Wholly Mutable Selves: Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow

Theresa Russell in Black Widow (1987) | 20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

“I used to think of it as my job,” Theresa Russell tells Debra Winger on a picnic in Hawaii sometime after the halfway mark in Black Widow. “Making myself appealing. I was a pro-fesh-ional.” The context of this line is Russell’s shifting identity, the way she alters her appearance, interests, and manner to snare different wealthy men, whom she marries and murders in quick succession. But the line points to a difficult truth in women’s lives: making ourselves appealing is a much bigger job for us than it is for men. 

Black Widow’s insight and focus on women doesn’t begin or end there. The film is a small, rare, unfairly forgotten psychological thriller directed by Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces), featuring a federal investigator, Alex Barnes (Winger), chasing an elusive killer, Catharine (Russell). It shows, as virtually no other films have, that an obsessive relationship between women is a rich subject for neo-noir. 

Catharine enacts three different identities in the first 15 minutes of screen time. With a thick blond bob, she marries a wealthy New York publisher. With satin dresses that show off her fantastic legs, she snags a rich toymaker (Dennis Hopper, surprisingly). With pleated slacks and demure gestures, she seduces an old-money intellectual. She uses mysterious syringes of poison to off her husbands, learning their habits and then lacing their drinks. The murders look like an obscure condition known as Ondine’s curse, in which otherwise healthy people stop breathing in their sleep. Mid-third husband, Alex Barnes, an analyst for the Justice Department, starts to catch up. 

Catharine is careful enough that Alex’s boss (Terry O’Quinn, in one of those character parts for which we so needed him in the ‘80s and ‘90s) doesn’t believe there’s a pattern. In order to chase Catharine to her fourth target in Hawaii, Alex quits her job and takes on a new identity of her own, as Jessica Bates. “Jessie” makes friends with “Rennie,” Catharine’s Hawaii incarnation, and that’s when things get really interesting. The women compete and cooperate, revealing secrets to each other even as they mutually hide under assumed identities. The film holds back definite answers about whether Catharine knows who Alex really is. Traps and counter-traps, unpredictable even by 2019 standards, dominate the third act, but the film never loses its focus on the intense relationship between these two women. 

Plenty of other films showcase female investigators or female killers, but they always seem to work opposite men. Foster and Hopkins, McDormand and Buscemi. Salander and Blomkvist. Scully and Mulder. Breaking this pattern, Black Widow embraces female subjectivity by setting two dangerous and obsessive women in a push-and-pull relationship, engaging each other even as they work against each other. Positioning two women as adversaries shows the possibilities available in neo-noir, detached from the gender requirement embodied by the tortured man in the fedora in 1940s noir. We’re left with a teasing, unsafe chess game between two well-matched women, each letting the other conceal her true identity until she has set up the board for a checkmate. 

To replace Alex Barnes with a male investigator wouldn’t work. Not only would he likely fail to see the murder pattern in the first place, but he wouldn’t be able to catch Catharine the way Alex does. Catharine would perceive him as a target, someone to whom she must make herself appealing—not as a “new pal” or, eventually, a gamepiece to manipulate in order to get what she wants. No, it’s necessary for Alex to be a woman, and that’s why the film is so unusual and so worthy. And why it’s been received so badly. 

Critics, by and large, have found Black Widow slow and uninteresting, and have said baffling things about the actresses. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby assigned Russell (the triple murderer) “a clear-eyed sweetness.” Roger Ebert dinged the film for draining suspense by giving us too much information, but that’s a perfectly reasonable way to structure a mystery; consider Dial M for Murder, or all 69 episodes of Columbo. It’s not uncommon for male critics to miss the point of women’s film projects, or to find women-led films less important or engaging simply because they do not concern men. Witness, for example, Kyle Smith on Captain Marvel (“What I got was Brie Larson: charmless, humorless, a character so without texture that she might as well be made out of aluminum”) and Killmonger from Black Panther (“Like many a great movie villain, Killmonger is seductive but wrong, and he stands for ideas that have considerable resonance in the real world”). In Black Widow, Alex and Catharine’s relationship reflects the tension many women have felt among frenemies; Alex embodies the ordinary woman whose morally unsound friend is charismatic enough to take up all the light in the room. It’s unfortunate but not surprising that male critics couldn’t read that as the primary element of suspense in the film, especially when the sexual tension between them only registers in one scene. 

Based on the dismal statistics for women’s speaking roles in Hollywood films, audiences aren’t used to movies where women have the majority of the dialogue. Nothing about these two women slots into a pigeonhole where critics and audiences can often place female characters: mother, fat friend, crone, moll, bitch, wife, manic pixie dream girl. Alex and Catharine are people with complex identities. It’s hard to absorb Black Widow if one is unprepared to see women as people. But once the audience understands that the relationship between these women powers the film—not their relationships with the men around them—its true quality becomes evident. 

Black Widow (1987) | 20th Century Fox

Too few films have taken advantage of the elastic emotional leash sometimes stretched between women. (Jennifer’s Body does, but it’s horror, not neo-noir.) One of the tensest scenes in Black Widow involves the two women scuba diving in Hawaii; Alex runs out of air, and as she struggles, Catharine, wearing red and black swimwear, grabs her arm and holds her underwater. For several quick shots, the women’s feet kick and the music dances, and anything could happen. Then, Catharine offers her regulator to Alex for two breaths, and returns it to her own mouth for two breaths, as they slowly rise to the surface—a callback to the instructions they got at the scuba class in which they met. Out of the water, they crawl across the black-sand beach, coughing and gasping. Catharine says she was supposed to check the tanks for air, and then she says, “If I was a little further out with my back turned…you scared the shit out of me.” Alex replies, darkly, “Thanks for not having your back turned.” The leash between them snaps tight: Alex might not have lived if Catharine was even a little farther away. But then it slackens: wouldn’t that have been easier for Catharine? 

