|Directed by||Nunnally Johnson|
|Produced by||Nunnally Johnson|
|Screenplay by||Nunnally Johnson|
|Story by||Hugh Wheeler|
|Based on||Black Widow|
by Patrick Quentin
|Music by||Leigh Harline|
|Cinematography||Charles G. Clarke|
|Edited by||Dorothy Spencer|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Box office||$2.5 million (US rentals)|
Black Widow is a 1954 DeLuxe Color mystery film in CinemaScope, with elements of film noir, written, produced, and directed by Nunnally Johnson and starring Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, and George Raft.
Peter Denver (Van Heflin), a renowned Broadway producer, is attending a party hosted by the viciously haughty and celebrated actress Carlotta "Lottie" Marin (Ginger Rogers) and her quiet husband Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner) when he meets Nancy "Nanny" Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner).
The seemingly naïve Ordway, a 20-year-old, aspiring writer, says she hopes to make it big in New York. She convinces a reluctant Denver to persuade his wife, Iris (Gene Tierney) — another famous actress, who is temporarily out of town — to agree to Nancy's use of the couple's apartment to write in during the day. After the Denvers return from the airport and find Nancy hanging dead in their bathroom, a variety of people Ordway has recently met in New York begin to reveal deeper and darker connections with her. Lt. Bruce (George Raft), the detective assigned to the case, soon discovers that this apparent suicide was in fact a homicide.
Further, he believes that Denver, who is suspected of having had an affair with Ordway, is the murderer. Denver evades arrest and seeks clues to discover the real murderer. The case becomes further complicated when he and Lt. Bruce independently realize that Ordway's dealings in New York belie her apparent innocence.
Ordway had recently stayed for a time with her uncle and then moved in with a woman roommate, whose brother she evidently had agreed to marry, as well as staying for some time with her uncle. A series of flashbacks reveal that Ordway was craftily piecing together a scheme that would help her both to climb the social ladder and to later conceal the identity of her secret lover by falsely implicating Denver. This mysterious romance is confirmed by an autopsy, which reveals that Ordway was pregnant at the time of her death.
Everyone Ordway knows is suddenly a suspect in the murder case, including Lottie Marin and Brian Mullen, who live in the same apartment building as the Denvers. In the end, Mullen can no longer keep silent and reveals to his friend Peter Denver that he was Ordway's secret lover, but swears that he didn't kill her. Having bugged Mullen's apartment, Lt. Bruce barges in and charges Mullen with the homicide. Lottie finally admits that she murdered Nancy Ordway for having had the affair with her husband, whom she later intended to blackmail. Lottie set up the killing to look like a suicide.
20th Century Fox bought the film rights to the novel in 1952. Studio head Darryl Zanuck assigned the project to Nunnally Johnson, who worked on it after writing the script for How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Johnson then made his debut as director on Night People (1954) starring Gregory Peck, and Peck was announced as the Black Widow male lead, which was, however, eventually played—after being passed on by William Holden—by Van Helflin. Johnson said the film would be the "All About Eve of suspense pictures." He later called it "was just a thriller, wasn't any great harm done in the thing, a thriller that I liked, because I like thrillers."
Nunnally Johnson had offered the role of flamboyant stage actress Carlotta Marin to flamboyant stage actress Tallulah Bankhead, Johnson's first choice for the role, then to Joan Crawford, who was not interested. Bankhead had declined the role as too small; it was successfully offered to Ginger Rogers (whose role in Johnson's 1952 production We're Not Married! had also been declined by Bankhead). Rogers was accorded top billing in Black Widow.
Johnson's first choice for the role of Nanny Ordway, 20th-Century-Fox-contractee Maggie McNamara, was cast in the role but soon sidelined by illness, with her Three Coins in the Fountain co-star Jean Peters being expected to replace her. However, the role of Nanny Ordway would ultimately afford a brief cinematic comeback to former child star (at 20th Century Fox) Peggy Ann Garner. Johnson had tested Garner for Black Widow on the recommendation of cinematographer Charles G. Clarke who, while overseeing location footage for Black Widow in New York City, had happened to cross paths with Garner whom he'd worked with on Junior Miss nine years earlier. Johnson said he took Garner "much to my regret... she was a tiresome little girl. Tiresome woman.
