Black Widow (Bob Rafelson, 1987)

by Douglas Buck April 21, 2018 4 minutes (828 words) 35mm Quad Cinema, part of the Crimes of Passion: Erotic Thriller series

A sexually repressed female Federal Agent Alex (Debra Winger) becomes obsessed with nabbing an evil murderous seductress of ever-changing identities (Theresa Russell) who has made a healthy habit of acquiring massive wealth off a string of filthy rich husbands who keep unexpectedly croaking in their sleep soon after they marry her. Following the ‘black widow’ – now calling herself Catherine — to Hawaii, Alex goes undercover and befriends her, beginning a seductive game of cat and mouse, which ends up involving the sexual sharing of Catherine’s new target, the suave rich Frenchman Paul (Sami Frey).

While some of the erotic thriller entries in this program have gotten pretty silly (take the sheer absurdity of the Basic Instinct quickie knock-off Madonna vehicle Body of Evidence for instance), they’ve all provided some seriously indulgent, colorful fun (with the Verhoeven effort The Fourth Man at the top of the quality list in terms of deliberate provocation and De Palma’s Femme Fatale for pure visual splendor at the small price of any narrative sense) and that includes Black Widow. As comes with the fundamental packaging of many a neo-noir (especially the ones in this program), Black Widow is a smorgasbord of themes related to shifting (and unknowable) identities and sexual ambiguity (I mean, why exactly is the Winger character so obsessed with tracking this hottie patootie in the first place? And, man, she certainly keyed into the underlying motivation of a seductress killing male lovers way before any of her male colleagues did, didn’t she? Is there perhaps… some wish fulfillment going on here, perhaps? Hmmm?) centered around, of course, desire for our manipulative femme fatale.

While director Rafelson uses the tropes of changing wigs and tries hard to capture the sensual thrill of voyeurism, he doesn’t have the chops to deliver anywhere near the wild cinematic flourishes and indulgences that, say, De Palma conjures up (though, to be fair, not many can, or are willing, to go that far – for better or worse) and the film isn’t anywhere near as daring as the Verhoeven film (or particularly subversive at all), there are pleasures, voyeuristic and otherwise, to be had in watching the girls’ games play out against a colorful backdrop of greens and red in the production and costume design (even if there are a ton of plot and character motivations that just don’t add up).

Debra Winger retains her down-home affable charms and, while I’ve never thought of Russell much as an actor (other than having an interesting way of delivering her lines, there never seems much going on back there – except in the surprising anomaly of her gritty cop performance in Impulse, where she kicked some serious ass), she certainly has other offerings on display (though the film is a bit coy on the nudity factor; somewhat of a disappointment, I dare say, after all the bare skin in the other films in this program). And while I know actor Frey has some cache in French cinema (having worked with filmmaking legends such as Jean-Luc Godard and William Klein), but, man, is he a plank in this film, delivering absurdly empty platitudes to each woman he seduces (of course, he has no idea what he’s up against with Catherine).

Rafelson’s years in Hollywood have allowed him to gobble together quite a colorful cast (another of the pleasures of many a neo-noir) and he doesn’t disappoint. The ever-underrated Terry O’Quinn as Alex’s boss (and another one of the men who clearly would love to shack up with Alex who she gently rebuffs on her mission to find that hot chick) is under-utilized but at least offered an ironically amusing meta-moment — initially skeptical about Alex’s claims of a female killer, he states certainly that “seduction and murder are not something you see a woman normally do” (considering that he’d be brilliantly playing a male identity-shifting female-seducer and killer-extraordinaire himself in that same year’s The Stepfather, he clearly knows from what he speaks!).

Dennis Hopper (playing a rich toy manufacturer of all things) and Nicole Williamson are two of Catherine’s husbands allowing themselves some surprisingly small roles… and then there’s iconoclastic little cameos here and there, such as cult legend Mary Woronov playing a scuba instructor leading a group of newbies (where Alex first introduces herself to Catherine) in a scene with a brief yet harmless campy approach more appropriate for her fellow cult figure and friend, late filmmaker Paul Bartel than Rafelson, and Diane Ladd as an in-law of one of Catherine’s victims and one of the few (other than Alex) who is pretty quick to figure out the score.

All in all, while a lesser entry in the program – unable to reach the dark wrong-headed depths of Body of Evidence or the sheer absurdist heights of Femme Fatale (visually) or The Fourth Man (trangressively) – Black Widow still remains worth a look.

Black Widow (Bob Rafelson, 1987)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   bob rafelson   erotic thriller   theresa russell