Monday, 16 March 2015

CinemaScope Blogathon: "Black Widow" (1954)

Directed by: Nunally Johnson

Writing Credits:
Nunnally Johnson (screen play)
Hugh Wheeler (story)

Starring: Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, George Raft, Peggy Ann Garner and Reginald Gardiner.

Released by: 20th Century Fox

"The Black Widow, deadliest of all spiders, earned its dark title through its deplorable practice of devouring its mate".

Gene Tierney and Van Heflin in Black Widow.

For those who have never seen the film, Nunnally Johnson's Black Widow follows Nancy 'Nanny' Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner), a young writer who insinuates herself into the life of successful Broadway producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin) and his close circle of friends- including the star of his most recent stage success, Carlotta 'Lottie' Marin (Ginger Rogers). Peter takes Nanny under his wing, letting her use his apartment as a quiet place to write during the day. Things take an unexpected turn however when, upon his wife (Gene Tierney) returning home from an out of state trip, the couple discover Nanny hanging from their bedroom ceiling, the result of a probable suicide. As the police deduce it was in fact murder, suspicion immediately falls on Peter, whom Nanny intimated to several people she was having an affair with. As Peter works to clear his name, he begins to learn that Nanny Ordway wasn't quite as innocent and naive as she appeared to be.

Peggy Ann Garner as Nanny Ordway.

Shot in DeLuxe Color, Black Widow is a stunning example of what using the CinemaScope process could (and frequently did) achieve in terms of cinematography. The color is warm and inviting, complimenting the sound stage constructed sets and costumes in a way seldom seen in the early days of CinemaScope. Unfortunately, it is also the film's undoing. It has the script of a film noir- however, wherever you look within the 2.66:1 frame, the color palette is telling you that you're watching a Doris Day film. To be honest, I can't ever remember seeing a film where the presence of a pastel color palette was so unbelievably distracting.

To understand why Black Widow was shot in color, you first have to understand a little bit about the film industry landscape of 1954 and 20th Century Fox's investment in CinemaScope technology. In the early 1950's, Hollywood was facing it's greatest enemy to date- television. As television sales around the United States went up, movie ticket sales went down. 20th Century Fox President Spyros P. Skouras recognized that they had no chance of winning the war, unless they could bring something new and exciting to the table that would take audiences out of their homes and back into the movie theater. Enter CinemaScope. 

After witnessing a demonstration of CinemaScope in 1952, Skouras struck a 10-year deal with inventor Henri Chr├ętien that saw 20th Century Fox holding the exclusive rights to the manufacture and distribution of CinemaScope lenses worldwide (effectively leaving the other movie studios at 20th Century Fox's mercy). Shortly thereafter, pre-production on a technicolor biblical epic entitled The Robe was halted so that the brand new CinemaScope lenses could be implemented. With a budget of around 5 million dollars, The Robe (and CinemaScope) premiered on September 16, 1953 and was hugely successful- grossing an estimated 36 million dollars at the United States box office alone. In 1954, after the success of subsequent CinemaScope features How to Marry a Millionaire and The 12-Mile Reef, Warner Brothers, MGM, Universal and Walt Disney Productions approached 20th Century Fox about licensing the CinemaScope lenses for their studios.

The Robe and CinemaScope's premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater on September 24, 1953.

After the enormously successful release of The Robe in 1953, Production Chief Darryl Zanuck announced that, henceforth, all 20th Century Fox productions would be shot in CinemaScope- which brings us back to Black Widow. After 13 months of implementing the CinemaScope lenses at 20th Century Fox, "Black Widow" was the 18th production to enlist this process. But why did the film need to be in color? Unfortunately, up until 1956, 20th Century Fox and Darryl Zanuck refused to shoot any CinemaScope production in color, going as far as to publicly state; "We believe that any picture, regardless of subject matter, is better if made in color". Not only was this strictly enforced at 20th Century Fox but the licensing agreements drawn up between 20th Century Fox and the other studios expressly prevented any CinemaScope production from shooting in black and white.

Article from the April 11, 1955 issue of "Motion Picture Daily"

In 1956 Spyros P. Skouras relented, and creative decisions regarding CinemaScope productions were finally at the discretion of the individual filmmakers (and their studios)- not 20th Century Fox. Unfortunately, it was too late for several past productions that had to compromise their creative control in order to use this burgeoning technology- a technology that audiences were actually paying to see.

