Black Widow: Bob Rafelson’s Film Noir Starring Debra Winger and Theresa Russell

Bob Rafelson’s film noir in color, written by Ron Bass, centers on two women. The first, and more interesting, is Catharine (Debra Winger), a psychopathic femme fatale who preys on wealthy middle-aged men, seducing them into marriage and then poisoning them. The deaths are misdiagnosed as Ondine’s curse, a condition by which seemingly healthy middle-aged men die in their sleep.

The other femme is Justice Department agent Alexandra “Alex” Barnes (Theresa Russell), who stumbles onto the first murder while investigating another case. As Alex delves further into the case, she becomes obsessed ith Catharine, uncovering a pattern which she believes ties the same woman to several similar murders.

The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael pointed out the major flaw of Black Widow as film noir: Director Bob Rafelson does not give trash its due, conveying the impression that he (and his tale) are superior to it.

Rafelson doesn’t fulfill the rewards inherent in the film’s genre, nor does he transcend them.  As Kael noted, he intellectualizes the film, resulting in a dry story that drags on and on, but never reaches a satisfying climax or closure.