Black Widow

Released in 1987, written by Ronald Bass, directed by Bob Rafelson, and starring Debra Winger and Theresa Russell. Rated R. Running time 1 hour 42 minutes.

Black Widow is a neo-noir thriller which follows Alex (Debra Winger), a federal investigator obsessed with a woman she believes murders older men she marries for their inheritance. No one at work believes Alex’s theory of the wealthy men’s deaths being connected so she sets off on her own to track down the elusive “Black Widow”. Theresa Russell plays Catharine/Margaret/Marielle/Renee, the sexy young and very rich widow. The two women could not be more opposite in nature and character; although, they do have one thing in common, they will stop at nothing to get what they want. They just have very different ways of getting it.

Alex is a workaholic federal investigator who wears frumpy clothes with a huge head of dark curly hair. She’s a go getter full of sarcasm in an work environment with a boss who not only tries to feel her up but suggests she’s just tired and needs a date to feel better. Ugh. Catherine, on the hand, uses all her feminine power to research what her next husband’s interests are, his family, his business, his fortune, and then adapts her look and personality (and name) to make herself appear to be their perfect partner. She manages to get married quickly, sets the husband up for dying in his sleep while she’s conveniently out of town, and then grieves until she decides on her next target. Alex catches up with Renee (Catherine) in Hawaii and the two become friends. Renee introduces Alex to her fiance Paul and uses her to ensnare Paul deeper into her web of deceit. Meanwhile, Alex tries warning Paul about Renee but he doesn’t believe her either. Shocker! A trap is set and Renee (Catherine) is finally brought to justice.

What I liked

Black Widow is Conrad Hall’s first film back as a director of photography after a 10 year absence but you wouldn’t know it. He was a master at his craft with visuals and setting the tone. This film is no exception. The story unfolds through short scenes, side by side progressions, and just enough dialogue to hold the story and it’s actors together. It’s pure 80s as well with many hairstyles (big curly hair/long straight beach/ big southern with bangs), makeup from super glamourous to super natural, frumpy everyday clothes to sleek party fashion, and set furniture from the wealthy ornate/cozy cabin (with a grand piano)/spacious Hawaiian (complete with wicker) bungalow of Catherine’s environments to the lackluster and cramped apartments of Alex. Also making a dated appearance–doing research on giant computer monitors, slide projector to look at pictures, VCRs, and old fashioned research done at the library. It brings back a level of nostalgia seeing the ancient forms of technology at work 🙂

Debra Winger was fresh off of Legal Eagles (Robert Redford and Daryl Hannah) when she was given the choice to play either Alex or Catherine. Debra makes the wise choice here as she is perfect as the spunky and persistent federal investigator mixed with a bit of awkwardness in the romance department. It isn’t that she isn’t interested, she just doesn’t have time right now nor has she met the right guy. Plus, I’m not sure she is a chameleon with wardrobe, make-up, and wigs like Theresa Russell. Theresa Russell is the perfect mix of beauty and naturalness which really lends weight to her performance. Her deep seeded feelings toward herself (Which never really get explored, like why does she do it? It can’t only be for the money?) and desperation when she learns someone may have caught on to her gives her character a complexity and a ruthlessness which supports every move she makes throughout the film. (Except for one, which I’ll get to.) In one scene, Catherine (as Renee) is talking about how she has married lots of men to get rich and says, “Rich is hard. You never really figure you’re right there.”

Alex and Catherine have great chemistry and feel like they could easily be friends in real life. When they’re on screen together, neither one “steals” the moment. The scenes feel like two friends spending time together. By now, we know Catherine is up to no good and Alex is trying to get close to her to prove it. When Catherine catches on, She outwits Alex–or so we think. This film has just the right amount of nudity as well as girl on girl intimacy. Okay, it’s a scene where they have to practice mouth to mouth resuscitation in their scuba class, so they aren’t “kissing’ but they are lips to lips. More of a suggestion of connection.

What I wished was better

You know something else that never gets old? Sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace. :/ Alex is surrounded by it at work. From her co-worker asking her out and her politely saying no to preserve their friendship, to other co-workers talking about how they dated her once, to her boss who tells her maybe she needs to go on a date instead of work so much right around the same time he gives her what starts as a “neck rub” but starts to become something else at which time Alex manages to change the subject and get out of there. Luckily, Alex is a strong woman who doesn’t fall prey to the message and stays focus on her mission. This film would’ve worked without the extra rubbing and the dating centered dialogue. * I will give a bit on the go on a date instead of work so much line because after seven years of him being her boss and her being a known workaholic, the line probably had “some” truth to it and he did deliver it with a small level of concern and help.

There are some things which don’t quite add up for me. It’s established early on Catherine is a private person. And it’s easy to understand. She’s only interested in wealthy men for what they will ultimate give her and the less invested she is in female relationships the better. She has to move on once her husbands die, so why make friends you can’t keep? It’s weird to me that Catherine is so open to being Alex’s friend. I know it works in her favor later in the film when she uses Alex as leverage in her latest quest; however, Catherine reveals more than what’s necessary to Alex. Keeping Alex on the hook maybe? I thought Catherine would be a bit more reserved about herself and keep the conversations on Alex. You know, research her rival?

The dialogue was a bit choppy for me in parts. I know a lot has to be established in a short amount of time and in those scenes, I was perfectly fine with the choppy dialogue. It’s in other scenes when it felt redundant or awkward. Toward the end, at Catherine’s wedding, Catherine says, “Truth is, I’m sorry it’s over.” Alex responds with, “Truth is, it’s not over yet.” I don’t like to nit-pick dialogue too much but when it feels weird, my brain sticks on it and I can’t get rid of rewriting the scene in my head. The scene with the private investigator in Hawaii is full of witty banter but it’s more repetitious sarcastic remarks that don’t feel natural.

Final Thoughts

The men Catherine marries kind of deserve what they get for meeting a strange woman, marrying her, and leaving all their money and possessions to her after only a few months. She’s sexy, intriguing, and super smart; but still…she must have some serious skills! (If you know what I mean…) As for Alex, she really drives the film. I mean, technically, if she wasn’t interested in bringing Catherine down, no one else would. All the murders look like natural causes. For plot, continuity, acting, directing, and cinematography, I would say Black Widow is a solid film. It has has great visual moments with Catherine bringing men into her web, plenty of cat and mouse scenes of Alex and Catherine, and plenty of moments people not believing Alex and she perseveres anyway. It isn’t a film to revisit over and over, because once you know, you know; BUT, it offers some great camera and lighting examples for seduction, intensity, and just two gals hanging out. The film never really gets under your skin or makes you feel one way or the other about the characters. It’s just kind of there and you’re just kind of watching it happen.

I give it a 3 out of 5. Available on Amazon. Watch the trailer below.

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