Review: Black Widow (1987)

Mount Holyoke has always had a presence in American pop culture, most notably in Dirty Dancing and National Lampoon’s Animal House. But Baby better watch out. One alumna may just put her in a corner.

Allow Catherine to introduce herself:

“I’ll tell you two things about me: I’m very rich. And I’m very wealthy.”

The question is: how did Catherine come to be, in her words, very rich and very wealthy?

It’s quite simple actually; she murdered her husbands.

That’s right, all three of them.

Black Widow, released in 1987, is the story of two women trapped in a web of sex, power, and seduction. Catherine (Theresa Russell), the beautiful serial killer, alters her appearance and personality in order to give lonely, wealthy men what they desire most. Once her husband changes his will and leaves his money to her, she murders him.

Her crimes, however, do not go unnoticed.

Federal investigator Alex Barnes (Debra Winger) notices a trend of wealthy men dying from Ondine’s curse, a fatal respiratory illness. Convinced that they have been murdered by the same woman, Alex becomes obsessed with finding their killer. In one cinematically stunning scene, Alex, while watching footage of Catherine, begins to mimic Catherine’s hand gestures and poses.

Alex’s obsession leads her to Hawaii. The two women meet and exchange witty and highly sexualized banter. Alex even uses Catherine’s influence to gain self-confidence and become some sort of seductress herself. As Alex falls deeper into Catherine’s provocative trap, she must find some way to escape, leading to the film’s dramatic conclusion.

Black Widow is an example of neo-noir, a film style that emerged in the 1960’s, post the Classical Hollywood period. Neo-noir, which literally means “new black”, takes the style elements of the film noir films from the 1940s and 1950s, and gives them a modern twist.

Black Widow reverses the gender roles expected of classic film noir. Typically, the beautiful, Rita Hayworth-esque woman is chased by a male detective (picture Humphrey Bogart) who cannot escape her tantalizing presence. In Black Widow, however, Catherine is pursued by Alex, a tough female federal investigator and their encounters break multiple film noir norms.

Unfortunately, while Black Widow is a fascinating, character-driven story with sharp dialogue and unexpected twists, it lacks a continuous style to make it a truly noteworthy film. At times, it is a rather humorous depiction of modern gender roles.

Yet despite this, there is one element that might make Black Widow a worthwhile watch. Catherine is an undeniably complex female character. Little is known about her past or her reasons for murdering wealthy men.

Or as her third husband says to her: “You seem almost too good to be true. I thought of checking up on you …. I found that you went to Mount Holyoke, you studied Anthropology, and we’re a lot alike.”

So the next time someone only recognizes Mount Holyoke from Dirty Dancing, recommend that they see Black Widow, a film about one woman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
Reprinted with permission
October 11, 2007

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