Black Widow (1954)

US / 95 minutes / color / TCF Dir & Pr & Scr: Nunnally Johnson Story: Black Widow (1952; vt Fatal Woman) by Patrick Quentin Cine: Charles G. Clarke Cast: Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, George Raft, Peggy Ann Garner, Reginald Gardiner, Virginia Leith, Otto Kruger, Cathleen Nesbitt, Skip Homeier, Hilda Simms, Mabel Albertson, Harry Carter.

Black Widow 1954 - 0 great use of CinemaScope

A review of this movie that I read a little while ago at the The Passing Tramp blog made me go and look up my film noir encyclopedia to see why I’d left it out. I can see that the decision to do so was a conscious one: I give the movie enough of a mention in the entry on The BLACK WIDOW (1951) to remind me that I watched it and decided (rightly) that its noirish interest was too borderline for me to grant it any more of my precious printed space. Here, though, where the space is limitless . . .

Black Widow 1954 - 1 the encounter at Lottie's party

Peter (Van Heflin) encounters Nancy (Peggy Ann Garner) at a neighbor’s party.

Peter Denver (Heflin)—for some reason Johnson changed the name of author Quentin’s series character Peter Duluth—is a successful Broadway producer; his wife Iris (Tierney) is a celebrated Broadway star. Unfortunately she has to go off to New Orleans for a few weeks to tend to her sick mom. At the airport she makes him swear that he’ll go that night to the party being thrown by Lottie Marin (Rogers), their upstairs neighbor and the star of Peter’s latest hit production, Star Rising. Peter obeys the letter of Iris’s law; seconds after arriving at the party, though, he’s heading for the door. But then he’s hauled back by Lottie’s husband Brian Mullen (Gardiner), who’s damned if he’s going to undergo this ordeal without his ol’ buddy Peter.

Peter seeks refuge on the terrace, where he finds himself alone with a seemingly innocent young woman, Nancy “Nanny” Ordway (Garner). She begs him to speak to her on the grounds that her mom used to tell her that a girl who went to a party and couldn’t get a man to speak to her within thirty minutes might as well just shoot herself: “It’s already been twenty-five.”

She’s apparently a writer:

Nanny: “My last story, well, the editor said it was all right to write like Somerset Maugham and it was all right to write like Truman Capote, but not at the same time.”

Peter: “Why don’t you do like everybody else and write like Hemingway?”

Out of pity, and to get away from the party, Peter takes her to dinner. Later that night, on the phone to Iris, he tells her with rolling eyes about this kid he met who practically ate the restaurant out of food. It’s plain he never expects to see Nanny again. But he does.

Black Widow 1954 - 2 Nanny tells Claire how much she's in love with John

Nanny (Peggy Ann Garner) tells her artist roomie Claire (Virginia Leith) how much she’s fallen in love with Claire’s brother John.

In flashback we learn what Peter himself would later learn, that Nanny is a “purpose girl”—a climber who’s unconcerned about those she tramples underfoot as she works her way to the top, a progress symbolized by sequential shots of NYC street signs, starting at 9th and working her way uptown. After her arrival on the bus from Savannah, Georgia, she began with her uncle, Gordon Ling (Kruger)—a jobbing actor who has a support part in Star Rising—using him as a springboard to get a job with Sylvia (Albertson), who once trod the boards with Gordon but now owns and runs the restaurant Sylvia’s. Nanny used her position as a waitress there to ingratiate herself with artist Claire Amberly (Leith) and Claire’s brother John (Homeier); soon she was sharing Claire’s apartment and persuading John that she was in love with him. But of course Nanny was setting her sights higher than the Amberlys . . .

Peter finds himself manipulated by Nanny into allowing her to use his apartment for her writing during the day, while he’s out at work. He sees her barely at all and—in an echo of Dix Steele’s attitude in IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) when he invites a hat-check girl home not for sex but just to describe a novel to him—assumes no one could possibly read anything awry into the circumstance.

Black Widow 1954 - 8 Lottie visit's Peter's apt and hears bad things

Lottie (Ginger Rogers) visits Peter’s apartment and hears bad things going on within.

The night that Iris gets home from New Orleans, Peter has a subordinate phone Nanny to tell her the arrangement’s over. When Peter and Iris get home they discover the lights are down in the apartment while Richard Strauss’s Salome—a favorite piece of Nanny’s—is booming from the sound system. Nanny herself is nowhere to be seen . . . until Iris goes into the bathroom and finds her hanging from the shower rail.

Black Widow 1954 - 3 Peter finds hanging Nanny

Peter (Van Heflin) finds Nanny hanging in the shower.

Enter Lieutenant C.A. Bruce (Raft) and his sidekick Sergeant Welch (Carter). Everyone’s assumption is that Nanny killed herself; Bruce assumes she did so because her relationship with Peter turned sour—especially after it’s discovered that Nanny was pregnant when she died. But then the autopsy shows also that Nanny didn’t kill herself: she was strangled and then strung up. Learning that the cops plan to arrest him for murder, Peter cuts loose, hoping to solve the case himself . . .

