setup prevented it from gaining widespread use as a ‘conventional’ storytelling format, Zanuck believed the timing was right to relaunch Chrétien’s anamorphic process with a real splash of showmanship and pageantry. With its Biblical theme and promise of a cast of thousands, The Robe (1953) inducted audiences into a whole new and expansive world of movie-going wonders. Eager to prove Cinemascope had possibilities regardless of the genre or subject matter, Zanuck decreed all future Fox output would be photographed in it – leading the charge with an ambitious slate of comedies, actioners, dramas and historical epics to see out the fifties. The rest of Hollywood took notice, most - if not all - licensing Cinemascope from Fox; Paramount, remaining the singular holdout, establishing VistaVision as a rival. While VistaVision was far superior to Cinemascope in its visual presentation (clearer, brighter, sharper images), 'scope' became the more 'widely' exploited format of the fifties.
The real problem was that much of Fox’s B-grade product did not warrant such high-hat treatment; Black Widow, a prime example of the ‘bigger is better’ malaise swallowing a simple whodunit whole. Had it arrived in the midst of Fox’s forties output, Black Widow would have sufficed as a modestly budgeted noir/crime thriller, likely shot in B&W with some chiaroscuro lighting to recommend it. In Cinemascope and color by DeLuxe, insufferably it failed to come to life, marred by a jumbled screenplay from Johnson, loosely based on Hugh Wheeler’s tawdry bit of nonsense, first serialized in Cosmopolitan Magazine. Black Widow emerges as laughably obtuse tripe, varnished in a veneer of superficial high-gloss – its painted backdrops of a faux Manhattan skyline, glimpsed from the glittery salons of highfalutin fashion plate cum Broadway actress, Carlotta Marin (Ginger Rogers), merely augment all the fakery in dumb show set before the camera. It might have worked, except that Black Widow’s melodrama is pure pulp, minus even a flint spark of necessary suspense to make its ‘mystery’ intriguing.
Instead, this all-star turkey is concerned with a naive 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 of the evidence collected by Det. Lt. C.A. Bruce (George Raft) points to an affair between Peter and Nancy – especially after an autopsy confirms Nan’ was pregnant. In the days before DNA testing to verify who the father might be, what was a sweet-talking innocent nice guy like Pete to do? Prompted by the gossipy speculations of her best friend, Carlotta Marin, 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 infer Nancy had thrown over a proposal of marriage from her brother, John (Skip Homeier) in favor of wedded bliss to Peter after revealing she was going to have his baby. At first, Peter’s friend, Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner) – who also happens to be Carlotta’s husband – tries 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 he did not murder 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 a good one. Instead, it emerges as hapless, clumsily stitched together, mostly from red herrings, misdirection, and, innuendo. Ponderous performances abound. A stale turn from Peggy Ann Garner ‘kills’ the final act; a 'big reveal' of Nancy as a gold-digging backstabber. Ginger Rogers take on the persona of a ‘grand dame of the theater’, but severely overplays her hand as a flippantly immoral, if thoroughly haughty ham. Gene Tierney is wasted in a cameo 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 is away? Add to this Van Heflin’s amateur sleuthing. He’s no Hercule Poirot. Besides, the criminal investigation is a bungled mess of clichés and plot twists with as much purpose or appeal as a deviated septum. The great tragedy herein: Zanuck has brought together some of his studio’s most prominent A-listers, trundling out the ‘big names above the title’ – and tricking the whole affair in glossy Cinemascope, but otherwise, generating a pathetically second-rate affair. Black Widow is more disappointing than anything else; a feeble-minded thriller with no pulse. Even awash in the crime/thriller troupes and delicious vices of deception, murder and betrayal, with glittering star power to boot, the virtues of Black Widow are shoe-horned into a story that never comes off as anything better than mindless filler.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is predictably handsome. Fox Home Video’s remastering efforts, particularly on their ‘scope’ product, is first-rate. This was not always the case; begun with releases showing age-related artifacts, then worse – a slate of Blu-rays where the original DeLuxe color was inexplicably and heavily tinted toward a teal/blue bias; most of what has come down the pike in the last year looks about how one would hope to find it – or rather, fondly recall it, if, of course, one was fortunate enough to have lived through the golden years when all of this glorious fluff and nonsense was mainstream movie-palace product. Colors here are spot on and fully saturated. Contrast is excellent and fine details abound, with a slight loss afforded to the peripheries of the ‘scope’ image; an inherent flaw in the Bausch & Lomb anamorphic lenses used to shoot early widescreen movies. All of the shortcomings of Cinemascope are on display here; a slight case of the ‘scope’ mumps in close-up and a vertical warping of the image in the extreme left and right sides. We get a DTS 5.1 stereo track, as well as TT’s usual commitment to an isolated score, plus an audio commentary with Alan K. Rode and two brief featurettes; the first on Ginger Rogers, the second, briefly devoted to Gene Tierney’s sad last days on the lot. Apart from the isolated score, the extras derive from Fox’s 2002 DVD release of Black Widow. Bottom line: Black Widow is a C-grade thriller with zero thrills, some hammy acting and a plot that goes nowhere fast. Unless you love vintage Cinemascope, regardless of the plot, this one should be left strictly on the cutting room floor. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)