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Very impressive cast in a better than OK murder mystery. With touches
of All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard, this film moves along at a good
clip with only a few draggy scenes.
Ginger Rogers plays a bitchy stage diva who is married to a mousy man (Reginald Gardiner) and lives in the same apartment building as her producer (Van Heflin) who is also married to an actress (Gene Tierney). While Tierney is away, Heflin attends one of Rogers' big parties and meets a quiet young woman (Peggy Ann Garner) who actually has no real interest in acting or theatre. She is a writer. He invites her out for a real meal and she insinuates herself into his life.
The party scene is pretty funny with Ginger ripping off several "Margo Channing" ripostes at the expense of Bea Benaderet. Heflin is infatuated with the serious young Garner whose only link to the stage is her uncle (Otto Kruger) who is an actor. She also befriends a young brother and sister from Boston (Virginia Leith & Skip Homeier) who are doing the Greenwicj Village beatnik thing.
Well there is an apparent suicide and that brings in a detective (George Raft) who hounds everyone. When the suicide is discovered to be a murder, things get really dicey for all involved.
For the most part the acting is solid. I never liked Heflin but he's OK in this film. Rogers plays the diva well and looks great. Tierney gets a few good scenes. Raft is solid as the detective. Gardiner is especially good, but Peggy Ann Garner, a top child star of the 40s is quite excellent as the moody and strange young writer. Oddly, she didn't make a film after this one for another 12 years. She reminds me here of Barbara Bel Geddes. Bea Benaderet as the party guest, Otto Kruger as the uncle, and Leith and Homeier as the beatniks are all good.
Also in this film are Cathleen Nesbitt oddly cast as a cleaning lady, Mabel Albertson is the bar owner, Hilda Simms plays the sympathetic waitress, and believe it or not, the gangly witness from the movie theater is Aaron Spelling, who would have a major career as a TV producer.
Worth a watch.
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.
Van Heflin gives a striking, forceful performance as a theatrical producer in New York City who befriends a lonely 20-year-old girl at a party; she's a would-be writer hoping for success, he takes a shine to her and offers a helping hand...but then she turns up dead! Curiously mistitled drama really doesn't involve "a predatory female". Peggy Ann Garner is intriguing as the youngster who, in flashbacks, is revealed to be scheming and ambitious, somewhat ruthless, but not a black widow. Gene Tierney has a thankless role as Heflin's wife (she looks grim throughout), but Ginger Rogers is fun as a colorful, gossiping actress. The film has some ridiculous passages, red herrings and side-plots (one involving another young woman who appears to be fabricating a wild story just to frame Heflin is never explored), and a slightly anti-climactic finish. The film looks good and has some funny/catty lines in the beginning, but in the end it all seems a bit silly. **1/2 from ****
Now on DVD, 1954's BLACK WIDOW is a handsome, intriguing and enjoyable whodunit. Filmed in the glory days of CinemaScope and stereo sound, this is what Fox did at its best. Their scope films from THE ROBE on should all be released on DVD. BLACK WIDOW stars Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin and Gene Tierney. Peggy Ann Garner is the "new" girl in town with aspirations to become a writer. As luck would have it her Uncle happens to be an actor in a show produced by the Van Heflin character and then things start to get sticky. A small drawback is the use of so many interiors with fake backgrounds and some static blocking of scenes, something like a stage play. Other than that the picture rocks with twists and turns with some good acting by some old pros. Ginger Rogers (probably not unlike her real self) is wonderful as an aging diva. Van Heflin is properly perplexed in an undemanding role. Gene Tierney still looks good, but doesn't have much to do. Peggy Ann does very well as the center of attention. Virginia Leith, a Fox contract player, is awesome in her few scenes. She should have made more films. A nice bit is turned in by an unbilled Mabel Albertson, and a very nice performance by a Hildy Simms helps the plot along. People writing about this should NOT do any spoiler alerts as I was surprised as to who did Peggy Ann Garner in. A wonderful transfer and two short but interesting specials on Gene and Ginger. A very insightful commentary makes this a disc to have. Now Fox has to release some other titles of the same era such as NO DOWN PAYMENT; WOMEN'S WORLD; IN LOVE AND WAR; and UNTAMED.
Five years earlier, this drawingroom drama would have been filmed in
small screen b&w. But the year is 1954 and film audiences are staying
home with their new-fangled little black boxes. So a big budget studio
like TCF takes what amounts to an "Ellery Queen in Manhattan" plot,
gussies it up in lavish color, stretches the screen to Cinemascope
length, loads up the marquee with big names, and sends the result out
to compete with Lucille Ball and Milton Berle. I don't know how well
the strategy succeeded commercially, but I enjoyed the movie then and
As a whodunit, the mystery's only partially successfulnot enough suspects and too convoluted to follow. At the same time, the pacing sometimes sags in ways that undercut the suspense. Still, the 95 minutes does add up to a gorgeous tapestry, thanks to expert art direction, set decoration, and a well-upholstered cast. And who could hold together a sometimes-confusing storyline better than the always-reliable Van Heflin. Also, I expect urbane writer-director Nunnally Johnson fit comfortably with the sophisticated Manhattan setting and show-biz personalities. So, it's not surprising that he gets off some insider innuendo. Catch the cocktail party shot at gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, known for her bizarre headgear; I expect Johnson was settling an old score there. Then too, having the ingénue (Garner) turn up mysteriously pregnant is rather daring for the straitjacketed Production Code period. Also, watch for the skinny young actor (Oliver) interviewed by Heflin near film's end. That's future TV mogul Aaron Spelling getting a proverbial foot in the door.
