Black Widow

“Film noir” has gone from being a cinematic style made by Hollywood without knowing what it was (until told by French critics) to a generic label handy for moving product, and we shouldn’t complain about that. The result is that, as studios look through their catalogues for what’s marketable, they end up packaging any kind of crime movie or thriller as “film noir” that otherwise mightn’t have been released at all. Only the most relentlessly narrow genre-purists should find this a bad thing. The latest three volumes of Fox Film Noir are instructive on this point.

Black Widow (1954) is a Cinemascope and Technicolor treat from Nunnally Johnson, a great writer who moved into being a triple threat writer-producer-director. It’s a big, glossy whodunit based on a novel by Patrick Quentin, and it uses his recurring device of a man who looks guilty as sin but bulldozes his way toward proving his innocence. As so often, the story is an excuse for glamour. Hollywood often pretended (and still does) that the story is king and everything must serve it; in fact, the movie and audience are really in collusion to enter a world of beautiful stars in lavish settings while pretending to pay attention to a story.

The movie opens with a startling shot of the title spider while a narrator explains that she devours her mate. Try following the plot innocently with that image in your head. The trailer labels a certain Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner) as the black widow. She dominates the first third, but if you haven’t seen the trailer, you might not be sure who the black widow is, so the title becomes a good way to give away the ending. The film is sold vaguely as a variant on All About Eve (1950), as this woman ingratiates herself with a Broadway producer (Van Heflin) who’s married to a beautiful star (Gene Tierney) while living in an apartment below a catty diva (Ginger Rogers). A great source of pleasure is the witty, intelligent dialogue.

Nancy doesn’t seem as scheming as Eve. She’s candid, even forward, in her attempts to sell herself to people and become a writer, but cultural standards require her to be criticized for being a “woman with a purpose”. Because women aren’t supposed to have a purpose? If her purpose is to snag a rich husband, that’s the purpose universally recommended to women. The implication is that there’s something wrong with her determination to become a writer. She drops the names Truman Capote and Somerset Maugham as her models, and a joke is made that she won’t sell until she imitates Ernest Hemingway or Damon Runyon. Read into that what you will.

Let’s stop to consider certain allusions to non-heterosexuality, which was a simmering element in All About Eve. There’s one scene with a lean, elegant, smoking, hard-drinking man who explains that his vices allow him to be a good artist. One could say it’s wrong and prejudicial to give him a queer reading, but the nature of sexual coding of this era lies in its deniability, the fact that it’s unseeable to anyone who doesn’t decide it’s there. There’s something self-fulfilling about it, but that’s okay.

Our young miss inveigles herself into sharing an apartment with an assertive young woman who spends her time sketching nude female models. In the entire movie, this woman is the most distressed about Nancy’s fate. And in an early flashback to Nancy’s arrival in the city, she meets a single, middle-aged uncle in his apartment, and there’s a moment when the camera calls attention to itself by gliding in on the detail of a lady’s glove which he hastily stuffs into his pocket. Why? Because his grown niece can’t know he entertains women? Or doesn’t it rather link to her next line, “This is Greenwich Village, isn’t it?” The hidden glove signifies illicit sex that must be concealed. By a perverse logic, the moment asserts heterosexuality while suggesting the opposite; it’s a moment with no function in the plot but to arouse the viewer’s suspicion about…something.

Anyway, this movie was sold as All About Eve crossed with a whodunit, and its most self-conscious moments invoke the latter genre. Heflin makes a remark about running all over town like a TV detective, and Rogers derides the situation as “a silly imitation of Dragnet“. Heflin’s alibi is that he saw an old movie called The Girl in the Window, whose title reminds us of Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944). Tierney is iconic noir casting thanks to Laura (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), as is George Raft as a cop, but their roles aren’t noir-ish.

The story has schemers who get killed for their trouble, but that’s true of all mysteries, which operate under the assumption that crime is an aberration in an otherwise wholesome, functioning world — the world of this movie. There’s no corruption in the police department or Broadway, no sense of weary fatalism or pessimism, no circus of self-serving bastards, and no overwhelming weltschmerz. There is, for a while, Quentin’s paranoid vibe of persecution against the hero, but the film always believes in goodness and decency and truth and justice.

So does Dangerous Crossing (1953), which also plays the nobody-believes-me vibe, this time centered on a young woman in the middle of one of those “they’re trying to drive me crazy” plots. This is a gendered suspense gimmick that always works and always will as long as women are patronized and dismissed as hysterical, which is why it’s been mined for everything from Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White to the recent Jodie Foster movie Flightplan.

This movie is based on a radio play by John Dickson Carr (like Quentin, not a noir writer so much as a gimmicky mystery writer). It’s directed by Joseph M. Newman, who honed his economical style with a series of MGM shorts called Crime Does Not Pay and ended up on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Jeanne Crain plays the dish set up for a chump by her disappearing hubby (Carl Betz, best known for The Donna Reed Show). Thank goodness she can rely on kindly ship’s doctor Michael Rennie, most famous as Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Her main trouble is deciding whom she can trust. It turns out everybody means well except the two in on the plot. Again, this isn’t really a world or style of noir, despite its fog; it’s a straightforward hybrid of the woman’s film and the suspense thriller.

