1 Hr., 17 Mins.
Wicked Woman / Black Widow April 23, 2019
Peggy Ann Garner
1 Hr., 35 Mins.
In the movie, Van Heflin plays Peter Denver, a celebrated Broadway producer caught up in a murder investigation. Nancy “Nanny” Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner), an aspiring 20-year-old playwright Peter recently took under his wing, has been found strangled in his apartment by his wife, Iris (Gene Tierney). Given the oddness of the location, and given Peter’s relationship with the victim, he's marked the prime suspect.
After Black Widow’s release, its writer and director, Nunnally Johnson, claimed that his ambition for the film was for it to be the suspense movie’s equivalent of All About Eve, the razor-sharp Broadway drama from 1950. Aside from the starry cast, which also includes Ginger Rogers as a mean-spirited theater actress and George Raft as a jaundiced investigator, I see no resemblance. All About Eve was a riveting comedy-drama, and astutely dramatized theatrical pandemonium behind the scenes. Black Widow is deflated and uninvolving, and is written and directed with such unoriginality that the final plot twist might slow down a heartbeat rather than accelerate it.
It can be amusing, especially when Rogers, ever-high-strung, is on the scene. But Black Widow is perfunctory to the point of causing sleepiness. It’s an Agatha Christie story scrawled on a napkin with a red crayon. To add insult to injury, not a single black widow, aside from the animal during the opening credits, makes an appearance.
Wicked Woman: B+
Black Widow: C-
ne could argue that Black Widow, from 1954, is also a femme-fatale-driven film noir. The claim, though, ultimately feels slightly specious. The bloodthirsty debauchee isn’t truly understood to be one until the end of the feature; her motivations, too, manage to evoke (some) sympathy. If anything, the film, which was based on a 1952 novel by Patrick Quentin, is a dull mystery thriller — an example of apathetic procedural-
The subversive use of white, then, becomes symbolic. It obliquely tells us that Billie is a manipulator — a woman who might appear one way to the easily deceived but, in actuality, is someone deadlier. This character trick has been used in other narratively similar movies, though far more subtly: In The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Lana Turner convinces her lover to help her kill her husband, and almost always adorns white in key scenes; in Double Indemnity, from 1944, the main antagonist, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), wears a white-blonde wig, and has a particular predilection for shiny, brightly colored satin.
Wicked Woman, a dreary B movie from 1953, is, aside from its loaded clothing choices, something of a recapitulation of those movies. “Diabolical” woman seduces and then exploits a gullible man; all will end unhappily. The twist, though, is that no one — not even the protagonist — perishes directly or indirectly as a result of the latter’s actions, as it tends to go. It stands, deathless, as 76 minutes’ worth of sordid dealings, illicit romances, and botched attempts to get ahead in life — all of which are eventually strung together, lit up, and then set ablaze, yet never to experience the palliative finality of explosion.
The film opens as Billie is arriving by bus in a small, anonymous U.S. town, looking to start a new life. The movie doesn’t offer anything by way of character development, really: We're uncertain of where Billie is coming from, what has caused her to hit restart, or what drives her. But what we do know is that she is amoral — as the opening credits unroll, a hammy song is crooned by the barrel-voiced Herb Jeffries, warning us of the impending mayhem — and that she is hardened.
Watching Billie get acquainted with the town in the first couple of scenes, and then seeing her nab a $6-a-week room at the local flophouse, is to get to know a woman who has been so pushed around in her life that niceties, at this point, are only worth upholding if she gets something material in return. This is especially made clear through her relationship with her rodent-like next-door neighbor, Charlie (Percy Helton): Billie banters and flirts with him when she needs something, like dinner or money for clothing, but has a penchant for hostility in any other case.
A day or so after settling, Billie gets a job as a waitress at a ramshackle bar run by a woman named Dora (Evelyn Scott), who's an alcoholic. Lucky, given that it is the only job for which she interviews, and given that she brings no résumé and no references with her. In Billie’s mind, the gig will hold her over until something better comes along. But this changes when she meets Dora’s husband Matt (Richard Egan), a reticent and muscly bartender. Billie is attracted to him, and the feeling, as it seems when they first lock eyes, is mutual. They soon begin an affair; not long after that are they plotting to run off with the bar’s money and head for Mexico to, once again, hit reset.
As much as the title Wicked Woman insinuates that the movie in store might be a classic reiteration of the seduce-and-destroy thriller formula, what comes is not a ribald melodrama but rather a quasi-tragedy. It's an exercise in misery where the characters, in lieu of trying to improve their lives, forever seem aware that whatever fate awaits them is bound to be disappointing.
The movie is anchored by Michaels’ performance, which, though promoted as if it might be in line with other femme-fatale characterizations, is more undergirded by despair. Her beginning a relationship with Matt doesn’t look like unscrupulous seduction — it looks more like an unhappy person finding another unhappy person and hoping that, together, they can cancel out the other person’s pain.
The film goes through the motions of expected criminal activity — though the crime itself is low stakes and fairly pathetic — but Wicked Woman’s predominating melancholia is what makes an impression, not its dime-store thrills. The last stretch, which sees Billie’s chances of corner-cutting bliss marred by bad timing, is suitably abrupt — one of the more convincing filmic representations of karma I’ve seen.
The lack of lethality, too, helps Wicked Woman avoid the misogynistic undertow swimming underneath so many femme-fatale noirs. In most features falling under the category, the all-encompassing villainess has been put on Earth for no other reason besides destroying a man’s life — a fanatical message that suggests that men should be wary of all women because they might be vengeful, or secretly deranged. Femmes fatales almost always meet violent ends — punished because, if you at any point have power over a man in such a way, such a kismet is deserved and unavoidable. In spite of what its title suggests, Wicked Woman is not aggressive pulp but rather an effective tale of failures of people failing to overcome their failings.
I watched the film on YouTube, and the grungy print is, surprisingly, accidentally advantageous rather than detrimental. It reinforces the movie’s precise precarity. Visually, it’s a product that, like the narrative inside, almost always appears to be on the verge of falling apart. But it persists, even if that persistence will likely not offer much by way of a reward down the line.
icked Woman wants us to notice, above most else, a sartorial contradiction. The “wicked” heroine of the title, Billie (Beverly Michaels), always wears pearl white, her outfits topped off by hair so peroxided that it looks like the tip of a flame. A character as “wicked” as her might otherwise be clad in black, like an angel of death.