Black Widow

You got your repressed lesbianism in my peanut butter!
★★★
☆
Released: 
1987
Director: 
Bob Rafelson
Starring: 
Debra Winger, Theresa Russell, Sami Frey, Dennis Hopper, Nicol Williamson
The Setup: 
Federal agent becomes obsessed with woman who marries rich husbands, then kills them.
Discussion: 

I had seen this movie several times when I was younger, and always kind of liked it—this is the kind of thing that vaguely passes for “quality” when you don’t really know that much—so when I reader wrote and suggested it might be my kind of thing, I was eager to revisit it. We open with Theresa Russell arriving by helicopter in Manhattan, her husband having died. She arrives in his apartment, where she pours out a bottle of cognac. You will notice that this guy has one of those big globes with electrical tendrils on the inside, the kind brought into every home first by Sharper Image and later by every closeout store in existence, and it makes you wonder: were these once exclusively the province of the very rich? In 1987? Anyway, Theresa [she has so many different names here we’re just going to call her Theresa] gets in bed and cries! Clutch onto these tiny revealing tidbits of her character, because it’s all you’re going to get.

We now meet Debra Winger as Alex, a federal detective who drives a junker and is “one of the boys” and, we are told, never has a date and is completely married to her job and a very wound-up individual. This is in spite of the fact that, if this movie is to be believed, men find her sexually irresistible, as we shall see. She is intrigued by this case where a guy died, seemingly of natural causes, suspecting foul play even though there is no reason to think so. "Yes but," her strikingly handsome assistant says, "wouldn’t you like to have dinner sometime?" We later see that Alex has bought a gun for her personal use, and her boss—whose windows are covered with a bizarre green paint for some inexplicable reason—tells her that she’s GOT to have a DATE! She is way highly strung and only the relaxing ebb and flow of a plump man sausage could possibly get her to lighten up.

This view of Alex’s character caused me to reflect that back then, before the widespread cultural/economic move to commercialism in everything, you could have an admirable character who didn’t give a shit about fashion or home furnishings or personal gadgets or remaining up-to-date in any way, but was devoted to her job or had something else going on in her life that took up time for these concerns. In the 90s and beyond, product placement became ever more essential to funding films, and moved into areas beyond what soda the main character drinks into their entire lifestyle. Now even “nerds” in movies dress in higher-end brand clothes and have up-to-date hairstyles, and the latest gadgets. Even the “poor” sorority house in The House Bunny has a flat-panel television. You wouldn’t have a character like Alex here any more, because she doesn’t embrace consumerism that, while not hawking any specific products, still projects an overall interest in the kind of lifestyle that is filled with high-end products.

Meanwhile, Theresa’s at it again, this time with Dennis Hopper, who is hilariously snide and demeaning to others in his short role here. He is supposedly from Texas, and yet somehow he hears nothing strange about Theresa’s EGREGIOUSLY AWFUL southern accent. No matter, he’s soon a rigid corpse. One of the problems this movie faces is that it makes it seem like all of Theresa’s conquests last approximately five days, then, new week—new husband! I think we’re supposed to understand that months are passing, but it doesn’t seem like it.

So this case raises Alex’s suspicions, and she orders a bunch of slides of all the wives of these guys who died. She then sets up two slide machines that are timed to project one after another—like in the Natural History Museum or something—so she can view two slides at once and so the whole sequence can be pretty for our cameras. We are not meant to speculate on why this character, who has been established as not a conspicuous consumer, would have such an elaborate slide setup at home. We see Alex compare her own physical size to Theresa’s in the photos, then pulling her hair up in the mirror, as though wondering if SHE could somehow become Theresa. Is a dangerous obsession brewing?

Soon Alex is threatening to quit her job of six years to go pursue this woman, despite the fact that there is no real evidence of wrongdoing and no real case. This is when her boss tells her she is obviously “unhappy” and needs to have a date. Okay, so are we supposed to explicitly understand that she is lesbian? And if she is, that she’s not out, perhaps even to herself? She shows no interest in men, despite them throwing themselves at her, hasn’t been on a date in at least six years, is “unhappy,” and is obsessed with this woman in part because she makes herself SO attractive to men, and in fact uses them for what they got [money] and kills them. We soon see Alex [note the androgynous name] as the only woman playing poker with “the guys,” one of whom is David Mamet, by the way. He and director Rafelson had just got done desecrating The Postman Always Rings Twice. You’ll note that while all the other guys are smoking, Alex is eating FRUIT. Yeah, I’ll just kick back with the guys, pound down some whisky and have an apple or two. Let’s get crazy, fellas! Her boss then comes on to her—the age-old “you look tense—how about a backrub?” routine—because Alex is just so irresistibly attractive, you see. Anyway, she gets permission to leave the office and pursue this crazy idea she has, although for some reason she has to sell everything in her apartment to finance it. I think I missed something on this point.

Meanwhile, Theresa has studied up on rare coins and other topics [at the local bookstore, not library—odd] so she can target Nicol Williamson at the Seattle Museum of Natural History or something. There’s a precious scene where she has a VCR that is the size of a small Volkswagen delivered to her room so she can watch a videotape, which were apparently cutting-edge technology at the time. She targets him and he’s dead before you know it. Another sad statistic in the storied annals of toothpaste-related homicide. But first Alex gets to talk to him [disguised as a reporter] and has a scene where she wishes she could warm him without blowing her cover, which causes her trauma later when he’s stone cold in the boneyard.

