The enigmatic Debra Winger was a reluctant film star who maintained a low public profile, evading the gaze of the media, perhaps to the detriment of longevity. A career restricted to just one decade, Winger seemed to fade out of view by the early 1990s. With a tightly written script by Ron Bass, steely cinematography by Conrad Hall, Black Widow is a finely nuanced 1980s neo noir thriller, a late entry in the career of director Bob Rafelson, an auteur associated with the Hollywood new wave of the 1970s. In many respects, what makes this work quite exceptional is a script tailored for two women, a highly polished star vehicle for Winger and Theresa Russell, something of an anomaly in Hollywood mainstream cinema.
A complex study of the limits of obsession is exemplified in the concept of mirroring, a thematic convention that typifies some of the best noirs. Green, both luminous and sickly, becomes an abiding colour, repeated throughout, a key, unifying visual design that symbolises the jealousy of Winger while the intertextual allusion to Vertigo reminds us of the underlying influence of Hitchcock. The interchangeable roles of the government agent and man-killer cross both ways, mutating and blending with a psychological playfulness that emerges as resolutely character driven piece in which there is a disinclination to moralize.
If you look past the outmoded eighties décor, Black Widow is a distinctive and richly satisfying modern noir, crafting a narrative dénouement that pays homage to the traditions of film noir, the woman’s film and melodrama.