Black Widow (1987)
Directed by Bob Rafelson
Written by Ronald Bass
Produced by Harold Schneider, Laurence Mark
Starring Debra Winger, Theresa Russell, Sami Frey, Nicol Williamson, Terry O’Quinn, James Hong, Diane Ladd, Lois Smith, Dennis Hopper, D.W. Moffett
Westward athwart these United States, a prominent publisher of New York, Texan toymaker (Hopper) and anthropologist tenured in Washington (Williamson) fall victims sequentially to a lean, industrious mariticide (Russell) who discreetly beguiles, weds and poisons her marks, the deaths of whom are misjudged to eventuate from Ondine’s curse before she raids their copious coffers and adopts a new identity. Only an analyst (Winger) of matching adamance and assiduity in the Justice Department’s employ identifies this lethal streak as her personal spoor after the penultimate murder; her prospicience, a plenty of cumulative circumstantial evidence and latitude furnished by her smitten section chief (O’Quinn) moves him to sanction her first field assignment in pursuit of the flighty perennial widow to Hawaii, but neither anticipated a love triangle to conceive with her latest target, a polished, pioneering hotelier (Frey) devising an inland resort on fresh pahoehoe as a proximally optimum outlook of Kilauea. Rafelson’s second thriller after the torrid yet torpid remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice finds the veteran of New Hollywood in better form here as exponent of intrigues: his judicious balance of personal sensitivity and criminal craft optimizes Bass’s knotty yet accessible plot as well as his dream troupe, and sustains tension of shifting grades without the discharge of a single gunshot. At contrast, Winger’s histrionic determination complements Russell’s evidently dispassionate frigidity satisfactorily, but for all the former’s emphatic method realism, she’s frequently upstaged by her icy co-star’s occasional gusts and unspoken expressivity belying a measured monotone. Neither the impetus of Russell’s insinuating murderess nor its underlying pathology are divulged, but her arcanum and sparing, vulnerable percolation by allusion are far more plausible and powerful than any gushing, artless exposure distinctive to so many contemporary femme fatales. In charismatic orbit about the leading ladies’ oppugnant nucleus, aging Frey is enduringly, disarmingly sexy as the object of their mutual affection and opposed intention, unparalleled thespian Williamson underplays nimbly against type as the achingly kindliest of Russell’s betrothed victims, untypically empathetic O’Quinn exudes an almost paternal solicitude, Ladd and Smith render respectively the most and least sympathetic of the deceaseds’ survivors and Hong’s seldom seen sleazier than as a meddlesome private investigator. Moreover, Rafelson’s fine framing’s fortified by the gorgeous photography of Conrad Hall, which reestablished the thitherto decadally inactive DP’s eminence throughout the early aughts: colors pop brilliantly and minute details are discernible in every chic interior and sprawling establishing shot alfresco; none of the players are quite as beauteous as their environments! It’s no masterwork: like Smith’s and Ladd’s appearances, Hopper’s cameo is regrettably brief, and while Michael Small’s lush score is impressively diversified and occasionally effective in concert with John Bloom’s taut cuts, it’s also conventionally overutilized where silence might’ve been a better attendant of Hall’s striking visuals. Only modestly profitable, Rafelson’s return to a feature’s helm posterior to a sexennial hiatus verified his verve for the oversight of a challenging script and crack cast, and evidenced his conjoint, newfound knack for style — a hallmark otherwise accredited to so many of his contemporaries.

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