Anyway, the film provides an entertaining glimpse of drawingroom drama getting a face-lift during the early years of the television challenge.
Van Heflin is a theatrical producer who's suspected of murder in "Black
Widow," a 1954 20th Century Fox Technicolor film directed by Nunnally
Johnson. The film is set in New York among the sophisticated Broadway
set, and the cast is full of familiar faces: Ginger Rogers, Gene
Tierney, George Raft, Reginald Gardiner, Peggy Ann Garner, Virginia
Leith, Otto Kruger, Mabel Albertson, and even Aaron Spelling.
Garner plays a young writer who, new to New York, keeps making increasingly important friends until she winds up an apparent suicide in the apartment of producer Peter Denver and his beautiful actress wife, Lottie. Soon, however, it's revealed that she was murdered, and Heflin is the prime suspect. During his own investigation as he tries to keep George Raft from putting him in prison, he learns that the sweet young thing may have been young, but she wasn't sweet.
Though a little slow at times, this is a highly entertaining film with its shots of New York and panoramic views from luxury apartments. The acting is wonderful. Ginger Rogers is great as the glamorous, acid-tongued Iris, a well-known actress with a ne'er do well husband, played effectively by Gardiner. Gene Tierney looks lovely but has a supporting role in this as Heflin's wife. The film sports two former child actors: Peggy Ann Garner as the murder victim and Skip Homeier as one of her love interests. Newcomer Virginia Leith is Homeier's sister and Garner's confidante. Garner looks appropriately innocent.
The looping in this film is very obvious for some reason - at least on television, some of the sound was fuzzy and then boom! the dubbing would come in. A very minor point. The mystery is intriguing, the glamor high, the dialogue sharp - an engrossing way to spend one's time.
"Black Widow" is a well-written, though old-style, entertaining mystery. The
story is taken from a novel by Patrick Quentin, a sound
However the essence of the movie lies in the magnificent cinemascope photography, colors and visual effects. Note that most scenes have in the background large windows or terraces wide-open on the spectacular, terrific New York sceneries. Even the furniture of the various apartments is carefully chosen and placed, with beautiful artistic effects. Outstanding is the brief scene inside the dark bar, with the costumers merged into a liquid light: an evident reminiscence of Edward Hopper's paintings.
Alas! All these visual beauties are seriously damaged, if not destroyed, by the TV version, which essentially shows just half of the screen.
The performances by all interpreters are generally good and professional. A major (personal) disappointment is that Gene Tierney does nothing. She's not even in the list of suspects, since she was thousands of miles away from New York during the whole murder affair. She just sits silently on the background, adding her incomparable beauty and natural refinement to the magnificent New York views. It should be added that George Raft seems completely out-of-role... but I'm too fond of this guy to be able to criticize him.
"Black Widow" is a good film; hopefully someone will be able to see it on the wide screen.
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!
This is the 1954 movie, not the latter one with Debra Winger in it.
It's rare to see this film although it's shown on Fox Movie Channel
once in a while. Directed by Nunnally Johnson who also adapted it from
a story by Hugh Wheeler, it tells the tale of a young girl, excellently
played by the famous child star, Peggy Ann Garner, all grown up, who
attempts to make it big in NYC. Along the way we meet many characters
who she uses to get where she wants to go. Among them are Ginger
Rogers, in an overacted yet delightful performance as a famous actress
who demands to be the center of attention; Van Heflin as an underplayed
playwright, becoming one of the victims; Gene Tierney, wasted in a
thankless role as the supporting wife to Van, going around looking
pretty but nothing much else given to her to do; Reginald Gardner, a
distinguished veteran in films, playing hen pecked hubby to Ginger;
George Raft, in his usual dead pan performance as the detective
investigating the case (he must have taken classes under Buster
Keaton's tutelage); another veteran character actor, Otto Kruger makes
an impressive appearance as does Cathleen Nesbitt, the distinguished
English actress I've had the pleasure to have worked with, in a
surprisingly small and thankless role as an American housekeeper;
Virginia Leith, young 20th Fox starlet as Garner's roommate and another
child actor grown up, Skip Homeier (remember him in TOMORROW THE
WORLD?) as Garner's boy friend.
Put all the stars together and you have a strong cast of players. Add Technicolor and cinemascope and you have good entertainment of it's time.
This film, viewed in its pan and scan version, is a classic example of how
not showing widescreen, or in this case cinemascope, movies in the
format completely distorts and seriously damages the film. There are
several scenes in which characters enter a room and speak but we don't see
them, or even worse when we see one character talking endlessly to thin
Scenes in which four characters are supposed to be seen simultaneously
in which their reactions are as important as their dialogue are reduced to
one or two visible characters. Please screen these movies as the
Having said that this is hardly a great movie. It is a dully made and predictable whodunnit with a fabulous performance by Ginger Rogers as a bitchy Broadway star. That is she is fabulous until the last couple of scenes when she seems to forget her characterisation altogether and opts for cheap melodramatics. Sadly Raft is quite terrible and Tierney has nothing to do. But Heflin is good and Peggy Ann Garner is effective in one of her few adult roles. Pleasant enough time-filler.
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