My obsession is you: Black Widow (1987)

black-widow

The year 2000 was pivotal one for this blogger. Okay, I mean, yes, it was the year of the Sydney Olympics and the Y2K-that-never-was. Okay, this was the year that frosted tips were a fashion statement, and that frightful ‘friends forever’ song haunted the airwaves.

BUT 2000 was also the year I discovered the ERC Library at Melbourne Uni. This is the library mentioned in the last blog post. The ERC contained a swag of cinematic classics on VHS. These classics included Cruising.

They also included Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow.

I still remember the cassette cover. Theresa Russell and Debra Winger staring into the camera, their faces separated by a phallic shaft of light. (Kudos to Valerie Traub for observing this detail, as well as for her incisive reading of the film).

The title character is Catherine (Russell), a mystery girl who marries rich men, bumps them off, collects the cash, changes her identity, and moves on to the next victim. This is before the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, so Catherine’s criminal capers go undetected.

Well, that is until Justice Department detective Alex Barnes (Winger) comes along …

Alex swears that the one woman is behind all the killings. She’s desperate to escape her office, with its “green windows” and macho culture, so she heads off in pursuit of the murderer.

Alex follows Catherine to Hawaii, where the latter is about to marry her next rich dupe. And Hawaii is where Alex finds herself caught in the mystery woman’s web. Alex is seduced by Catherine’s exotic, expensive, beachside lifestyle and playful manner.

And so, the question is posed: “The black widow. She mates and she kills. But can she love?”

If all of this sounds familiar, then it should. Black Widow bears more than just a passing resemblance to Marc Behm’s novel The Eye of the Beholder (1980). In that book, a melancholic male detective becomes obsessed with an identity-shifting female killer who preys on rich blokes.

I’ve always found Behm’s novel to be a rather unimaginative rehearsal of Mulvey’s ‘male gaze’ thesis, and unsurprisingly, it has formed the basis of two rather forgettable flicks — see here and here.

In Rafelson’s film, detective and villain are both women, and this invites a homoerotic reading that is ceaselessly (and, in one sense, delightfully) exploited. The women meet at a water safety demonstration where they perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on one another. They kiss later in the film, too, in a more dramatic fashion.

On a purely visual level, Russell’s femme-y fatalist contrasts strikingly with Winger’s butchy (for mid-80s mainstream Hollywood cinema) gumshoe.

Oh, and there’s the scene with Russell tells Winger: “They say that you’re obsession … is with me!” Actually, I’m not sure if that’s the exact line, but it’s a line that gave my friend and fellow film aficionado, Zoe, and I plenty of laughs back at the dawn of this century. (Hello, Zoe, cos I know you’re reading this!)

Russell’s breathy line delivery and direct stare are themselves worth the price of admission.

The men in this film are forgettable. They’re blue tie-wearing tyrants who order Alex around. Or they’re the affluent airheads who sip from the femme fatale’s poisoned chalice (quite literally, in one case …) There’s Blue Velvet-era Dennis Hopper as one of Catherine’s victims, but otherwise … can anyone remember any of the other dudes? Anyone? Bueller?

Oh, and it’s the 80s, so there are plenty of poodle haircuts, shoulder pads, brassy bling, and … and … green windows! Gotta love the green windows!

winger-russell-black-widow.jpg

Alas, Black Widow was also released in 1987, the year that Gordon Gecko declared that “greed is good”. Alex’ fixation on Catherine is based largely around the latter’s economic independence and cocktail lifestyle. I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend their days on a banana lounge, wearing oversized sunglasses, and spending their consort’s moolah?

In this movie, subliminal sapphic desire comes with a price tag.

On another level: Black Widow’s tone (or “the vibe of the thing”, as another commentator put it) is indecipherable. I’ve seen the film described as ‘suspense’, but there’s no real suspense on show. We could call it a ‘melodrama’ — the sexual intrigue, slickness and overacting support such a reading—but we’re a long way from Douglas Sirk (or, for that matter, Todd Haynes).

Okay, so Black Widow has its faults. Okay, it’s a product of its era (though “greed is good” has hardly gone away …). But okay, it’s one of M.C. Jay’s favourite VHS memories. Watch it for the campy coiffures and the infectious innuendo. Watch it for the green windows.

Watch it, and yes, maybe it’ll become your obsession, too.

 

Postscript: In case you’re wondering, yes, the title is an Icehouse reference. Big-haired 80s memories ahoy!

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