Saturday, August 17, 2019

Black Widow (1954): Attack of the Starry-Eyed Dreamer

Black Widow (1954) is a murder mystery that unfolds with a clever series of twists.  I enjoyed the film despite the fact that the film's marketing did somewhat spoil the surprises.  Do not read further if you do not want me to spoil the surprises.

My biggest criticism of the marketing is the title, which gives away one of the story's major plot twists.  It would be like marketing Psycho with the title The Girl Who Got Stabbed to Death in a Shower.  Let me tell you exactly how this film should have worked (and almost does).  You should spend the first half hour of the film thinking you're watching My Sister Eileen (1942).  An innocent and cheerful young woman (Peggy Ann Garner) arrives in New York City to be a writer.  She charms everyone she meets.  Who couldn't be charmed by a person who radiates so much enthusiasm and goodness?  But then, suddenly, the young woman's corpse is found hanging in a bathroom.  So long, Eileen. . .  I mean Nancy, which is the young woman's name in the film.

It looks like Nancy wasn't as optimistic about her career prospects as we thought.  Should we have looked past her good cheer?  Let's get back to My Sister Eileen.  Eileen and her big sister, Ruth, become so discouraged at one point that they make plans to return home to Ohio.  Their spirits could not be lower.  Giving up your dream is never an easy thing to do.  It may seem at the moment that your choices are limited to either packing your suitcases or, yes, hanging yourself.  But a plot twist in Eileen places Eileen and Ruth on a Conga line with a bunch of Portuguese merchant marines.  The audience has a big laugh and everything works out in the end.

No one's laughing in Black Widow.  Detective Lt. C. A. Bruce (George Raft) doesn't believe that Nancy fits the profile for a suicide victim and he waits to see the coroner's report.  We learn from the coroner's report that Nancy was strangled by someone and hung up to make her death look like a suicide.  We also learn that Nancy was pregnant.  In time, we learn from Nancy's roommate that Nancy was having an affair with a married man.  The plot thickens, and thickens, and thickens.  But the biggest twist comes near the end when we learn that Nancy was not, as it seemed, sweet, innocent and carefree.  Nancy fooled everyone that she met.  And, more important, she fooled us, too.  At least she fooled me.  I believed her charm was guileless and her beneficial encounters were happenstance.  I believed she was Eileen.  But everything was carefully planned and performed by Nancy, who was a manipulative sociopath willing to destroy others' lives for her own selfish ambitions.  At least a half dozen people had good reason to kill her.  But which one was it?

The film was adapted from a Patrick Quentin novel.
I had forgotten about the title while I was watching the film, which was good for me.  The film's title tips us off that Nancy is a highly venomous young woman.  Garner, so fresh and earnest, perfectly deceived me in the role.

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