Black Widow (1987)

black widow

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: She kills her husbands.

A federal agent named Alexandra (Debra Winger) tracks an elusive woman named Catherine (Theresa Russell) who marries rich men and then kills them off to inherit their fortune. Catherine is constantly changing her identity making it tough for her to track and Alexandra’s superiors do not share her same passion for the case nor believe there’s even a case at all. Finally while in Hawaii Alexandra manages to make contact with the woman and the two become fast friends only to have Alexandra become the next target when Catherine starts to suspect that she’s been double-crossed.

The film’s biggest asset is Conrad L. Hall’s cinematography, which is uniformly gorgeous and breathtaking. I loved the outdoor shots of Hawaii most notably the open terrain and the volcano as well as the scuba diving underwater sequence. The shots of the Seattle skyline and woodsy cabin are equally good making this on a visual level a top notch production. Winger is great in the lead even if her character lets down her guard a few too many times. I also enjoyed James Hong a perennial character actor who gets his most memorable role as a sleazy private investigator. It’s also fun to go back to what life was like before the internet, cellphones and debit cards and where ‘disappearing’ was so much easier.

Ronald Bass’s script though is shallow and formulaic. Just as it should be getting exciting it instead becomes boring and the slick twist at the end cannot overcome all of its loopholes. I found it surprising that Alexandra would be the only person in the world that would be on to this woman. Wouldn’t the relatives of the deceased start to suspect her as well? One segment has Catherine agreeing to give some relatives a large sum of money as a ‘gift’ to get them off her back, but what about the relatives of the first two husbands? The police work is also extremely sloppy. One of the husbands was allergic to penicillin, which is what Catherine uses to kill him, but they never think to test for it or investigate to see if Catherine had recently acquired a prescription for it, which she had. I also couldn’t figure out why Catherine would want to robotically go right back out and marry another rich man just after killing another. Why not ‘enjoy the fruits of her labor’ as it was and live it up with the money she already acquired from the last one before going through all the stress and planning of nabbing the next?

In fact the most frustrating thing about the film is the Catherine character as we never learn what motivates her or anything about her background. Alexandra is asked at one point what she thinks motivates this woman and she responds that it’s ‘not important’, but actually it is because it helps create a three-dimensional character instead of this evil prototype that gets increasingly more boring as the film progresses.

There is also a twist in the film where Catherine has one of her husband’s sign over his fortune to charity in his will, which helps him believe that she is not after him for his money, but then after he is killed it is learned that his legal residence was actually Florida, which has something called a ‘Mark Main’ statute that invalidates any bequest to charity that is made in a will six months before his death and thus allows the inheritance to go back to the surviving spouse, which Catherine takes full advantage of, but are we the viewer really expected to believe that Catherine knew about this loophole all along? Who researches that kind of stuff or even thinks to research it? Okay, so maybe she had some area of legal expertise in her background, but then why is she also such an expert at poisons and forgery and all the other stuff that she does and gets away with in order to stay ahead of the police? Haven’t these filmmakers ever watched an episode of ‘Columbo’ where even the smartest of killers will eventually screw up because it is simply humanely impossible to be ontop of everything like the character here is? By making the villain so over-the-top cunning and conniving while also cool under pressure hurts the tension instead of heightening it because it throws the believability factor out the window and ultimately makes this otherwise slick thriller empty and forgettable.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 6, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bob Rafelson

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

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