Black Widow

by Glenn Erickson Nov 20, 2015

Forget film art for a minute. Bob Rafelson and Ronald Bass’s smart and sexy murder thriller throws Debra Winger and Theresa Russell into a slick neo-noir tale with fancy glamour trimmings, and comes up a bright, intelligent entertainment. A government agent tracks a serial killer that none of her superiors believes in — who ever heard of a female Bluebeard character, who marries ’em and burys ’em?

Black Widow
Twilight Time
Limited Edition
1987 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 102 min. / Ship Date October 13, 2015 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Debra Winger, Theresa Russell, Sami Frey, Dennis Hopper, Nicol Williamson, Terry O’Quinn, D.W. Moffett.
Cinematography Conrad L. Hall
Production Designer Gene Callahan
Film Editor John Bloom
Original Music Michael Small
Written by Ronald Bass
Produced by Harold Schneider
Directed by Bob Rafelson

You know how sometimes one’s significant other will insist on seeing a movie you don’t want to see, and it turns out to be a real winner?  Well, I resisted being taken to Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow when it was new. Now that I’ve finally seen it, I have to admit I made a big mistake. If I show it to my spouse, will she remember being steered to another movie?

20th Fox’s romantic murder thriller is a slick item in all departments, satisfying pretty much all the needs of mainstream entertainment circa 1987. It features a pair of very interesting actresses. The presence of Debra Winger, the husky-voiced star of Terms of Endearment brought in the conventional crowd, especially women. The presence of sultry Theresa Russell, a fearless exhibitionist in daring art films (Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession) promises dangerous erotic thrills. The dialogue even sneaks in a ‘bad timing’ reference, in a way that movies could at one time do without being annoying. The movie manages to deliver all that and more. Yes, it’s a fairly lightweight neo-noir, as concerned with surface glamour as its thriller aspect, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable all the way. Interestingly, it was directed by a filmmaker whose work from the previous decade seemed dedicated to a completely different kind of filmmaking.

Prolific screenwriter Ronald Bass gives Black Widow a sturdy thriller premise. Alexandra (Debra Winger), a data analyst for the Justice Department in Washington, annoys her boss Bruce and assistant Michael (Terry O’Quinn & D.W. Moffett) by stubbornly trying to link a deceased publisher with the mob. But a string of deaths of rich men, each married just a few months, draws her attention instead. An incredibly clever and ruthless young woman who has no background and uses different names (Theresa Russell) appears to be knocking off these men one by one and absorbing their bankrolls. Alexandra gets permission to do some investigating, and after failing to protect one new husband (Nicol Williamson), goes to Hawaii to pursue the mystery woman. With the help of a local detective (James Hong), Alexandra locates and manages to befriend her quarry, who now goes by the name Catharine. Our Black Widow has found a new man for her web, the fabulously wealthy hotel developer Paul (Sami Frey). But complications set in as the two women become close friends. Catharine detects something amiss, and carefully makes plans to ‘deal with’ Alexandra.

Black Widow is one of those happy commercial pictures that is packed with specific fantasies the public wants to see, yet isn’t relentlessly stupid. It gives upscale, meaty roles to its star actresses, who surely had a hand in tweaking the script: note how all the men in Alexandra’s life would like to come on to her, even though her character isn’t meant to be all that glamorous or attractive. Both ladies also spend their screen time traipsing about in a variety of attractive clothing, some of it designer togs. It’s a new, smart, liberated movie, yet still functions like an old MGM picture that assumes women want to see a fashion show.

No matter, because males will also be riveted to the screen, if only for the sensual nude scenes. I peg 1990 and the watershed movie Thelma & Louise with shifting Hollywood’s sex bias from the male viewpoint to the female viewpoint; it suddenly became undesirable for actresses to casually disrobe, whereas actors like Brad Pitt and Val Kilmer became sex objects, flashing their butts for the admiring female audience. That rule really doesn’t quite apply in this case, for the confident and self-assured Theresa Russell uses her body like a special effect. As with the equally classy Helen Mirren, Russell could go nude without the slightest hint of exploitation. These women are in full control.

The mystery in Black Widow is well done and exciting. Having seen neo-noirs like 1981’s Body Heat, we expect good plot twists, ones we can predict and hopefully some we can’t. Russell’s husband-poisoner has an amazing aptitude for role-playing and seduction, but she freaks when she realizes that Alexandra is a government cop. The situation also introduces an attraction between the two ladies as well. Happily, the screenplay is modern enough to show a one-night stand without catastrophic emotional fallout, and to play around with its veiled lesbian plot that may be real or may just be more play acting, on both sides of the equation. It does make sense, though, that Russell’s character might feel true kinship with a female companion – she certainly doesn’t let herself get emotionally attached to the men in her life.

Casual viewers mourning the decline of TV shows like Dallas and Dynasty can content themselves with the ritzy trimmings that come with the home life of a succession of rich husbands. There’s the classy high-rise apartment of Catherine’s first, unseen hubby, and then a cozy modern penthouse belonging to the next patsy, toy manufacturer Ben (Dennis Hopper). Cultured man of letters William (Nicol Williamson) lives in an inviting cabin-chalet somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Credit designer Gene Callahan for these swank surroundings. The whole second half of the movie plays out in exclusive corners of Maui or The Big Island, where every other shot is a slice of gorgeous scenery. Sami Frey takes Catharine and Alexandra on romantic jeep trips into the rain forest, or to observe an active volcano. This last bit, using a real volcano as spectacular eye candy, makes Black Widow seem effortlessly cool. With such an unmistakable symbol in view, we know that Winger and Frey will have to ‘let their passions run wild and free.’

Director Bob Rafelson crashed pretty badly with his poorly received 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but his career was far from over. Looking at Black Widow one would never think that Rafelson is the director who brought French pacing and thematic depth to American movies in the early 1970s, practically defining the ‘director’s decade.’ This show is a commercial item but nothing to sniff at, as it’s extremely well directed. The pace is excellent, the performances well modulated. And Rafelson carries it all off in stylish elegance.

Rafelson produced or co-produced his previous pictures but we don’t see him with that credit here, nor one for writing. Instead, his old BBS cohort Harold Schneider co-produces, with old-time actor friend Hopper in for an assist. The rest of the cast is exemplary as well, with Diane Ladd and Lois Smith as relatives that Catharine has squeezed out of the will. The ubiquitous James Hong has a great part as the shifty private eye. As for Sami Frey, he’s there to be the trophy male for the women to compete for. Perhaps Black Widow is already beginning the transition between male-oriented voyeurism to female-oriented preferences. After all, when Alexandra and Catharine seem to be enjoying each other’s company a lot, we males are on the outside looking in.

In a small but welcome part as a SCUBA instructor is fave Mary Woronov, for once playing a solid, non-freakazoid support. Black Widow is a class act all around. If Debra Winger’s froggy vocal chords and sly smile aren’t your glass of tea, Theresa Russell’s lethal charm will surely compensate.


The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Black Widow is a super encoding of this attractive, colorful suspense thriller — with a little sex. Conrad Hall turns every shot into a picture postcard, beginning with the first angle on Theresa Russell applying mascara in a makeup mirror. As I said earlier, the movie also functions as a fashion show and a travelogue.

Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo provide an informative, casual ‘easy listening’ commentary, while Ms. Kirgo’s liner essay approaches the movie in terms of Bob Rafelson’s career. There’s also Twilight Time’s regulation Isolated Score Track for the interesting music by Michael Small (Klute). A trailer and two TV spots finish the package.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Black Widow
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Isolated Score Track, audio commentary with Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, TV Spots, trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 18, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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