MGM had originally intended to shoot Rebel without a Cause (1955) in black and white CinemaScope, before being reminded of the fine print of their licensing agreement with 20th Century Fox.

Zanuck may have believed that "any picture, regardless of subject matter, is better if made in color"but that wasn't the case for Black WidowWith black and white photography, this film could've been anythingInstead, it fails to live up to it's potential because it spends too much time pandering to technology. While the screenplay isn't perfect, Nunnally Johnson was a talented writer who wove an intricate and suspenseful narrative throughout the film's screenplay. Unfortunately, with virtually no assistance from the production designers or costume department, this film comes off as a very "mild" murder mystery rather than a hard-boiled film noir (which the script intimates it could be).

Peggy Ann Garner in the film's crucial final flashback sequence.

A great example of the film's cinematography working against the suspense of the narrative is in the final scenes, when Nanny's killer is revealed. In what should have been a jaw-dropping reveal through the use of flashback, the cinematography adds nothing to what is unfolding on-screen. As seen above, the frame is bright and cheerful, with the future deceased wearing baby pink. Instead of shadows lurking into the frame, spelling out impending doom for this young, pregnant woman, the frame is mild and still. There's no contrast, no strong shadows- everything is flat (from the colors in the foreground to the background). Instead of lending itself as a key storytelling device, the cinematography adds absolutely nothing to the narrative. All it succeeds in doing is confusing the audience as to the tone of the film.

My strong belief is that Black Widow should have been photographed in black and white. However, due to 20th Century Fox's harsh restrictions on CinemaScope productions at the time, Nunnally Johnson had no choice but to photograph his film noir in color. While incredibly difficult, it is not impossible to maximize a suspenseful narrative through color photography.

There weren't too many color film noirs made in the forties and fifties (for good reason), however Henry Hathaway's 1953 film Niagara (another 20th Century Fox production) comes to mind as a worthy point of reference. While by no means a perfect film noir, Niagara succeeds in generating a suspenseful narrative that is enhanced (not hindered) by it's color cinematography.

Henry Hathaway using lighting to engineer suspense in Niagara (1953).

Unlike Black Widow, Hathaway didn't allow the use of color photography to hinder his creative process. He knew Niagara had film noir elements and shot it accordingly, utilizing several textbook film noir devices (color or no). Instead of letting color dictate his cinematography, he shot as if it were black and white, using shadows and light to build the tension and suspense. Hathaway also made sure his film's color palette was anything but mild, utulizing strong, contrasting colors- especially when it came to the costumes and make-up of his actors. Rose (portrayed by Marilyn Monroe) is the film's femme fatale- and everything about her appearance re-iterates to the audience that she's up to no good. The only time the audience sees Rose in pastel tones is during a brief hospital stay- in every other scene in which she appears, Monroe is wearing bold, striking colors and her signature red lipstick.

Marilyn Monroe in Niagara.

The production department of Black Widow isn't completely without merit. As I mentioned earlier, visually this film is stunning. It boasts a beautiful, midtone color palette that is very easy on the eyes. I was also impressed that the cinematographer Charles G. Clarke consistently utilized (to his advantage) every square inch of the 2.66:1 frame- a remarkable feat when you consider that the film industry had been working with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 for well over fifty years (and this was only 20th Century Fox's 18th CinemaScope production). To Clarke's credit, if you were to judge this film solely on the look and feel, it is a wonderful representation of how glorious CinemaScope could be (and frequently was). However, it's not right for this script. While the pastel color palette is beautiful, it's ill-placed in a film of this genre- something Director Nunnally Johnson should have recognized and rectified since the cinematographer's output is a direct result of his vision.

Cinematographer Charles G. Clarke using the 2:88:1 CinemaScope frame to his advantage

I think this quote from the analytical reference text CinemaScope Two: 20th Century Fox by John Howard Reid sums up this film much better than I ever could;

"A murder mystery in CinemaScope certainly sounds novel and promising, but alas this movie gives the idea such an indifferent workout it's impossible to reach any conclusion as to the Scope screen's effectiveness in dramatizing this sort of entertainment".