According to Johnson, Raft would show up on set word-perfect and looking no older at age fifty-four than he had at age thirty-nine. Johnson said Raft "learns his lines very well... he's not an actor in particular. He was a personality that was very well fitted for that period. If you'll remember, he felt very pleased with himself this time because he played a cop. He was on the law side. He's a nice guy to be with."
When the film was released, The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther panned the screenplay and the actors, writing that "Black Widow, which was discovered at the Roxy yesterday, bears little or no resemblance to the recent local spider scourge, except that it is moderately intriguing and considerably overplayed. It is merely an average whodunit, stretched out on the CinemaScope screen and performed by a fancy cast of actors so that it looks more important than it is ... The major fly in the ointment—or, should we say, in the web—is Peggy Ann Garner, playing the little Southern girl. Miss Garner's endeavors to give out with a rush of peach-blossom charm are beclouded with affectation. And the idea that she could be the greedy and ruthless little vixen that is finally revealed is hard to believe ... And, finally, the shrill and shoddy character that Ginger Rogers plays—a poison-tongued Broadway actress—is indifferently written and performed. It is asking a lot of an audience to believe that she could display anything but clothes. George Raft as a poker-faced detective acts with flat-toned indifference, too, and Gene Tierney and Reginald Gardiner barely manage to live through their roles."
Film critic Dennis Schwartz panned the film in 2011, opining that "It's a flimsy story that is apathetically written, poorly paced and overacted with shrill performances by both Ginger Rogers and Peggy Ann Garner. The B-film crime drama might have been better served as a cheapie production, with some of its filler scenes lopped off."
Craig Butler, however, reviewing it for AllMovie, calls the film "entertaining" and notes that the "cinematography is frequently stunning". He refers to some "marvelous dialogue", noting "the film moves along at a nice, steady clip" and stating that "it's enough fun that most viewers will overlook …[the] flaws". He praises Garner and Rogers, noting the latter's "standout performance".
- Solomon, Aubrey (1989). Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History. The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. p. 249. ISBN 0-8108-4244-0.
- 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1954', Variety Weekly, January 5, 1955
- Black Widow at IMDb
- Aaker, Everett (2013). The Films of George Raft. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. p. 161. ISBN 978-0-7864-6646-7.
- "FOX PRODUCER GETS NEW MURDER FILM". New York Times. Aug 11, 1952. ProQuest 112342235.
- A. B. (Dec 15, 1957). "Latest report on criminals at large". New York Times. ProQuest 114082607.
- Johnson p 351
- New York Daily News 21 May 1954 "Hollywood Today" by Hedda Hopper p.C16
- San Francisco Examiner 21 April 1954 "Joan Crawford, William Holden & Maggie M'Namara Sought For Chiller" by Louella Parsons p.31
- Rochester Democrat Chronicle 31 May 1954 "Ginger Rogers to Return From Europe For Role" by Louella Parsons p.12
- Atlanta Constitution 1 October 1954 "Peggy Ann Garner in Luck at Last" by Ed Sullivan p.28
- Johnson p 317
- THOMAS M PRYOR (May 31, 1954). "RAFT WILL CO-STAR IN DRAMA FOR FOX". New York Times. ProQuest 112858357.
- "HEDDA HOPPER". Los Angeles Times. Jul 10, 1954. ProQuest 166637160.
- Vagg, Stephen (February 9, 2020). "Why Stars Stop Being Stars: George Raft". Filmink.
- Johnson p 356
- Crowther, Bosley (October 28, 1954). "Black Widow Bows at the Roxy Theatre". The New York Times. Retrieved February 9, 2011.
- Schwartz, Dennis Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine, Ozus' World Movie Reviews film review, July 5, 2008; accessed February 9, 2011.
- Butler, Craig. Film review at allmovie.com; accessed March 17, 2014.
- Johnson, Nunnally (1969). Recollections of Nunnally Johnson oral history transcript. University of California Oral History Program.