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Black Widow (after the spider) was a film that fit perfectly into the suspense/crime/thriller genre, released in 1987 and starring Theresa Russell (appearances on Law and Order and American Heiress) as the Spider and Debra Winger (An Officer and a Gentleman, Leap of Faith) as the federal agent from the Justice Department who is on her tail. The cast also included other notable actors such as Dennis Hopper and Terry O'Quinn. The original film was 102 minutes long but was edited to 97 minutes for the DVD, which is a no frills affair but with the amount of plot going on in this story, a few re-runs might be needed to understand everything and spot things that were easily missed before. The classification is 15 but for parents it might be more suitable for 16 if not 18, especially since it's usually shown long after the watershed. It's not particularly racy except but it has its moments and the themes are obviously adult.
THE PLOT AND CHARACTERS
Theresa Russell, as character 'Catherine Peterson' (the Spider) is a serial killer, who finds four successive husbands on her travels to marry, kill, inherit from and run. She has a real methodical and role-playing approach where like a stalker, she finds out everything about her intended husband so that she can maximize her chances of a successful kill. Yet this is sharply contrasted in her killing method, which is poisoning, poisoning is a clever and difficult tool but to use it every time goes against the character's intelligence, even if she does want to be a trade mark killer. That's one of the darkly fascinating aspects of her character though, the viewer and it seems the writer never really knows what she's thinking, feeling and why she's doing what she does, she's is a very complex character that seems to want to play a game with a competent chaser and seems tired of what she's doing but needs to carry on, but not out of monetary need.
Her first husband, successful in the publishing world, is swiftly gone over in the plot as perhaps in introduction to the nature of storyline and to set up the rest of the film. Her second husband Ben Dumers (Dennis Hopper) is in the toy making industry, and it is after his death that she catches the attention of the law as a possible serial killer. It is then with the third potential husband that her extensive research methods are really focused on, he is a museum curator called Nichol Williamson (actor William Macauley). Everything about him is stereotypically rustic and 'dusty', so even the cinematography matches that by using warm yet musty and brown environments like the non-public parts of the museum and their future home, a log cabin in the woods. For a while the viewer may wonder if she really wants to kill him because she seems content if not happy, but when the opportunity arises, she knows what she 'has' to do... Following his demise she goes off to the more tropical environment of Hawaii and it is there where Agent Alex Barnes (Debra Winger) catches up with her. Alex seems to be the complete opposite of Catherine; not as confident, self-conscious and perhaps inexperienced in love. When these two meet the real chess game (battle) begins and revolves around potential husband no: 4, playboy and hotel tycoon Paul Nytten (actor Sam Frey).
I have to put spoilers in this because so much was packed into this film and I had so many thoughts about it that I want to share!
Both Catherine and Alex are not what they seem, they both play the hunter and the hunted and they seem to be both rivals and 'friends'. For example, Alex fought with her superiors to get permission to follow the suspected Black Widow and pose undercover, previously she had been an observer but then she becomes Catherine's friend and perhaps only friend. She borrows Catherine's clothes, hair stylist and even falls for intended husband no: 4. Catherine tries to push her away to ultimately prevent hurting her but it seems like Alex wants to be her, maybe not in the criminal aspect but at least as attractive. She even tries to seduce Paul (almost no: 4) and Catherine 'teaches her a lesson' both for having designs on what's hers but also for life experience (not something I agree with) and tells Paul to sleep with Alex so he knows that Catherine is using him to get to Alex, and plays along because he is a game player too, but doesn't suspect that Catherine is also intending to kill him. It is when both Paul and Catherine are using Alex that she appears most vulnerable especially as she appears to have non-predatory feelings for him. But then she is using Paul to get to Catherine and in a roundabout way to keep Paul from Catherine. It was like Paul was used by the storyteller to show a shared quality between the two main characters (possessiveness) and as Paul aptly says "everybody uses each other". Afterwards, she tries to warn him about Catherine but he rejects her and thinks that her words are out of spite and rejection; he knows that Catherine has no financial need to kill him.