From Dangerous Crossing

The nicest element is the impressively sinuous camera moves and long takes from cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, which are perpetrated on sets left standing from the same year’s Titanic and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. As Crain enters the ship’s bar, the camera watches her in a single shot that repeatedly glides backwards and forwards from close-up to being surrounded by strangers. It follows behind her as she walks down corridors, turning corners and glancing through the crowd of extras. And when it stands still now and then to observe her in a passageway, it subtly bobs up towards the ceiling and down again to mimic the ship’s movement and give us a sense of oppressing her from above.

Ironically, the third film here is infinitely more authentic as noir than the other two, even though this one is a classical woman’s film with no crime, mystery or suspense elements — thus proving that noir isn’t a generic crime category. Producer-director Otto Preminger made Daisy Kenyon (1947) in the middle of a streak that included the noir staples Laura (1944), Fallen Angel (1945) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) and it’s very much of a piece with them, down to the casting of Dana Andrews as a heel. And this film, too, follows behind its characters with elaborate, gliding photography, here courtesy of Leon Shamroy. This style, along with a carefully balanced script that convicts nobody and absolves no one, is part of Preminger’s famous tendency towards moral ambiguity.

Daisy Kenyon is set in the noir world — a world of flawed moral character, weary to the point of exhaustion, nervous to the point of breakdown. It’s difficult to get a handle on anyone. Is Andrews merely a caddish adulterer and a slick corporate lawyer, or a caring father and a man willing to take on unpopular causes? He mixes both. Is Daisy (Joan Crawford) a hard, self-reliant career woman who doesn’t need any man, or a vacillating female who doesn’t know what she wants? It turns out she can be both without demeaning herself. Is the third wheel in this romance, ex-soldier Henry Fonda, a sweet guy or a cold manic-depressive? It seems to depend.

Fonda’s character isn’t actually diagnosed with depression, though Crawford says so at one point when she makes a clever-yet-brave remark linking depression to snowfall. This postwar era was when Hollywood writers embraced the language and ideas of psychoanalysis like crazy, heh heh. He also has what we would today call post-traumatic stress, and what other movies at the time called “shellshock” — signaled by waking up in a sweat from nightmares.

Meanwhile, surely to the astonishment of anyone who sees this film for the first time today, Andrews is embroiled in the case of a Japanese-American WWII vet from California who had his land stolen. We never see this person and the story doesn’t spend time on his case directly, but we hear a lot about it second-hand as it’s explained that he represents thousands of other Nisei who were victims of “profitable racial prejudice” and that, incredibly for a Hollywood movie, justice doesn’t prevail for those who struggle for it in the land of the free. This then-timely topic was surely never mentioned in any other mainstream Hollywood production before the 1976 TV movie Farewell to Manzanar.

From Daisy Kenyon

Anyway, Andrews has his own problems. Aside from a mistress who’s not satisfied with his breezing through, his wife (Ruth Warrick) is getting increasingly hysterical and abusive to her daughters; we see the results of violence, and these scenes are disturbing because they’re so frank and unexpected and tensely balanced with many conflicting impulses. It’s the kind of subject we have come to expect today, when every serious drama throws in child abuse as the key to the universe, but to find it in a 1947 movie is as surprising as the Nisei element. Just so you know, one of the daughters is Peggy Ann Garner, who grew up to be the aforementioned Black Widow.

These elements fit together in a standard formula of the woman’s film, a genre that turns on the realistic choices made by women. These choices are usually either 1) a career or a romance, since the combination doesn’t seem to be an option and women secretly are glad to give up the job after proving their success and now they want to settle down and be a “real woman” (that’s the message!), or 2) the right man or the wrong man and figuring out which is which. This film concentrates on the second agenda, since there’s never a question of Daisy giving up her very successful career as a commercial artist, one which seems to depend on employing, living with and going to movies and dinner with a prominent supporting character (Martha Stewart) who has no practical function in the movie except to be always there — a point observed by one of the critics in the making-of, who notes that Preminger likes to drop sexually ambiguous characters into his dramas.

Crawford is good, for the record. The commenters say she was too old for the part. Perhaps it was written younger in the novel by Elizabeth Janeway, but Crawford’s obviously being in her 40s (which I presume could have been better hidden if they’d tried) gives her the sense of experience and self-possession that leaves her prepared to take these men or leave them alone. You might think she could do better than either of them and she might think so, too.

All these inexpensive discs come with fact-laden critical commentary, of which Foster Hirsch’s on Daisy Kenyon is possibly the most interesting (at the risk of committing myself), and they also have brief making-of’s or profiles of the actors. Black Widow and Dangerous Journey have another option that deserves to be standard, as it often reveals more about the nature of cinema than a dozen commentaries–an isolated score track. These scores are by, respectively, Leigh Harline and Lionel Newman, and you even get to hear the engineers counting off the cues.

RATING 6 / 10