It’s stunning to consider how rare Black Widow really is among psychological thrillers, how usefully its central relationship spins and subverts neo-noir, and how badly the film could have gone in less sensitive hands. DePalma could not have made this film without succumbing to misogyny. Demme, maybe, but he had his own row to hoe. The Coens would’ve made it weird. As Verhoeven showed just a few years later with Basic Instinct, Black Widow could have veered towards sexploitation. But instead, despite the all-male creative team behind the film, it resists titillation in favor of psychological depth. One of only two scenes with extensive sexual content, when Rennie finally agrees to have sex with her Hawaii target, offers a closeup of her shadowed hands against a lighted swimming pool, moving like spiders. It’s clear that men can make rich films about women and women’s relationships, and surprising that they have so often elected not to. 

Even critics who didn’t like Black Widow conceded that it was sharply directed. The screenplay has a terrific balance of implication and explanation, even though the film slows significantly in the second half, which nearly all takes place in Hawaii. Winger, in her authenticity, humor, and intensity, captivates. Russell’s performance is steeped in detail, particularly in how she uses her body. The editing is well-done, too; cross-cutting between the two women, especially as they research their targets, keeps the pace steady. 

And the film’s design (although certainly circa 1987) makes use of Catharine’s identity shifts as only a visual medium can. She moves quickly between personas via costume as well as movements and mannerisms. These changes showcase a variety of types of women—not cartoons of women, but different sets of taste and behavior for real women of different backgrounds and interests. As Catharine, she epitomizes trendy New York money, with white carpet, black-and-white laminate tile, and silly neon art in her penthouse. As Marielle, she inhabits a sleazy Southern dame with red acrylic tips and Virginia Slims. As Margaret, she curls inside a New England schoolmarm, with frigidity that melts naughtily in front of the fireplace. As Rennie, she projects casual beach-babe hedonism. 

Debra Winger in Black Widow (1987) | 20th Century Fox

Alex, meanwhile, can’t entirely become one of the guys, but she does her best. The way she interacts with men is part of the proof that this film is doing something more complex than the average thriller: she’s direct, work-first, and witty. She clearly doesn’t expect to be treated as if her gender matters—she’s the only woman at an evening poker game with her co-workers, she aggressively confronts a Seattle police detective who makes sexist comments, she’s both astonished and infuriated when her boss encourages her to have more fun in her personal life—and when she is treated that way, she resists, calmly but unequivocally. When her assistant asks her to date him, she refuses because “I can’t afford to lose you. You’re my right arm.” Alone in the office after hours, she shrugs off the mild advances of her boss without making a fuss, which keeps her safe. Mainly, she’s brilliant, driven by her work, increasingly obsessive about Catharine. Pitting Alex’s brain against Catharine’s changeable body tautens the film without cheapening it. 

This contest also adds to the complexity of the film’s gender concerns. During a scene when Alex compares slides of Catharine and Marielle in her apartment, Alex looks at herself in a bathroom mirror, gathering her hair away from her face, examining which parts of her could be slipped into a new identity without showing. Perhaps she has never considered this, has never thought about the asset and liability of walking around with the same face for the whole course of her life. For Catharine, the changeability of her face is a matter of survival. 

Beneath the identities she dons, Catharine must have a core identity, an existential self covered by the costumes. Alex doesn’t change much when she becomes Jessie; she’s still witty, kind, self-conscious, sharply observant. But whether Catharine is ever truly herself on screen during the running time of Black Widow is a different, difficult question. Perhaps when she’s telling Alex about loving her husbands, “deeply,” she forgets her character and becomes the nameless, featureless black widow: a killer who regrets killing but who does it because she must. A self not conveyed by any of the other selves. 

Or perhaps the only times she is herself are when she privately loses her temper: once as Margaret, and once as Rennie. Both times, the veneer cracks because Alex is catching up with her. As Margaret, she screams into her car, frustrated and scared. As Rennie, she slams her fist twice into a pillow, and then the third time, she sets the pillow aside and punches her own abdomen, groaning in pain. It’s not her stomach she punches. It’s lower down than that. Is this the real black widow? A wild, fearful creature who attacks her own womb? 

Black Widow (1987) | 20th Century Fox

Or, a third possibility: like Alex, only the surface details—the address tags on her suitcases, the hair and the walk—change, while the true self, one that reacts with appeasing calm and private fury, is there all along in plain sight. Maybe there is no hidden core self, but a wholly mutable self dressed in new sets of clothes each time.  

Women go through multiple identity shifts as they age. So do most people, but for women, so much of our social value is premised on appearance that the visible aging process changes our lived reality more than for many men. Catharine’s “making herself appealing” is about how she can alter herself to be the ideal mate for the men she chases, but her ability to do so is dependent on being young and beautiful. She moves quickly because she must; her value will wither as she grows older. 

Black Widow deliberately skirts the question of motive, but Catharine does say, on that same picnic with Alex, that, “Rich is hard. You never really figure you’re quite there.” She doesn’t need more money, probably, but she continues to marry men and take their wealth anyway, just in case, because she knows she won’t be able to do it forever. Her next transformation will be into a middle-aged woman, and her most useful life skill—to appeal—will no longer be available to her. Who will she be then?