BLACK WIDOW (1954) – Manhattan murder mystery in Cinemascope

30 Dec

When I acquired this still from BLACK WIDOW (1954), I was interested in doing something on New York in the movies. (Last week’s still from HOLIDAY AFFAIR, with its studio-created Central Park, was acquired for the same planned project.) While BLACK WIDOW does indeed make ample use of its Broadway/Greenwich Village settings, recreated on 20th Century Fox soundstages but punctuated with some fresh location footage, the aspect that piqued my interest while watching it on TCM-HD this past Thursday night was the fact that it was an early attempt to adapt some rather static subject matter to the then-new widescreen dimensions of Cinemascope which had only been introduced a year earlier with the release of THE ROBE on Sept. 16, 1953. Between that release and the opening of BLACK WIDOW on October 28, 1954, Fox had released 15 other Cinemascope films, while other studios had released 13. Still, few of these films were quite as stagebound as BLACK WIDOW. 90% of the action in the film involves people talking in Manhattan apartments of varying sizes, all with lots more square footage than the average apartment seeker is likely to find today.

The storyline is a pretty standard-issue murder mystery, given some new angles thanks to its Broadway theatre milieu. A Broadway producer, Peter Denver (Van Heflin), meets an aspiring writer, Nancy “Nanny” Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner) at a party thrown by Carlotta “Lottie” Marin (Ginger Rogers), a Broadway diva currently starring in Denver’s latest production. The scene where they meet on Lottie’s terrace is seen in the still at the top, which is matched by the screen grabs here:

Denver’s wife Iris (Gene Tierney) is out of town tending to her sick mother, which makes Denver vulnerable to Nancy’s rather forward requests for dates. Soon she’s ensconced in his apartment during working hours, laboring on her short stories in a quiet place. It’s all very innocent–an older, established professional helping out an ambitious young go-getter–but it does look bad to others, especially to Lottie’s prying eyes after she and her husband, Brian “Mr. Carlotta Marin” Mullen (Reginald Gardiner) encounter Denver and Nancy heading out on a date, in formal wear, one late evening.

Long story short: when Denver returns to his apartment one afternoon after picking up his wife at the airport they find that Nancy has apparently hung herself in the bathroom and left what looks like a suicide note with a drawing of herself hanging. Detective Bruce (George Raft) investigates and learns that Nancy was not only pregnant when she died, but that she was strangled first and then hung. Denver is soon a suspect wanted by the police and he eludes them long enough to interview people who knew Nancy, including her roommate, Claire Amberley (Virginia Leith), and Claire’s brother John (Skip Homeier), who was Nancy’s boyfriend briefly before, we learn, she took up with an older married man that everyone assumes is Denver. There are some plausible red herrings in the mix and things build to a climactic scene where most of the main suspects have gathered in a room and Detective Bruce proceeds to get to the bottom of it all. I was quite surprised by the identity of the actual culprit even though, when I thought about it later, a handy clue had been quietly indicated to us earlier.

L-R: Ginger Rogers, George Raft, Gene Tierney, Van Heflin, Aaron Spelling, Reginald Gardiner

It’s an entertaining piece of Hollywood fluff, clearly designed for Cinemascope and not film noir. I would have liked it more if it had more of an edge, although the element of Nancy’s pregnancy was unexpected and pushed the envelope a little for 1954, along with the affair with the married man that is revealed later in the film. Still, Heflin’s character is way too much of a Boy Scout and his scrupulous behavior around the hot-to-trot Nancy makes him a much duller character than he needed to be. Had he been less innocent in his time alone with her, had he been guilty of something with her, even if just a kiss in the kitchen (like Robert Mitchum’s surprise kiss with Janet Leigh in HOLIDAY AFFAIR last week), it would have added an extra dimension of uncertainty about him and possibly given him enough to hide to make him look plausibly like a suspect.

