Friday, August 29, 2014

Death in Cinemascope: Black Widow (1954)

My most recent blog book review was of Patrick Quentin's novel Black Widow (1952). Two years after the book was published, it was filmed under the same title, in what is said to be the first color cinemascope murder mystery.  It is a sumptuous adaptation, with lavish and lovely (if artificial) sets representing various New York City locales, stunning costumes and a striking score. Critically praised and a box office hit, Black Widow has been reissued on DVD in beautifully restored condition.

Like the book, the film is an enjoyable piece of high society crime drama. Here is the plot again in brief: While his celebrated stage and screen actress wife, Iris (Gene Tierney), is away visiting her sick mother the celebrated play producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin, playing the book character Peter Duluth) befriends--quite platonically, honestly--a young writer, Nancy (Nanny) Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner), whom he met at a party thrown by his apartment neighbors one floor above, the celebrated stage actress Carlotta Marin (Ginger Rogers) and her amiable "kept" husband, Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner).

Peter even gives Nanny a key to his and Iris' own luxury apartment, so that she can write in a more supportive environment (she lives with another young woman in Greenwich Village), until his wife returns. Tragically, when Iris does return she and Peter find Nanny still in their apartment, hanging from the light fixture in their bedroom.  It seems Nanny has committed suicide.

Everyone--including, ultimately, even Iris--comes to believe that Peter's relationship with Nanny was something rather more than platonic.  And when it's discovered that someone strangled Nanny before she was strung up, Peter becomes the number one suspect in her murder.  Can Peter solve the crime himself and save his own neck?

from left to right:
Harry Carter, George Raft, Gene Tierney, Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Reginald Gardiner

This film is, on the whole, a faithful adaptation of the book. Yet some of the tension from the book is lost. As is pointed out in the film commentary by Alan K Rode, a few years earlier Black Widow would have been filmed in black and white and given much more of a film noir treatment.  As it is, however, the colorful set design and costumes steal away some of the viewer's attention from the suspenseful plot.

Nevertheless, this is still an engrossing high society crime melodrama, with uniformly good acting from the cast. Van Heflin, one of my favorite actors, is reliable as ever, and Gene Tierney is as lovely as ever, though she does not get to do much in the standard "fifties supportive wife" role (Iris is more interesting over the entire series of Patrick Quentin Peter Duluth novels).

Ginger Rogers as the classic drama queen diva (a role that was originally offered to Tallulah Bankhead, who turned it down, seeing it as too small a part) steals every scene she's in, while Reginald Gardiner is good as well, though rather miscast I think (going by the book, Brian must have been some dozen or so years younger than his wife, whereas Gardiner in real life was eight years older than Ginger Rogers and looked every bit of it; in all honesty some hunky young rising fifties star like Tab Hunter or, better yet, Rock Hudson would have been much closer to the book, but perhaps portraying Ginger Rogers as an aggressive cradle snatcher was too much for Hollywood).

Peggy Ann Garner, who was attempting with the Nanny Ordway role to break out of the child roles for which she had been much praised ( see, for example, The Pied Piper, Jane Eyre, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Home Sweet Homicide--this last based on the whimsical Craig Rice mystery novel), is quite good indeed.

Also notable is the acclaimed African-American stage actress Hilda Simms, playing Anna, a minor but pivotal character drawn from the book, in a striking scene quite faithful to the book. And, of course, we should not forget George Raft, who, while nothing like the book's Lieutenant Trant, brings a measure of Jack Webb-like authority to his character, Lieutenant Bruce (though he's much better dressed!).

Who would have wanted to kill this sweet young aspiring writer?!
Peggy Ann Garner as Nanny Ordway

Some of the film's dialogue comes straight from the book. Take, for example, Nanny's self-deprecating lines to Peter, after the New Yorker turns down one of her stories: "They said it was okay to write like Truman Capote and okay to write like Somerset Maugham. But it wasn't okay to write like both of them at once." The film also makes wonderful use of the Dance of the Seven Veils from Richard Strauss' opera Salome, a motif taken directly from the book.

There are, however, many small changes.  Nanny's birthplace is changed from Virginia to Savannah, Georgia, where the film's writer-director-producer, Nunnally Johnson, a native Georgian, had once lived. A reference in the book to Errol Flynn becomes one to Humphrey Bogart (poor Errol). Aspects of the plot are streamlined; the role of the character of Peter's clever secretary, Miss Mills, is reduced to nearly the vanishing point.

By far the most significant change is the introduction very early in the film, via flashback, of vital background information concerning Nanny Ordway that appears much later in the book.  This seemed an error to me, taking out some of the mystery element from the film; but I think Nunnally Johnson was more concerned with colorfully conveying high melodrama in high life.*

*(kudos to Johnson, however, for preserving a clever clue from the book)


  1. Great review Curt and I think you are spot-on about why some of the cosmetic changes were made. It's a very satisfying movie overall, though CinemaScope was probably an unfortunate addition I agree (Fox really liked to re-use that New York backdrop!) - you should include this in the Katie's Book to Movie challenge over at Doing Dewey!

  2. Thanks for the review! I have a copy of this movie somewhere, thanks to TCM, and must dig it out.

    1. So I did indeed dig it out. The "unknown" in your first screengrab is Harry Carter, playing Sgt Welch.

    2. Thanks, will add the name. Takes a lot of people to fill the screen with cinemascope!

  3. Definitely going to have to watch this, it sounds like a hoot, and I'm surprised I haven't come across it before.

  4. Fun film. Not profound, but stylish fifties murder melodrama entertainment.

  5. I want to see this movie and read the book. I can easily see that the color could distract from the mood. I like to see Ginger Rogers in roles like this.