Pros: Super widescreen 2.55:1; George Raft, Van Heflin, Ginger Rogers
Cons: Story a bit too soapy and convoluted for film noir
Black Widow (1954)
This is a recent release from Fox in their Fox Film Noir series and is little known, at least in its theatrical version. That is because it has a couple features that are rarely seen in film noir, first, it is in ultra widescreen 2.55:1 CinemaScope and secondly, it was in TechniColor, rather than the usual Black and White.
The typical films noir emphasized dark themes acted out by lower class urban types who were usually trying to get something for nothing and usually had their comeuppance at the hands of fate, and often through the machinations of a wicked female, called the femme fatale; in this case even the title suggests there is one of these invidious gals but oddly enough there is no real widow in here unless it is one of the gals who is getting cheated on by her wandering husband.
The story is also a long way from lower class urban, featuring some high class digs in Manhattan near Central Park, perhaps even the famous Dakota, although I'm only guessing. Lots of the scenes are shot in these high rise apartments showing the skyline of NYC as a frequent backdrop. That is why the widescreen format is so essential to this movie. I understand that Fox shows this movie on their movie channel at times but shows the pan and scan formatted for TV version.
The cropping of the theatrical frame destroys all the scenic views of the NYC skyline that the shots are based on thus destroying the director's vision. It also presents the typical CinemaScope defect of showing the actors that are talking across the frame to actors on the other side of the widescreen frame but in the pan and scan version are shown looking out of the frame talking to blank space over to the side which takes away from the viewing experience. The characters are all theater people from Broadway and many of them are upper class, at least in income if not otherwise.
The story is a murder mystery concerning an apparent suicide that ultimately is found to be a murder. Told through a convoluted structure punctuated with flashbacks the secrets are finally revealed. The Black Widow has an ensemble cast full of big names including Gene Tierney (Laura); Van Heflin (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers); George Raft (Scarface); and Ginger Rogers. There is a large cast of familiar faces including Otto Kruger, Peggy Ann Garner, and Virginia Leith as well as a few others you might notice especially in the party and restaurant scenes.
The plot actually mirrors All About Eve and a couple other of those upscale crime dramas like Laura that shows the Upper East Siders know as much about sin as the Lower East Siders. Young Peggy Ann Garner plays an aspiring writer that play producer Van Heflin stupidly befriends while his wife (Gene Tierney) is away tending her sick mother. Certainly he would never sleep with a 20 year-old girl - would he? - He would? Well it seems that he must have when she is found in his apartment hanging by the neck and an autopsy reveals she was pregnant - remember, this was the early 50s. As the film plays out flashbacks reveal that the young girl was not as innocent as she let on.
Van Heflin maintains he is innocent and runs from police detective George Raft who plays a pretty good Jack Webb type detective. I think the movie is worth watching for crime fans but the society aspects and especially the highly written parts for the women make it more of a chick flick than I am comfortable watching. Ginger Rogers plays a diva star reminiscent of Bette Davis in All About Eve so she was a big hit. But I think most of my friends like fellow film critic Steve Murray would agree with me that Black Widow is pretty far from film noir.
The Fox DVD contains a great copy of the 95 minute color film in 2.55:1 super wide CinemaScope and a full length commentary from film noir author Alan K Rode; a pair of featurettes, 1 each on Ginger Rogers and Gene Tierney; still photos, theatrical trailer and more extras.