(director: Bob Rafelson; screenwriter: Ronald Bass; cinematographer: Conrad Hall; editor: John Bloom; music: Michael Small; cast: (Debra Winger (Alexandra Barnes), Theresa Russell (Catherine), Sami Frey (Paul Nuytten), Dennis Hopper (Ben Dumers), Nicol Williamson (William Macauley), Diane Ladd (Etta), Terry O’Quinn (Bruce), James Hong (Shin), David Mamet (Herb), Lois Smith (Sara), Danny Kamekona (Detective); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Laurence Mark/Harold Schneider; 20th Century Fox; 1987)

“The performances by Theresa Russell and Debra Winger were superb.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Bob Rafelson (“Five Easy Pieces”/”The Postman Always Rings Twice”) slickly directs this psychological thriller and Ronald Bass provides the clever screenplay, while Conrad Hall’s atmospheric photography gives the film a chic look. It pays homage to the film noir femme fatales of the 1940s, but Rafelson seems to want to do more than that. Unfortunately, the plot line gets caught in being too cutesy and fails to bring more to the table than a cooing over how cleverly a psychopathic homicidal serial killer operates in such a cold-blooded way that she gets away with murdering a string of older wealthy husbands while claiming to love all of them.

The opening shot has the beautiful Catherine (Theresa Russell) returning by car from the funeral of her wealthy older publisher husband, who died in his sleep in his New York apartment while she was out of town. Catherine inherits all his assets and splits for Europe, all but cutting off communication with her late husband’s relatives and friends. Meanwhile Alex (Debra Winger), a lonely workaholic Justice Department agent stationed in Washington, D.C. with no time to date but time to play poker with her colleagues, smells something fishy about the death of a perfectly healthy middle-aged man but has no proof. There are a few other similar deaths that also catch her interest, but they are attributed by the other agents to something known as Ondine’s curse -where healthy older men suddenly die of heart failure. What really catches Alex’s attention is the coincidence that all the men were very wealthy and married to much younger women. When Ben (Dennis Hopper), a Texas toy tycoon who fits the M.O., also dies suspiciously and his younger wife inherits his assets and splits, Alex tries to convince her dubious boss (Terry O’Quinn) that the widow in each case is the same after showing him photos of her taken with each hubby. After pestering her boss, Alex is allowed to work on the unofficial case on her free time. This brings Alex fronting as a journalist to Seattle where she tries to gather information on Catherine, who is again using a different name. The Russell character is by now married to a sophisticated wealthy older man named Macauley (Nicol Williamson), who heads the board of a museum and is a rare coin collector. Unable to prevent his death and loss of fortune, Alex is now convinced that Russell is the black widow and like the black widow spider she mates to kill.

Leaving her desk job for one in the field, Alex goes undercover to trace Russell to Hawaii. Alex hires a rude and sleazy local P.I. (James Hong) to locate Russell, but this second-rate gumshoe comes up empty and later on in the story has the misfortune of taking on Russell as a client. When the two self-motivated gals meet in the same hotel they are staying at, they instantly become friends. Soon Russell becomes aware that Alex (under an assumed name) is hunting her. This results in a cat-and-mouse game, where Russell seems to have covered all the angles and has the edge. Russell has already found her next vic, a wealthy international hotel magnate named Paul (Sami Frey), who is in Hawaii to build a hotel near an active volcano. Rafelson stays the longest with this seduction and murder scenario. It shows how Alex takes on the personality of the killer and goes from a frumpy fed agent to someone as sexy as the killer by borrowing her designer dresses and getting a new facial makeover that includes a stylish hairdo. This leads to Alex reaching for her alluring feminine side when Russell gives her the green light to go after her boyfriend. Alex goes for sex when the chance arises with Paul, as this supposedly gives her the same thrill as the black widow experiences when snaring her catch.

The performances by Theresa Russell and Debra Winger were superb, as portraying women who are obsessed with their work (the killer considers her gold digging schemes as a job, while Winger’s work compensates for her empty life). Though the story was intelligently drawn out, it lacked any significant point. By the end it offered nothing new to the genre and only seemed like a hollow exercise in film-making. Yet somehow the Black Widow remained enjoyable, but never gripping or memorable.

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REVIEWED ON 7/23/2004 GRADE: B –