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Monday, September 19, 2022

Film Noir #13


Noir: Black Widow (1954 and 1987) and Blitz

BLACK WIDOW (1954) --- Cinemascope does Manhattan, albeit mostly indoors, but there are shots of streets, with sometimes a cast member to show filmmakers went there. Grown-up Peggy Ann Garner schemes along “Eve” lines to get better of Broadway sorts who reap varied whirlwinds, and to show what she tempts with, there is w-i-d-e view of Peggy’s endless legs as she sets snare for hapless Van Heflin, Reginald Gardner, callow Skip Homier. The cast often lines up across the scope screen like a show-up at headquarters, only police dick George Raft going on-site for most of investigating, noir credentials neatly tucked behind his lapel. Billing shows how names rose and dipped as Cinemascope took dominance: Ginger Rogers first up, age rather suddenly an issue, and she plays to it as had been case in Forever Female’s close-related part. Van Heflin, who made almost any melodrama believable, gets the wrong man lead, while Gene Tierney seems all of a sudden fragile and not so much Gene Tierney anymore, but that is likelier result of us knowing more about her personal circumstance than at the time Black Widow was made. Nunnally Johnson was being given pictures to write, produce, and direct, which he didn’t care much to do, but Zanuck said why not, so he accommodated. Result is OK, a lot of insider Broadway chat, or what we are supposed to read as that. Was Johnson aiming barbs at real-life luminaries he had known, or are these stick figures to represent generic stage types? Some have called Black Widow a most stage bound of Cinemascope releases from 1954, and I suppose it is, but fun is there for ones who like talk, lots of that, bouncing from one wall to an opposite one, thanks to then-magnetic stereo. Kind of like watching sound being invented all over again. Twilight Time released Black Widow as a limited edition some years back. Now Amazon wants $42 for it, so I guess we have a collectable gaining speed.

BLACK WIDOW (1987) --- Talk about a common title, but always effective, whether for a Republic serial, a more recent comic book adapt, or in this instance, a cat-mouse pairing for hot numbers of the day Debra Winger and Theresa Russell, doing a sort of Body Heat dance to R-rated music. We think almost to final seconds that Russell will herself get away with multiple murders and retire to island paradise like Kathleen Turner, so pervasive was relaxed morality by an 80’s sort of noir. Winger is the dogged Fed, frumpy beside Russell, or so they design, but like with Niagara where I found Jean Peters more alluring that MM, so too it’s Debra who rings the bell rather than more obvious glamor-puss Theresa. Fun is had with Winger clunking away on ancient twentieth-century computers and even a slide projector at one point (did we once use such hopeless devices?). Lush production moves from exotic location to a next exotic location, narrative barely keeping pace before the inevitable third act ennui, a bred-into problem with most movies by the 80’s, and virtually all of them since. Best way might be to enjoy till timer indicates final forty minutes ahead, then wave goodbye and figure out a better resolution for yourself. Chances are it will work where theirs won’t. This is not to say Black Widow bores, or annoys, or does anything other than mildly please. But keep it at mildly and avoid letdowns. Concept of killing one husband after another can’t help but amuse, so like Charlotte Vale said, let’s not ask for the moon. Watched on Amazon in HD, looked good, never a sure thing with 80’s titles where sometimes you wonder what kind of shape original elements are in.

BLITZ (2011) --- Jason Statham a noir hero? Just pretend he’s Dana Andrews, only handier with fists. He operates not unlike Andrews dealing with criminal class in Where the Pavement Ends, an off-rail cop who figures outcome justifies whatever is needed to achieve it. Why must law enforcement exert self-control in a culture so out of control? Statham’s higher-up confesses to vigilante resort where a suspect would otherwise game the system, to which Statham nods approval. He is without a life outside friends in the department, each killed off for lacking his instinct at survival. Blitz was one I came to with doubts, all dispelled within opener scenes, action UK-set with benefit of tension and pace the Brits seem gifted at giving us. Streaming has made me ever more the Anglophile and dogged if I’m not picking up their slang (property that is “nicked” means stole, being nicked also is when they arrest you). Stamp my passport to head over and assimilate with these folks. Between TV series focus on crime and bushel of features along a same line, we can assume England is insatiable for rough/
tumble of police v. thuggery. Even “Doc Martin” Clunes does time in the squad room when he isn’t healing the sick at Cornwall. Jason Statham engages “action” as a genre all his own, more so far than I can watch without committing full time, and frankly, if they’re all as good as Blitz, then take me aboard. Noir label is for streets gone to anarchy as result of officers serial-killed in broad daylight and worse. Chases are over ground, roofs, anywhere camera operators can run with equipment sat on shoulders. Things achievable with portable gear do not cease to amaze me. Blitz is familiar in context of current cop thrillers, but let more cross the Atlantic for singular style with which Brits do them. Seems stream service can’t get enough of such. Blitz was a Blu-Ray I didn’t remember acquiring, but there it sat on the shelf, so maybe Santa was by.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff has interesting points to share about both Black Widows (Part One):

