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‘Black Widow’

By Paul Attanasio
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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In Bob Rafelson's fun film noir "Black Widow," Theresa Russell plays Catherine, a woman who obeys the biology of the eponymous spider, with a wrinkle -- first she mates, then she kills, then she inherits.

Alex Barnes (Debra Winger), a Justice Department investigator, sniffs out her trail. Or does she? Maybe Alex, who is sexually repressed and a bit dowdy, is envious of Catherine's high-flying ways. Maybe she's so obsessed with Catherine that she's lost track of the truth. And if you believe that, you'd probably marry the black widow yourself.

There's supposed to be some sort of deep understanding between these women, in the midst of their antagonism, but Rafelson never quite makes you feel it. There's less mystery than there ought to be -- screen writer Ron Bass reveals too much too soon. And while it's bad enough that the movie's story is so similar to "Body Heat," it's worse that Russell looks startlingly like Kathleen Turner and that Michael Small has mimicked John Barry's smoky score.

Why Winger has seized once again on the role of an uptight career woman is anyone's guess -- maybe she's trying to prove her "range" -- but the part doesn't do much for her. Although she does seem, at least, a bit more relaxed and happy than she was in "Legal Eagles." Russell's part calls for her to assume different identities -- she's all things to all men -- and she lacks the virtuosity to rise to the occasion. Still, she brings to the role a kind of naked, primal sexuality that's almost frightening.

For all its faults, "Black Widow" is Rafelson's comeback after a six-year hiatus, and it's good to see the director of "Five Easy Pieces" in the saddle again. For the joys of "Black Widow" are the joys of a film well made -- the cinematography of Conrad Hall, the production design of Gene Callahan, and a fabulous cast that includes Sami Frey, Dennis Hopper, Nicol Williamson, Mary Woronov, Diane Ladd and a cameo by playwright David Mamet (as a poker player).

And something more than that. The essence of film noir is mordant humor -- remember, for example, that the greatest of the film noir narrations, in "Sunset Boulevard," was spoken by a dead man. What makes "Black Widow" special is the fun Rafelson has with it. All the different ways of dying -- from empty scuba tanks to a penicillin allergy to something called Ondine's curse -- become not just plot points but a tapestry of black comedy. After so many films in which a body builder who works as a mud wrestler turns out to be a CIA agent trying to suppress rock music in a small town, it's pleasantly shocking to see an active intelligence working in the movies.

"Black Widow" is rated R and contains nudity and profanity.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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