Black Widow 1954 - 4 Bruce & Welch investigating

Enter cops Lt. Bruce (George Raft) and Sergeant Welch (Harry Carter).

There’s a lot of good stuff after this point in the plot. One clever move is that, about forty minutes out from the end, it becomes obvious to us attentive watchers whodunnit, and then about twenty minutes later this is made explicit—yet that person proves to be not the murderer at all, just another of Nanny’s victims.

Black Widow 1954 - 5 Lottie is soooo sympathetic to dahling Iris

Lottie (Ginger Rogers) being soooo sympathetic to dahling Iris (Gene Tierney).

Heflin is wonderful here: he’s not at all like the Peter Duluth depicted in the Patrick Quentin novels, but he creates an absolutely credible alternative. Raft, his days of stardom behind him and with them the idiotic gimmicks and narcissism, produces something that’s for once well beyond mere competence. Rogers, probably deliberately and under Nunnally Johnson’s instruction, delivers a markedly theatrical performance, as if Lottie finds it nigh impossible to live life rather than act it, with her lines cle-arly enunc-i-ated and full of “do not” rather than “don’t”—a trick that makes it all the more difficult for us to know when she’s lying. Among the supporting roles, there’s a great turn from Simms as Anne, once the hat-check girl at Sylvia’s and a colleague of Nanny’s, who gives Peter the kind of frank appraisal of Nanny’s character that others might sensibly have given him before.

Black Widow 1954 - 7 Peter gets some lowdown from Anne

Peter (Ven Heflin) gets some lowdown from hat-check girl Anne (Hilda Simms).

This was shot in CinemaScope. This seems slightly unnecessary—as if a genuine noir like TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949) had been given a counterproductive deluxe treatment—and overall it brings to the movie a very staged appearance; much of the action takes place in either the Denvers’ or the Mullens’ (identical) large, spacious and underfurnished apartment, and the CinemaScope makes these appear like stage sets. When cinematographer Clarke is allowed to deploy CinemaScope on subjects like NYC cityscapes, however, he uses it to create astonishing depth, pulling the viewer almost vertiginously into them.

Although for the most part the movie is grim, focusing as it does on Peter’s descent into the noir abyss where, despite his complete innocence, it looks as if he might pay the penalty of guilt—and with even his initially loyal wife Iris coming eventually to believe that he’s betrayed her—it allows itself a moment or two of humor. The one that appeals to me most occurs early on, at Lottie’s ghastly party: a waiter (uncredited) emerges with a tray bearing perhaps twenty or thirty drinks, moves swiftly through the room without breaking stride and, moments later, reaches Peter . . . by which time there’s just a single glass left on the tray.

Black Widow 1954 - 9a Now you see 'em . . .

Black Widow 1954 - 9b . . .

Black Widow 1954 - 9c . . .

Black Widow 1954 - 9d . . .

Black Widow 1954 - 9e . . . and now you don't

Now you see them, now you don’t . . .

 

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On Amazon.com: Black Widow

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13 thoughts on “Black Widow (1954)

  1. Great review. How could I resist a reference to In a Lonely Place? I love that scene in which the hat-check girl relays the novel’s plot to Dix. As for Black Widow, it’s straight onto the dvd rental list, and our service has it. Hooray!

      • I watched this on Friday night and thoroughly enjoyed it! Hilda Simms (as the hat-check girl) stole the movie for me. Terrific write-up, John. It also reminded me that I should revisit Gene Tierney in Laura…

        • Phew! Such a relief that you enjoyed the movie after my recommendation! And I’m glad that you too found Simms’s little cameo so satisfying. Such a shame that she fell victim to the stupid Hollywood blacklist — a very interesting woman, in fact, and it’s our great loss that she was able to leave so little of her presence on film.

          • That’s very interesting, thanks for the link. Such a shame she ended up on the blacklist as it looked as if she could have handled meatier roles.
            And yes, I must watch Laura again! 🙂

  2. Superb and exhaustive treatment of a solid film that certainly deserves more attention. As you note it is borderline noir. Mainly a riveting film with very good performance, I do agree that they should not have shot this in Cinemascope, especially with the preponderance of indoor scenes. Again, a great effort here John!

    • Thanks for calling by! It’s funny the movie seems to have slipped below the radar, isn’t it? You’d’ve thought merely the cast list would have kept it in the public eye a bit more. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it whan you have the chance to see it.

  3. Always liked this movie. Great part for Peggy Ann Garner. Glad you had some kind words for Mr.Raft.
    Mention of Laura reminds me this was a pretty poor part for Gene Tierney. Not worthy of her. I expect Ginger enjoyed her flashy role. Still don’t understand Lottie’s fascination with Reginald Gardiner.

    • Yes, Tierney was definitely wasted in this. It’s just one of the things over which one could find fault with the movie, and yet overall everything works.

      Thanks for dropping by.

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