Also, the opportunistic, social-climbing Nancy does not behave like a writer. As a spinner of short stories, she really has nothing to gain from her closeness with Denver or her attempts to gain entry to Carlotta’s social circles. None of them have access to publishers. Her behavior would have made a lot more sense if she’d been an aspiring actress. Granted, the creators were probably worried that she would have resembled Eve Harrington from ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) too much if they’d made her an actress. Which doesn’t bother me. ALL ABOUT EVE reimagined as a murder mystery strikes me as a very clever concept.

The performances are all adequate without being overpowering, thus maintaining the careful tonal balance needed to make this work. This may be the only adult role I’ve seen Peggy Ann Garner do. She’s more famous as a child actress from the 1940s in films like JANE EYRE and A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. She’s quite good, although the fact that she sounds just like Kathie Lee Gifford kind of threw me off. (However, when you think about it, it’s entirely appropriate to her character.)

The big revelation here is none other than Reginald Gardiner. He normally played comic character roles (THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT), but here gets to participate wholeheartedly in the main action, even being a key suspect at one point.

Aaron Spelling has a bit part as an aspiring actor/movie usher who is questioned about Denver’s whereabouts during the murder. Spelling, of course, went on to become a high-powered TV producer who made a point of casting former Hollywood stars in guest roles on such shows as “Burke’s Law,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Love Boat,” and “Fantasy Island.” This film’s co-star, Ginger Rogers, later popped up on “The Love Boat.”

L-R: George Raft, Gene Tierney, Van Heflin, Aaron Spelling (holding hat)

Also of note is the presence of black actress Hilda Simms, in the role of Anne, a hatcheck girl who works with Nancy at a Greenwich Village club and is able to provide useful info to Heflin while he’s on the run.

Simms didn’t work much in Hollywood. I imagine she refused to do stereotypical roles. The only other film I’ve seen her in is THE JOE LOUIS STORY (1950) in which she played the boxing champ’s wife.

Ultimately, the real interest of this film today, at least for me, is the array of widescreen compositions of actors arranged around apartment sets. TCM’s HD cablecast of the film last Thursday (Dec. 27) showed off its proper 2:35-to-1 aspect ratio on my Sony Bravia 32-inch TV set. These screen grabs were taken with a digital camera as the film was playing.

L-R: Virginia Leith, Van Heflin, Skip Homeier

Two 1930s icons face off: George Raft and Ginger Rogers. Too bad they’d never appeared together before.

As you can see, the Cinemascope aspect ratio is well-suited for certain compositions:

There are some location shots of New York, including Penn Station:

…and Times Square:

Van Heflin’s office is in the Paramount Building (1501 Broadway, on the block bordered by 43rd and 44th Streets):

This is part of the Times Square shot; the camera pans over from the long shot of the square to the Paramount Building. When I watched AMERICAN HOT WAX (1978) a long time ago, there was a stock shot of Times Square from the 1950s that panned over to the Paramount Building and I was sure it originated in a Hollywood movie from the 1950s. This was that exact shot, and was done for this movie.

In addition, there’s this shot of Fifth Avenue looking south to Washington Square Park:

One question, though: how impossible is that apartment terrace seen at the beginning?

It’s overlooking Central Park, which seems to be a tiny sliver of its actual self. Is this Fifth Avenue looking west? Central Park West looking east? Or Central Park South looking northwest? Either way it doesn’t pan out.

Finally, I love the abundance of Asian art in Carlotta and Brian’s apartment, an element of the set décor that is never remarked upon but might not have been so evident in the pre-Cinemascope era (or the pre-HD era when a film like this would most likely have been broadcast in a pan-and-scan version).

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3 Responses to “BLACK WIDOW (1954) – Manhattan murder mystery in Cinemascope”

  1. Vienna March 22, 2013 at 12:40 PM #

    Great review and terrific pictures. Thank you. I like this film a lot though poor Gene Tierney had so little to do.

  2. judy December 22, 2015 at 8:41 AM #

    Where can i download this movie?

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