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'Black Widow'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 06, 1987


Bob Rafelson
Debra Winger;
Theresa Russell;
Sami Frey;
Dennis Hopper;
Nicol Williamson;
Terry O'Quinn
Under 17 restricted

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SORRY, BUT ONE of the many dark delights of the detective thriller "Black Widow" is seeing "Blue Velvet" villain Dennis Hopper get his -- wooed, webbed and then poisoned by his loving wife, a seductive serial killer.

Theresa Russell and Debra Winger costar as the wicked widow and the Justice Department drudge who picks up Russell's paper trail while researching a mafioso's murder. The mobster, a New York publisher and then a Texas toy tycoon (Hopper) all die of the same rare disease -- and two of them are survived by their newlywed wives. Or is it wife? Winger's boss pooh-poohs her suspicions, forcing the fledgling agent to pursue the case on her own.

Winger, that homespun heartthrob with a cat's purr and a doe's eyes, makes merry work of this widow's chase. Her character is sexually repressed workaholic Alex, whose obsession with murderess Catherine -- a killer who probably reads Cosmo -- finally releases her pent-up womanliness. Winger gets a 10 on the charismometer and gives the film its warmth and innocence. Russell, a wry sensation as Marilyn Monroe in "Insignificance," plays this femme fatale for keeps.

After careful study, chameleon-like Catherine makes herself into the perfect wife for the billionaire bachelor of the moment. Her fourth fiance', for instance, confides a ridiculous wish to build a hotel under the Kilauea volcano. "God," she gushes, "in the right place, it would be fantastic." Whether it's an airhead he wants -- or an egghead, or a ditzy Dallas belle -- he gets what he deserves.

The relationship between the women, as unpredictable as lava flow, is left deliberately ambiguous. Unnerving and mysterious undercurrents keep us guessing as to the possible outcomes of this glossy game of cat-and-kitten.

Ron Bass wrote the solid and entertaining screenplay that never falters till its end, which suffices -- even surprises -- but fails to live up to Catherine's devious promise. Director Bob Rafelson (creator of the Monkees, director of "Five Easy Pieces" and the man who launched Arnold Schwarzenegger the actor) creates a coherent, soundly paced and smart production.

Rafelson draws memorable cameos from a quirky supporting cast that includes B-movie queen Mary Woronov as a dictatorial scuba diver, Diane Ladd as the sister of the Texas toymaker and Nicol Williamson as the Seattle philanthropist who dies happy (if a little prematurely) as Catherine's third hubby. James Hong is especially hardboiled as an island P.I. named Shin. "You been looking for someone for four weeks?" he sneers at Alex. "Once I looked for somebody for 18 years."

Despite the department's skepticism and the lack of cooperation from local dicks, Alex prevails in this liberating vehicle for gal gumshoes -- a leap from those doddering old dears from England to a female with the quiet intensity of a Real Detective. BLACK WIDOW (R) -- At area theaters.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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