Up to that point in the film, the writing was excellent but then it all goes downhill. After Paul dumps Alex and Catherine successfully becomes engaged to him, suddenly the plot loses any clarity it had and the viewer literally watches the film finish in a surprising ending that was so sudden and hidden that it looks illogical. It was like twisting it for the sake of having a twist when a consistent ending to the thorough plot would have been much more satisfying and believable.
Catherine was always ahead of the game until she met Alex, and even then seemed one (or two) steps ahead. When she met Alex I don't think she met her equal because she could have dealt with her as part of the plan and was doing so to an extent. If she hypothetically killed Alex it would have been believable because people believed Alex was obsessed with her. But whether Catherine was made to look as if she was thrown off kilter, beaten or confused, unable to stop or whether it was arrogance that kept her going ahead with trying to kill Paul even though she knew it was more risky - I think it was an easy way to set the audience up for one of the most lacking endings ever. So on the other hand, maybe she did meet her equal or better but the audience simply don't know because the end doesn't tell anything, it just ends with Catherine getting arrested and Alex walking out.
It was almost as if the writer couldn't think of a way to outsmart his own character Catherine and so just had her defeated by an unexplainable surprise and told the audience to accept it.
THE SUB PLOT - A Psychological Drama
Before watching this film I had read reviews and saw that many people simply labeled the film as 'homoeroticism' and 'they were lesbians' but thankfully many others also saw the great plot and the fact that the two main characters had a complex but short relationship. Eroticism played its part and in a way that is more common between female characters on screen i.e. for titillation, but it was also between more than one sex and it was the channel in which all the psychological warfare took place. The orientation of the film highlighted bi-sexuality but used it for a power complex.
In my opinion Alex is similar to Catherine in the way she is obsessive about her 'prey', and could perhaps pose as impressionable/naïve to get into her suspects mind to second guess them, but as with much in this film there is so much sub-text going on that we never know. Both characters seem to be battling each other and themselves.
THE RELATIONSHIP - between the two main characters
Perhaps Catherine was lonely at the top. In stories you sometimes see long term rivals e.g. a cop and criminal who've been playing chase with each other for so long that they learn to respect each other and to an extent dedicate a lot of time and effort to each other. I think Catherine and Alex definitely had their own bond because in that commitment to each other and competition they actually and ironically got a kind of devotion that they hadn't got from romantic relationships. Alex had an idol... of sorts and Catherine had a fan... of sorts (e.g. someone who was interested in her for her).
The writers emphasize the competitiveness between the two though Catherine seems to like Alex and even feels sorry for her (but then that's only after she hurts her) and at one point even seems to invite her into her world to join her, but both characters know that they have to stick to the path they chose and win because otherwise losing would cost too dearly. Being as on the edge as the two characters were, each one couldn't afford too much sympathy or moments of liking the other one and so the mood changed a lot and they were frustrated with the 'game' between them. They never knew when the other was lying and hence even though acting, they both got their feelings hurt and there were times when Catherine gave the impression that she might stop but then switched back to Black Widow mode.
The suspense and guessing which the viewer undertakes is so well calculated (except the ending) that it reminds me of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) in the way it captures the complex relationship which is a dangerous battle of wits between the participants that consumes the players. They are both great suspense thrillers that rely on strong acting and thinking.
Black Widow and TCA (Thomas Crown Affair) are like counters of each other - in one the 'bad guy' was caught and both sides went their separate ways, in TCA the bad side got away and the good side ran off with - which was the possible alternate ending that I think Black Widow taunted the viewer with. Although, they both retain their mystery in that you never know why the villain does what they do and I guess the question is - would you really want to?
This film is definitely one for those who love tension, layered plots and retro thrillers, it makes a killer addition to any DVD collection!
Note - this is a review I posted under my old Ciao account: ladyofsorrow. I have re-organized and updated it. Thank you for reading, I hope you found the review almost as interesting as I found watching the film.