Black Widow (1954): Nunnally Johnson’s Backstage Murder Mystery, Film Noir in CinemaScope Color

Black Widow, a tedious backstage murder mystery, was shot in glorious DeLuxe Color CinemaScope, with thematic elements of film noir.

The film was written, produced and directed by Nunnally Johnson, best known for the 1948 Best Picture Oscar-winner, Johnny Belinda.

Van Heflin plays Peter Denver, a renowned Broadway producer attending a party, hosted by the celebrated actress, Carlotta “Lottie” Marin (Ginger Rogers) and her quiet husband, Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner).

Upon meeting Nancy “Nanny” Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner), he is impressed with her seemingly naïve personality as an aspiring writer, hoping to make it big in New York City.

Ambitious to a fault, she convinces Denver to let her use his apartment to work during the day, while his wife, Iris (Gene Tierney, also a famous actress, is away. When the Denvers return from the airport, they find Nancy dead in their bathroom.

The tale then turns into a more conventional procedural of the murder mystery genre. In a series of rather boring flashbacks, various people that Ordway has met reveal deeper contacts with–and darker secrets of–her.

George Raft, in authoritative form, plays Lt. Bruce, the detective assigned to the case, who discovers that this apparent suicide was in fact amurder.

He believes that Denver, suspected of having an affair with Ordway, is the murderer.

Fearful of consequences, Denver evades arrest and seeks clues to discover the real murderer.  The case becomes more cluttered, but not more interesting, when he and Lt. Bruce realize that Ordway has not been as innocent as her surface (and superficial) personality suggests.

Ordway had recently stayed with an artist roommate, whose brother she promised to marry. It turns out that Ordway was calculating a scheme to help her climb the social ladder. She later went to great lengths, concealing the identity of an apparent secret lover, while falsely implicating Denver.

Spoiler Alert:

This mysterious romance is disclosed in an autopsy that reveals that Ordway was pregnant.  New suspects emerge, including, including Lottie Marin and Brian Mullen, who live in the same building as the Denvers.   No longer able to keep silent, Mullen reveals that he was Ordway’s secret lover, but swears that he didn’t kill her. Having bugged Mullen’s apartment, Lt. Bruce barges in, charging Mullen with the homicide. Finally Marin admits she is the one to strangle Ordway for the illicit affair (heard but not seen), and then make it look like a suicide.

The whole film, which is rather tedious and verbose, is a pale imitation of All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sublime 1950 Best Picture Oscar.

Cast

Van Heflin as Peter Denver

Ginger Rogers as Carlotta “Lottie” Marin

Gene Tierney as Iris Denver

George Raft as Detective Lt. C. A. Bruce

Peggy Ann Garner as Nancy “Nanny” Ordway

Reginald Gardiner as Brian Mullen

Virginia Leith as Claire Amberly

Otto Kruger as Gordon Ling

Cathleen Nesbitt as Mrs. Lucia Colletti

Skip Homeier as John Amberly

Hilda Simms as Anne

Mabel Albertson as Sylvia