Saturday 19 August 2017

Movie Review: Black Widow (1987)

A slick psychological thriller, Black Widow entertains with a dangerous battle of wits between two damaged women.

An alluring woman who may be called Catherine (Theresa Russell) specializes in marrying older rich men and then expertly killing them with undetectable poisons, inheriting their vast wealth. After murdering the prosperous Mr. Peterson and then Dallas toy magnate Ben Dumers (Dennis Hopper), she targets Seattle museum curator William McCrory (Nicol Williamson).

Justice Department Agent Alex Barnes (Debra Winger), a workaholic with no private life, spots the pattern of aging wealthy men unexpectedly dying  after brief marriages, and starts to investigate. She tracks down McCrory but is unable to intervene. Catherine senses that she is being stalked and relocates to Hawaii, setting her sights on hotel tycoon Paul Nuytten (Sami Frey). With the help of scrappy private detective Shin (James Hong), Alex tracks down and befriends Catherine and has to try and find a way to stop the killing spree.

Although relatively lesser known, Black Widow is a welcome entry in the series of glossy and somewhat cerebral crime stories that hit the screen for about a decade starting in the early 1980s. Neo-noir in theme if not always in aesthetics, films like Body Heat, Fatal AttractionBasic Instinct and Jagged Edge played up eroticism as a key ingredient within the evil intent broth. In Black Widow sex and seduction play as much of a role as well-planned murders, and Catherine is a classic femme fatale. Her ability to ensnare a succession of powerful yet emotionally vulnerable men with purring sexuality is central to the premise.

Director Bob Rafelson had previously contributed to the revival of the eroticism-and-murder mix with his version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and here he delivers a polished drama oozing with sensuality. As written by Ronald Bass, Black Widow skips past the violence, which happens exclusively off-screen, and instead focuses on the simmering emotions of two women circling each other in a lethal game of chess.

Catherine is beyond twisted, and Theresa Russell is excellent in providing a murderess with just the necessary hints of humanity. What may have started for her as a get-rich-quick scheme has evolved into an insatiable lust to conquer and kill. She needs to satisfy an incomprehensible urge for repeated demonstrations of domination, and Catherine herself has a limited understanding of what is driving her.

Alex's issues are relatively more mundane, and Debra Winger grounds the film with a steady performance combining determination with self-doubt. Alex is a magnet for men at the office, but swats them away with careless disdain, choosing instead to pursue Catherine and get under her skin.

Once the two women meet Rafelson injects the film with high-wattage erotic tension, conveniently starting with CPR training at a scuba diving course and an opportunity for mouth-to-mouth contact. Alex has to predict Catherine's thought process and get close enough to threaten the spider without getting herself stung, and the film deliciously hinges on whether she is maintaining or losing control.

Adding to the fun are some interesting secondary characters, most notably James Hong as a bottom-of-the-barrel private detective Shin. The other men surrounding Alex are all clumsily lustful and deserving of her disdain, while Catherine zeroes in on men too focussed on impressing her with money to notice her intent.

With the plot engaging throughout, Rafelson also creates a compelling aesthetic, contrasting with colour, fashion and set design Alex's shabby government-employee world with Catherine's jet-set life of glitz and glamour. Gradually the two meld together, and as Alex is drawn into Catherine's orbit, the style versus substance war plays out to the final scene. The ending is too abrupt, but then again, so is the sting of the Black Widow.

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