Monday, July 31, 2017

Movie review - "Black Widow" (1954) ** (warning: spoilers)

Nunnally Johnson, who wrote, produced and directed this, pitched it as "All About Eve for suspense movies" which is great shorthand and sounds like a fantastic movie but this is a bit flat. It's got compensations - stars, CinemaScope, colour - but lacks Eve's X factor stars, and theatrical atmosphere.

Eve had a few bland spots in its cast - Hugh Marlowe, Anne Baxter - but they were more than compensated for by Bette Davis, George Sanders, Celeste Holm and Gary Merrill. They also had Joseph Mankiewicz's scintillating dialogue.

Johnson was an excellent writer, but didn't have Mankiewicz's knack for quips. Maybe he could have got there but he was presumably busy doing the producing and directing.

He wasn't as experienced a director - I think this stopped him from capturing the theatre atmosphere this badly needs. It doesn't help that there are few scenes in cafes, backstage, on stage, on the road, etc... it's mostly people hanging out in plush apartments. For instance, Van Heflin is supposed to be a Broadway producer but I never got the impression he actually did that for a living. Perhaps this would have been better off being shot in black and white.

The staging of so many of the scenes is perfunctory - characters just hang around, saying their lines. There's no feeling that this is made by someone who knows were to put the camera.

But then Heflin's presence is a debit for the whole movie - a glowering, intense actor, Heflin could be effective in the right role but he wasn't a star, which is what this movie needs. Gregory Peck, who had been discussed, would have been ideal - an everyman the audience could have related to, so we cared when he was unjustly accused of murder.

Peggy Ann Garner is all wrong as the girl who is killed. Maybe I'm too used to seeing her as a child star, but she seemed weird - with a perm, and lacking glamour/charisma. She also simply isn't very good as an adult actor. (In her defence she has some dreadful dialogue about being a writer).

Gene Tierney is alright as Heflin's wife - she isn't given much to do. She spends most of her time literally just lounging around.

Far better are Ginger Rogers (as a bitchy actress - the Clifton Webb part), Reginald Denny (her husband), and George Raft (doing solid work as the investigating detective). Virginia Leith (an actor I wasn't very familiar with) shines in a showy role as Garner's old flatmate, and I enjoyed African-American actress, Hilda Simms, getting a decent scene with Heflin.

It's a shame because it's a decent enough mystery. It's fantastic that Rogers is the killer. It just has some key miscast leads and lack atmosphere and ordinary direction.

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