Noirvember: Black Widow

Sunday, November 18, 2018

When you think of Ginger Rogers and the style of films she appeared in, film noir will likely not be the first that comes to mind. Literally translating to "black film," the phrase film noir was first coined in 1946 by French film critic Nino Frank to describe the melancholy pictures that saw a drastic rise in production in the mid 1940s. Gone were the days of Depression era musicals designed to lift spirits, audiences craved an honest look at the harsh reality around them. Although this genre of film is mainly associated with the 1940s, plenty of movies even today embody elements of classic noir.

So where does Ginger come in? Although known primarily for her musical work, she did complete a few film noirs during the 1950s: Storm Warning (1951), Black Widow (1954), and Tight Spot (1955). Today we are going to take a more in depth look at her character in the 20th Century Fox technicolor noir Black Widow.

Released in 1954 and directed by Nunnally Johnson, Black Widow contains many of the standard ingredients that typically define a film noir. You have your urban setting, claustrophobic interiors and flashbacks to name a few. Although the genre is typically associated with a black and white aesthetic, Widow brings us the opposite. Here, much of the story seems to take place in broad daylight.

Ginger with Reginald Gardiner in Black Widow

Spoilers beyond this point. You have been warned! Nancy Ordway, our main character played by former child star Peggy Ann Garner, is a newcomer to the New York entertainment scene. A pretty young girl, one might think she would have her heart set on becoming a Broadway actress. She actually has a dream of becoming a successful writer. She spends her days cooped up in the spacious apartment of producer Peter Denver, played by Van Heflin, who she had recently become acquainted with. Denver is married to his wife Iris (Gene Tierney), and produces a hit show starring fictional stage legend Carlotta Marin (Ginger Rogers). Chaos ensues among the cast when Nancy is later found dead of an apparent suicide.

Ginger's role is that of a blonde diva, captivating in her portrayal of Lottie and relentless in her disdain toward Nancy. You grimace at her attitude but you can't help but be curious as to what her next move will be. She is the designated femme fatale of the picture. She stirs things up for Nancy by being openly suspicious of her connection to Peter, noticeably sizing her up with every stare. Everyone seems to be a pawn in her intricate little game, and every one of her actions are to benefit only herself.

If you are relatively familiar to Ginger's work, you are no stranger to her sassy archetype. But don't expect to find that lovable wisecrack of the 1930s in Black Widow. Her hostility toward Nancy before and after her death is enough to turn the typical viewer's suspicions away from Lottie being the murderer. It would be too obvious for her to be the culprit. Instead you are more likely to focus on the less exaggerated characters. But alas, this was not the case.

Ginger with Gene Tierney in Black Widow

Throughout the film, we observe the cast dealing with the situation in their own ways. We witness Peter's morals deteriorate as he becomes more violent, desperate to clear his name from a crime he did not commit. We witness a stoic Brian Mullen, Lottie's husband played by Reginald Gardiner, as he grapples with the realization that Nancy, later revealed as his mistress, is deceased. Lottie's demeanor, however, is consistent. She is aggressive, entitled, and cares little for anyone else other than herself, and Ginger delivers it all flawlessly. She seems to only have sympathy for fellow female companion Iris Denver. And only when things start to heat up later on does Lottie begin to break down in defense of her husband, adamant that he is not the murderer when she is being vigorously interrogated by the detective (George Raft).

Ginger is interrogated by George Raft

The climax arrives when towards the end, Lottie commits the murder. She is cold-blooded; not even so much as an expression of remorse or understanding of what she is about to commit dances across her face before she seals her fate. Lottie knew exactly what she was going to do when she made her way to the apartment that day, and audiences are stunned to find out that lovable little Ginger Rogers could portray such a heartless character.

Lottie confronts Nancy

It is films such as Black Widow that allow us to discover a side of Ginger that many casual fans of the golden age do not realize exists. Her portrait of a femme fatale is certainly a shift from her enjoyable, wisecracking persona, leaving plenty of fans blindsided by her antagonistic nature. I urge you to continue to seek out her non-musical filmography and see for yourself what she has to offer, it may surprise you.

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