SPOILERS > > >
So Alex takes off for Hawaii, where Theresa is lining up her next victim, and burns her luggage tags once she gets there. She arranges to meet Theresa in this scuba class, where their assignment, continuing the generally lesbian vibe, is to share a breathing mouthpiece, and a few seconds later, to practice mouth-to-mouth on each other. They hang out and have drinks together, and Theresa invites Alex to come with her to a party that night. Alex borrows Theresa's clothes, her hairdresser… and her man. But let's backtrack a bit first.

Theresa's new victim is this Euro-babe Paul, who takes Theresa out to see this erupting volcano [cool] and says he plans to build a hotel right on the edge of the burned area next to the volcano. Maybe this is why Theresa is targeting him: he's an idiot. Dude, do you THINK people want to relax in a charred-out wasteland filled with sulphurous gases? Do you think that volcano is going to be erupting like that forever? What if it erupts larger? And finally—do you hear that massive roaring in the air? Don't you think people at a hotel want to SLEEP? Fucking dumb Euro-babe.

Anyway, so Theresa has done a little calling around and determined that Alex is snooping around about her and is not to be trusted. This causes her to retire to the couch, cry, and punch herself in the stomach. This constitutes her deep psychology, incident 2 of 2. She and Alex go scuba diving [and WHY are they touching the coral?] until, oops, Alex is out of air. I thought it would be awesome if she rose too fast and her head exploded when she reached the surface, but that's why I'm not in Hollywood. Theresa has to "save" her, and they have a nice little moment back on shore when Alex is furious and Theresa is all like "Oh dear," but neither of them can really come out and say anything. That night, for some reason, Theresa pushes Paul on Alex, and for some reason—despite the fact I don't think Theresa and Paul were having any issues—Paul and Alex go for it, and have an evening of passion. Also—why is Alex falling for this? I suppose we're supposed to think it's because of her "obsession," but it just doesn't really work. Anyway, Theresa gets what she wanted—pictures of Alex and Paul together—and promptly makes up with Paul the next morning and, as far as I can tell, marries him that night. These people move fast, I'm tellin' ya.

Here's where I tell you the ending, if you want to know. Alex warns Paul, but he won't believe her! Theresa takes off on a trip—framing Alex for Paul's death! Alex is thrown in the clink! Theresa comes to visit her! She's on her way out when—it was all a TRAP! Paul's still alive! Relatives from the past have been located! Alex is freed, and in the [rather flat] final shot, emerges from the jail and WALKS DOWN THE PATH! The end.
< < < SPOILERS END

It wasn't that great. It had the potential to be a lot better than it was. The main problem is that the psychology remains really murky, and the writer and director are afraid to really go balls-out with the lesbian stuff. IS Alex a closeted lesbian? Kind of sounds like it, and like she secretly wants to BECOME Theresa, which is an interesting angle, but it just doesn't really go anywhere. We never find out a single thing about Alex's past that might set her up for such a thing, and throughout she just flat-out doesn't seem obsessed enough. She seems pretty normal. She's interested in catching Theresa, but the script wants to hinge on this semi-lesbian obsession, but just doesn't really have the guts to complete it. This makes things like the late film lapse of judgment alluded to in the spoilers seem just odd and like a contrivance. Theresa's character—who we REALLY should find out more about—remains a total mystery. WHY does she do this? WHY isn't it ever enough? WHAT does she really think about herself? The movie includes numerous references addressing the question of whether she really "Loved" these guys—which seem to me about the least interesting question you could ask about this situation—but ignores who she is and what she thinks. The screenplay is written by Ron Bass, purveyor of such "respectable" garbage as Rain Man, Dangerous Minds, What Dreams May Come and Entrapment.

It doesn't help that, in my opinion, this movie constitutes a match up of the world's worst actress vs. the world's most grating actress. Theresa Russell, during the 80s, was neck-and-neck with Sean Young for the rare honor of Worst Actress of All Time. Here she is at least playing a sociopath with no true identity, so her inability to deliver a line kind of comes off as a performance. Against her is Debra Winger, who I pretty much never want to see, and don't really think is all that great an actress either. I will admit that she was more charming here than I have seen her be in the past [the akin-to-torture Shadowlands, for example], and she is quite beautiful, but still, something about her screams "ME! I need attention! Me! I deserve it, too! Me! Give ME attention!"

But there is some cinematography to look at—notice the large panels of green and red behind and on the characters—and overall it's kind of fun, though not really as much fun as it could have been, and the ending, while admirably low-key, is also a tiny bit of an underwhelmer. This would be fine for an afternoon if was on cable, but I'm not sure I would really go far out of my way to see it.

Should you watch it: 

If you like, could be worse, definitely could be better.

Comments

I have to agree on pretty much everything. Waaayyy back when, also as a much younger, much less picky person I kinda thought it was a pretty good flick. Although then as now I have always hated and cringed at the constant strange sighs and weirdness of Russell's deliveries. Ughh. Bad enough in one movie, but apparently it's the only way she ever delivers a line. Not good, not good at all.