Black Widow is a 1954 DeLuxe Color mystery film in CinemaScope, with elements of film noir, written, produced and directed by Nunnally Johnson and starring Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, and George Raft.
Peter Denver (Van Heflin) is a renowned Broadway producer attending a party—hosted by the viciously haughty and celebrated actress Carlotta “Lottie” Marin (Ginger Rogers) and her quiet husband Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner)—when he meets Nancy “Nanny” Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner). Ordway is a seemingly naïve, 20-year-old, aspiring writer, who hopes to make it big in New York. She convinces a reluctant Denver to let her use his apartment to work during the day, while his wife, Iris (Gene Tierney), also a famous actress, is away, but with her permission.
After the Denvers return from the airport and find Nancy hanging dead in their bathroom, a variety of people Ordway has recently met in New York begin to reveal deeper and darker connections with her. Lt. Bruce (George Raft), the detective assigned to the case, soon discovers that this apparent suicide was in fact a homicide and believes that Denver, quickly suspected of having an affair with Ordway, is the murderer. Denver evades arrest and seeks clues to discover the real murderer; the case becomes cluttered when he and Lt. Bruce independently realize that Ordway’s dealings in New York have not been as innocent as her superficial personality.
Ordway had recently stayed with an artist roommate, whose deceived brother she evidently agreed to marry, while also staying for some time with her uncle. A series of flashbacks reveal that, all along the way, Ordway was craftily piecing together a scheme that would help her climb the social ladder and, later, conceal the identity of an apparent secret lover, while falsely implicating Denver; this mysterious romance is confirmed by an autopsy, which reveals that Ordway was pregnant at the time of her death. Everyone Ordway knew is suddenly a suspect in the murder case, including Lottie Marin and Brian Mullen, who live in the same apartment building as the Denvers.
In the end, Mullen, who can no longer keep quiet to his friend Peter Denver, reveals that he was Ordway’s secret lover, although he swears that he didn’t kill her. Having bugged Mullen’s apartment, Lt. Bruce barges in, charging Mullen with the homicide. Finally Marin admits she in fact strangled Ordway for having the affair with her husband, and set up the killing to look like a suicide.
Tightly constructed, beautifully filmed, straight up high society suspense
Black Widow (1954)
An early full color Cinemascope drama, loaded with starts, and written by a high powered but somewhat forgotten stage and screen writer of the 40s and 50s, Nunnally Johnson. And this is one of a handful of films he directed, too. It’s really quite a fully blossomed drama, and it grows with complexity as it goes. And it’s packed with stars. The leading man has always impressed me even though he’s not the handsome or powerful sort that usually commands the first credits, Van Heflin. he’s really amazing, subtle and perfectly sophisticated and well meaning and (eventually) tortured.
His wife is played with usual cool cheerfulness by Gene Tierney, and their neighbor and friend is a haughty and ridiculous (perfectly so) Ginger Rogers. Rogers takes her role to the hilt, both in arrogance and frivolity and later in emotional breakdown.
What ensues is not just highbrow Broadway theater culture, but eventually a criminal (or psychologically suspenseful) tidal wave sweeps over the relatively lightweight beginnings, and the effect is kind of remarkable in its own way. I mean, it’s so completely theatrical and melodramatic, and yet it really works as an interpersonal and heartfelt (and probing) drama, too. The writing is smart, nuanced, and it plays the line of being exactly what it is–meaning that it’s about the very world that Johnson lives in.
The cop in this case is George Raft, always a little stiff and stiff again here, but he does his job. The seductress who is the center of all these talents is Peggy Ann Garner. Who is she? Well, after several years of being a successful child actress, and except for a small role in an obscure 1951 Fred Zinnemann film as an adult, Garner was a television actress (including some t.v. movies) bouncing from one series to another. Then, at the end of her career, she had small roles in three more features. And in many ways, she’s the weak link here–she’s supposed to be sleeping her way to success in the theater world, and yet there’s something not quite right about her in this role. I suppose I underestimate middle aged rich men.
The plot this girl weaves for those around her is elaborate and devilish. And when it goes wrong for her, it really goes wrong for our main man Heflin. At the point the film is very much like Hitchcock film, with the apparently innocent man accused of a crime. Unlike Hitchcock, Johnson uses flashbacks at key points near the end., which do their job but also have a way of deflating the suspense.
See for yourself!
Fading stars breathe life into artificial murder mystery set on Broadway
Author: bmacv from Western New York
6 October 2003
No matter how pretentious the cocktail party, never escape by asking another wallflower out for dinner. That was theatrical producer Van Heflin’s mistake when, on the terrace of Broadway diva Ginger Rogers’ apartment, he took pity on hopeful young writer Peggy Ann Garner. Just a few months later, she was found hanged in the bathroom of his apartment.
It was all very innocent, though. While his wife, another star on the Rialto (Gene Tierney), was away tending to her ailing mother, Heflin let Garner use his place as a daytime office so she could write in quiet comfort. (Well, not so quiet: She listens to `The Dance of the Seven Veils’ from Salome incessantly and fixates on a line from the opera: `The mystery of love is stronger than the mystery of death.’) But when it turns out not only that she was pregnant but that she was murdered, the police sensibly enough find in Heflin their prime suspect.
Black Widow, written and directed by Nunnally Johnson, assembles an impressive array of Hollywood luminaries across whose resumés long shadows were beginning to creep. Along with Rogers, Tierney and Heflin, there’s George Raft as a police detective, Otto Krueger as Garner’s actor uncle and Reginald Gardiner as Rogers’ whipped spouse. It’s an ensemble-cast, 40s-high-style mystery movie, made about a decade too late but not too much the worse for that (even allowing for its color and Cinemascope).
Heflin’s technically the center of the movie – the patsy racing around to prove his innocence. But the meatier parts go to the women, except for Tierney, all but wasted in the recessive role of the elegant but dutiful wife. Garner makes her abrupt exit early in the movie, but returns in startlingly revisionist flashbacks. And, as the grande dame (named `Carlotta,’ perhaps in homage to another grande dame of the stage, Marie Dressler’s Carlotta Vance in Dinner at Eight?), Rogers strides around in big-ticket outfits and fakes a highfalutin drama-queen accent. For most of the movie it seems like ill-fitting role for the essentially proletarian Rogers, but it’s shrewdly written, and near the end she shows her true colors, becoming, briefly, sensational.
Like Repeat Performance and All About Eve, Black Widow uncoils in a high-strung, back-stabbing theatrical milieu that’s now all but vanished – all the money and the glamour have moved west. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but the tiny part of a struggling Greenwich Village actor is taken by television producer Aaron Spelling, now one of the richest men in Hollywood.) The movie cheats a little by withholding information essential to our reading of the characters, but it’s a forgivable feint; the characters are all `types’ anyhow. There is, however, one baffling omission – there’s not a single widow in the plot.