Blu-Ray Review: Black Widow

Director: Bob Rafelson
Screenplay: Ronald Bass
Starring: Debra Winger, Theresa Russell, Sami Frey, Nicol Williamson, Dennis Hopper
Country: USA
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 1987
BBFC Certificate: 15


The late ’80s and early ’90s saw a slew of erotic or at least sexually charged thrillers that took the idea of the film noir ‘femme fatale’ and gave her a modern, more blatantly sexualised twist. At surface value, this might seem like a forward thinking trend of giving women powerful roles instead of throwaway ‘eye-candy’ appearances, but, as film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman discuss in the commentary included on this release, the reason behind this wave of strong villainous women was likely down to the still male-dominated industry (and male-dominated business world in general) being scared of the growing power women were enjoying at the time. Back in the late ’40s and early ’50s, when film noir was born, women were more frequently entering the workplace due to the war, so men were afraid of them taking their traditional places as the breadwinners. In the ’80s, women were finally starting to attain positions of power in the business world (although things still aren’t balanced), so the fear came back.

Black Widow was part of this wave and sees Theresa Russell play the titular Black Widow, a chameleonic character (of too many names to pick one here, so I’ll stick with the title) who makes a living by seducing rich men, marrying them, then undetectably murdering them, so she can keep their fortunes to herself. She then changes her identity and moves onto the next victim. So it’s very much playing into those ’80s fears then, but writer Ronald Bass put a bit of a spin on things to prevent the film from being too blatantly a symbol for male fear, by making the protagonist a woman too. Debra Winger plays Alexandra, a Federal Investigator who is bored of her desk-bound research job and longs to be in the field, solving cases first hand. She comes across some strange deaths of wealthy men and looks into the cases to find the wife of each victim looks similar, even if on paper they are different women. She begs her boss to let her take on the case, which he lets her do, as he thinks she’s crazy. There’s no evidence of murder and the Black Widow’s hair and make-up changes make it hard to prove she’s the same woman.

When Alexandra gets close to catching the Black Widow in the act though, her next victim, William (Nicol Williamson), is found dead. Alexandra is devastated as she had a chance to tell William about her theory about his wife, so she quits her job and heads to Hawaii (the last known location of the Widow) to put an end to her reign of terror herself. To do this, she must learn to be like her nemesis and the closer she gets to the Widow, the more she discovers her own sexual powers, turning from a tomboy into a ‘true’ woman.

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Finite Focus: Travelers (The Sheltering Sky)

In honor of Debra Winger‘s small (but critical) role in the fabulous Rachel Getting Married here is an early scene from Bernardo Bertolucci‘s tactile masterpiece The Sheltering Sky.

Landing in North Africa for some aimless ambling about the continent after World War II, three Americans are consumed by the land to the degree in which they throw themselves at it. Played in stark contrast to one another are three fine actors: John Malkovich, Campbell Scott and of course Debra Winger. She gives this fine little speech which foreshadows the events (pay careful attention to what is said and was is left hanging with her words) that will come under the sun drenched days and spicy nights. The scene goes on to have Malkovich‘s character consumed by a mob of children which he calls out (they boil up out of the nooks and crannies in the shipyard) to help him with his baggage.

At at mere 63 seconds there is a lot going on this scene – economic and subtle storytelling at its finest with some of the best cinematography ever committed to celluloid.