Friday, December 28, 2012

Black Widow (20th Century-Fox, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “feature” TCM showed after Main Street Follies was the 1954 Black Widow, kicking off a night-long salute to actress Gene Tierney that mostly avoided her best-known films (like Laura and Leave Her to Heaven) in favor of such oddities as this one, The Left Hand of God (a 1955 melodrama starring Humphrey Bogart as a disgraced U.S. military officer who signs on to the private army of a Chinese warlord, then runs afoul of him and tries to hide from the warlord’s hit squad by masquerading as a priest!), Where the Sidewalk Ends (reuniting Tierney, Dana Andrews and director Otto Preminger from her star-making vehicle, Laura) and other oddities. No relation to the 1987 Black Widow either plot-wise or in terms of atmosphere, the 1954 Black Widow is basically a murder mystery grafted onto the plot of All About Eve. Based on a 1952 (i.e., two years after All About Eve) novel called Fatal Woman published under the name “Patrick Quentin” (a floating pseudonym used by four separate writers working either alone or in pairs — Fatal Woman appears to have been written by Hugh Wheeler and Richard Wilson Webb), Black Widow revolves around the fatal attraction (the words are irresistible) between “purpose” girl Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner), the Eve Harrington of this tale, and theatrical producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin). Denver meets Ordway just after his wife, a famous actress, goes out of town to tour with her latest Broadway hit; in this version Ordway is an aspiring writer rather than an aspiring actress, but she’s just as unscrupulous as Eve Harrington, essentially sleeping her way up the ladder of Broadway success until she attracts Peter at a party hosted by the star of his latest production, actress Carlotta Marin (Ginger Rogers, top-billed), and her husband Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner). The film begins with Heflin’s character narrating a flashback on how Nancy Ordway moved up the New York street grid, repeatedly seducing more and more influential older men until she got to him, and putting on an innocent act that fooled Denver at first.

He insists throughout the movie that he never actually had an affair with her, like the good little Production Code-era boy he is, but other people insist he did — including Ordway’s roommate Claire Amberley (Virginia Leith) and her brother John (Skip Homeier, older but still as slimy as he was as the boy Nazi in Tomorrow the World) — apparently their source was Ordway herself, who told them before she was strangled in Denver’s apartment (where he had given her space to write during the day — as Charles might joke, “Writing? Is that what they’re calling it now?”). Ordway’s death is ruled a suicide at first, but when the medical examiner autopsies her it’s revealed that she was first strangled and then hanged post-mortem, and the police, headed by detective lieutenant C. A. Bruce (George Raft), focus their investigation on Denver, his wife, Carlotta and her “kept husband” Mullen. Ordway’s body was found with a stick-figure drawing of a woman hanging, captioned with the line, “The power of love is greater than the power of death” — from Richard Strauss’s Oscar Wilde-derived opera Salomé, a piece Ordway was fond of since she played its big instrumental section, the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” constantly. Ordway had drawn a similar stick-figure drawing of herself typing with a word balloon containing her phone number, which she’d given to Peter so he could call her and initiate their affair (or non-affair, depending on what you believe about the story) — only it turns out that Mullen was really her lover, as well as the father of the unborn fetus she was carrying when she was killed. What’s more, in yet another reversal from writer-director Nunnally Johnson (like All About Eve, this is a film in which the writer and director were the same person), Ordway’s real killer turns out to be … Carlotta Marin, disgusted with her for seducing and being impregnated by the husband she’s spent a lot of money, time and energy keeping away from the work world, at which he freely admits he’s hopeless.

Essentially the 1954 Black Widow is what All About Eve would have been if Margo Channing had strangled that ungrateful bitch Eve Harrington just when she realized what the younger woman was up to, and while Johnson’s writing isn’t quite up to Joseph Mankiewicz’ for wicked wit the movie is still a lot of fun despite a rather elderly cast that was probably considered the “over-the-hill gang” even then. It’s also a professionally written and acted film; Johnson’s writing may be powered by reversals, but at least they make sense and don’t induce the kind of whiplash that’s become an all too common reaction to recent thrillers like Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity (which layered on the reversals so thickly that the plot eventually ceased to make any discernible sense at all). It isn’t cast anywhere nearly as strongly as Eve was, but Ginger Rogers’ performance as the bitch is quite treasurable; she pounces on the role as if she were determined once and for all to make us forget that nice young girl who danced so beautifully with Fred Astaire, and she plays the big reveal at the end in a surprisingly matter-of-fact fashion, with a finely honed sense of psychopathology less exciting but more subtle than the nose-flaring overacting with which Bette Davis would have acted it. I was also grateful to TCM for showing Black Widow in a letterboxed print reproducing the original CinemaScope 2.55-1 screen ratio; for years I had described the ridiculous scene in the pan-and-scan version in which Van Heflin’s glasses had a heated argument with Gene Tierney’s nose — and I was a bit startled to find that Heflin didn’t wear glasses at any time during the film, so I’m not sure what I remembered except that the absence of anything but hairline glimpses of the two leads in what was supposed to be an intensely dramatic scene between them was disconcerting, to say the least!