Debra Winger and Theresa Russell in 1987's "Black Widow."

Black Widow September 12, 2016 

Incredible what images are elicited by a title as intriguing as Black Widow. Slinking into our imaginations comes a deadly woman with a gun in hand and a jungle red vial of lipstick in the other. She's dressed in a dark satin gown as shadows caress her face, as insanity swelters in her sphynxy eyes. Maybe she closely resembles Joan Crawford or Sharon Stone; maybe she’s proud to live up to her title as a woman who mates only to kill to get ahead.

In 1987’s Black Widow, a numbingly bland neo-noir, our femme fatale in chief is Theresa Russell, who has a blank stare to rival Gene Tierney’s in Leave Her to Heaven but delivers her lines in such flat monotone we’d swear she were Esther Williams in a movie without water.  Her black widow doesn’t have a name: she’s married and murdered so many times that it’s impossible to know who she was before she decided that imitating Phyllis Dietrichson was her life’s mission.


We first meet her moments after she’s discovered that her latest husband has died.  For now, she’s known as Catherine Petersen.  She wears a wig that suggests she secretly idolizes Carol Channing, and she sheds crocodile tears for her temporary loved ones in order to keep up her masquerade.  We’re not so sure how many times this woman has killed prior to her short career as Mrs. Petersen, but perhaps it doesn’t matter - once she collects her late husband’s cash and takes off her latest guise, she’ll be moving on to her latest piece of meat.


She’s evaded capture by following two simple rules.  For murdering, use a poison that prompts Ondine’s curse, a condition that mysteriously causes its victim to die in their sleep.  For covering one’s tracks, change your identity and your place of living before questions can be asked.


The routine has worked for what we’ll assume has been several years, but after accidentally stumbling upon the oddity of the Petersen murder while probing an unrelated case, Justice Department agent Alex Barnes (Debra Winger) eventually begins to notice that men who have met similar ends were linked to a woman who looks an awful lot like Theresa Russell.  And because time is short and Black Widow is slightly longer than ninety minutes, it turns out that Alex is a savant of jumping to accurate conclusions - before the glamorous serial killer in question can put her next wig on, she’s discovered the name of the latter’s game and becomes obsessed with bringing her to justice.


“Obsessed,” probably, due to welled-up memories of a bad childhood, a tendency to live vicariously through someone with a life more dangerous than hers, or a need to satisfy the requirements of a comprehensively banal script.  Because screenwriter Ronald Bass believes only in superficial motivations and confusing points of transition, I’ll go with the last conclusion, even though I’d like to watch a movie without a defeatist attitude.  


After enough investigating to fulfill the standard length of half a movie, Alex decides that the best way to catch Catherine/Margaret/Marielle is through hands-on action.  She catches wind that her person of interest is currently in Hawaii, courting hotel magnate Paul (Sami Frey), and so she flies to the area, planning to befriend the venomous schemer and somehow obstruct her motivations.  And it works - but Alex hardly has the poise of the snaky Catherine/Margaret/Marielle/Renee, and when she begins falling for Paul herself, professional ambition gives way for personal lust.


And yet not a single one of Black Widow’s machinations rises any sort of reaction from its audience.  It wants to fit in with the films of cool kids Hitchcock and De Palma but is incapable of generating suspense, sensuality, or engagement.  There are moments of inspired imagery - flossy flashes of neon and noiry shadows provide provisionary swank - but that’s all Black Widow is capable of doing: elevating few and far between instances of bewitchment that cannot hide its being more Lifetime than Verhoeven.  


I’m sure Winger and Russell know this movie is overcome by the putrid scent of bull shit, but kudos to them for staying committed and raking in performances that deserve a better film as their host.  Because, for what it’s worth, Black Widow is a piece of missed opportunity.  It doesn’t trust the mental capacity of its consumers and doesn’t want to run the risk of taking a daring move.  It’s an erotic thriller without the eroticism and without the thrills, and we’re left with a blueprint that whispers but never screams.  C-