Ginger Rogers and Reginald Gardiner as husband and wife in Black Widow.

Despite my incessant whining about pastels and production design, I actually did enjoy Black Widow. The cast assembled for this film is exceptional, boasting the likes of Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, George Raft, Peggy Ann Garner and Reginald Gardiner. For me, the standout was Gardiner. In a cast of established stars, I was immediately struck by how confident and comfortable he appeared in his role as Brian Mullen, the overlooked husband of Rogers' Carlotta Marin. I have been a fan of his for years (ever since I first saw him in The Man Who Came to Dinner) so it was really great to see him in more than just a bit role for once. His other notable film credits, for those interested, include Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and the beloved holiday film Christmas in Connecticut. 

MVP of Black Widow (at least in my estimation) goes to the supremely underrated Reginald Gardiner.

I did enjoy Black Widow- but, for me, it was only half way there. It boasts a superb cast and an intriguing murder mystery, but every other element of this film is deeply flawed. I've said it before and I'll say it again, cinematography is crucially important. If you deviate your cinematography and production design from the tone of the screenplay, your film isn't going to work. It's as simple as that.

To further emphasize my point, I leave you with a quote from Blain Brown's text Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Image Making for Cinematographers and Directors about the important role cinematography plays in filmmaking;

"When we create a film project, one of our primary tasks is to create a visual world for the character to inhabit. This visual world is an important part of how the audience will perceive the story; how they will understand the characters and their motivations".

My Rating: 

I snuck in an extra half star for Black Widow's stellar ensemble cast. They deserved better.

Reginald Gardiner, Ginger Rogers, George Raft, Gene Tierney and Van Heflin in Black Widow.

Film Trailer:

More Screencaps:

This post is part of The CinemaScope Blogathon hosted by ClassicBecky's Brain Food & Wide Screen World (all the entries can be viewed by clicking the poster below);

Resources: Ginger: My Story by Ginger Rogers (1991), Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Image Making for Cinematographers and Directors by Blain Brown (2002), CinemaScope Two: 20th Century Fox by John Howard Reid (2005).


  1. I completely agree with you regarding the mixed messages in this movie. Like you said, it would be terrific if it were shot as a gritty black & white movie, but in colour it just feels weird. However, it's still a good movie and the cast is amazing.

    I'm so glad you covered this for the blogathon. It's kind of a relief to know I'm not the only one who feels slightly confused by this film.

    1. Likewise, I am glad I wasn't the only one who felt this way! It was such a disconcerting filmic experience. I felt really bad for selecting this film for the CinemaScope blogathon since it's such a negative example of the format lol.

      Thank you so much for commenting (I'm such a massive fan of your blog)!

  2. Great post about this rarely-discussed aspect of CinemaScope and the business behind it. I suspect attitudes like Zanuck's probably helped shaped that of the average filmgoer. I know I saw it during my years in video retail.

    Thanks for joining our blogathon.

    1. No, thank you for having me! This is my first ever Blogathon and it was so much fun! Despite having watched several CinemaScope films in my time, I was largely ignorant to the history behind it. Unfortunately, like you said, Zanuck's view on color photography is one held by the majority of today's public.

      Thanks again :)

  3. Laura, you are really an excellent movie reviewer. As you may have seen, I first got caught up in your article about Finian's Rainbow. When I read this review, I was very impressed about your take on this movie, the impact of color and Cinemascope on what is a film noir by nature .. I've never seen it, but your description of the color mistake is great: " ...Cinemascope ... is also the film's undoing. It has the script of a film noir- however, wherever you look within the 2.66:1 frame, the color palette is telling you that you're watching a Doris Day film. To be honest, I can't ever remember seeing a film where the presence of a pastel color palette was so unbelievably distracting." Very well put...(I never liked pastels anyway! LOL) Thanks so much for joining in!

    1. Wow, thank you so much! I can't tell you how excited I was when I read your comment! I was so grateful to participate in your blogathon and the fact that you enjoyed my contribution makes me so happy! Thanks again :)

  4. I watched this today, and all I can say is: "what were they thinking?" The thing is simply awful. Wide screen sucks, and color? This is a prime example of why I HATE wide-screen color movies, especially those made in the mid-50s.