Dear John:

I'm always willing to take a look at the 1954 BLACK WIDOW, though it feels SO studio-bound, the numerous location scenes fascinate me. "How'd they fake that shot of Heflin coming out of the Astor Hotel? Where on the Fox lot was that fairly realistic-looking Manhattan side street?" It's like the essential elaborate artifice of the thing affects Johnson's attempt at verisimilitude; the genuine NYC shots seem as blandly "designed" as the rest of the movie.

Also, Fox's transition from using three-strip Technicolor to Eastman-based Deluxe color back then was sometimes uneasy, and this might have looked better in the studio's sometimes very florid and dramatic use of the original Technicolor. It would probably have looked even better in a slightly noir-ish black-and-white, but this was definitely a Zanuck-planned CinemaScope and color extravaganza from the beginning.

I wish the film moved faster and the usually reliable Johnson dialogue was snappier; that might have helped overcome the dullish then often-used tableau approach to using 'Scope for the big scenes. [BLACK WIDOW is about theatre people... but sometimes it looks like a filmed play.] I always remember this as one in which the cast members stand around in the wide, wide frame and appear to politely wait for their cues!

But that cast is good -- Peggy Ann Garner rather better here than some reviewers at the time suggested (it's a different take, certainly, on a "sweet young thing from the South") -- and the movie's okay. When you look over Ginger Rogers' film credits in the 'fifties, it's easy to notice that the choice roles long offered to her were getting scarce. I hazard to guess that she may have enjoyed this change-of-pace part, and that her performance pleased her fans. George Raft's detective seems pulled whole cloth from a sedate MGM melodrama of the 'thirties, but it's somehow nice to see him in an A studio picture after a spate of smaller movies.

11:43 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Griff:

I really liked Bob Rafelson's BLACK WIDOW -- we enjoyed this enough that we sat through it twice on a quiet Tuesday night at Manhattan's Sutton in early 1987. It isn't a top-drawer noir, but it is an earnest attempt, well done and rather satisfying. Vincent Canby of the Times wrote, "though it promises more than it can ever deliver, this classy-looking melodrama is soothing... it has some other important things going for it that make it very easy to take." I agree -- and I wish the '80s had produced a few more unpretentious, well acted and stylish noirish thrillers like this.

I had earlier been put off by the excessive, over-heated ambience and obsessive period detail of Rafelson's '81 remake of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, but the modern noir milieu here was nicely and gently evoked. Conrad Hall's photography and Gene Callahan's design were excellent, as was the Washington state and Hawaii location work. We thought Debra Winger was very good and completely believable as an obsessive federal agent in cross-country pursuit of a serial killer no one else seems to realize is out there, and Russell quietly compelling as the evil, seductive and peerlessly manipulative murderer. Ron Bass' script was solid, and Rafelson shrewdly and effectively made use of top performers -- Dennis Hopper, Nicol Williamson, Terry O'Quinn, Sami Frey, Lois Smith, Mary Woronov, James Hong, Diane Ladd, Rutanya Alda -- in supporting roles.

The movie loses me a little toward the end. There's a romantic scene between Winger and zillionaire hotel magnate Frey set near an active Hawaiian volcano in which Frey rhapsodizes about perhaps building a hotel at the very picturesque location... and it's impossible to not be immediately distracted by this insane idea. [Build a multi-million dollar resort within yards of an active volcano? Is this guy all there?] But it's suspenseful and nicely, tautly done for the most part.


11:43 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Thanks for the heads up on 'Blitz'. Watched it last night on Amazon Prime. Like you, I've been watching a lot of British crime fare, whether on PBS or when it shows up on TCM. I enjoyed 'Blitz' but will admit to closing my eyes during a couple of the murders and the "exotic" dancing (yeesh).

8:25 AM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

For me, a Jason Statham movie is always a guarantee of a good time!

1:15 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

A belated follow up on BLACK WIDOW (1954). Finally caught up with it on Criterion Channel (and in the nick of time - they are yanking it after today!) Gotta admit I still get a kick out of these first wide screen items where stars walk off a studio stage and suddenly show up via a double, with head turned, strolling through a gorgeous real life location. Film kinda fun, but not much of a mystery, barely a noir. Raft's tan and attractive silvery hair do most of his acting here.

10:25 AM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

John, as to your comment on COLOR BY DELUXE did you know that 16mm prints of BLACK WIDOW (1954)were struck in TECHNICOLOR? Stunning, to say the least; but what a waste of CinemaScope!

1:50 AM  

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