For the loud-mouthed Texan toymaker, the object of his affection is a big, brassy strawberry blonde; her inch-long red nails jutting from her fingertips like knives. For the effete and lonely museum curator, she’s small and quiet, her short brown hair parted with a delicate wave in the front. And for the rugged French hotelier living in Hawaii, she’s a supermodel with long blonde braids billowing down her naked, tanned shoulders. She can be anyone her husband(s) need. Her name is Catherine (Theresa Russell). At least we think it is. Truth: we don’t know anything about her. Where does she come from? Who is she? It doesn’t matter. She lives wholly in the moment, subsumed into the role she chooses for herself as she snares a new victim. She has been married many times. All her husbands; middle-aged, all of them wealthy. And all of them destined to end up as mysterious deaths just months after marriage.
And then there is Alex Barnes (Debra Winger), Justice Department investigator. She’s pretty, charming, and a go-getter, but emotionally crippled. She shields her good looks with unkempt hair, baggy clothing, and impenetrable sunglasses. One day she stumbles across a strange case of successful businessmen succumbing to “Ondine’s Curse,” a medical condition where outwardly healthy men stop breathing in their sleep. What’s more, their brides all seem curiously familiar. Desperate for field work, she convinces her boss to let her fly to Seattle where she thinks this serial widow might strike next. Her hunch is right, but too late to save the Seattle husband. When she rediscovers the killer in Hawaii, she decides that the only way to catch a shapeshifter is to become one herself.
Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow (1987)—recently available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time—is obsessed with the conflux of identity and image. The very first shot of the film sees Catherine staring into a mirror applying makeup. Both Alex and Catherine redefine themselves for the sake of others: Catherine for her husbands, Alex for Catherine. When they finally do meet in Hawaii, they develop an immediate, almost palpably erotic friendship. They first meet at a scuba diving class where they learn how to give each other CPR. When they go diving together, Alex’s tank malfunctions and she begins to drown. And for a moment, just a moment, Catherine pauses and stares at her with a sickening pleasure before rescuing her. Before long Catherine wises up to Alex’s game. But she doesn’t kill her. She doesn’t even call her out. Perhaps she enjoys Alex’s attentions. And maybe she revels in the irony of finally having the attentions of a woman who wants to ensnare and destroy her just as she has ensnared and destroyed so many men.
There’s a heat to their relationship; a heat made all the more frustrating by Rafelson’s unwillingness to let it reach an organic conclusion. Ultimately Black Widow disappoints by isolating Russell and Winger in a deflated love triangle with the French hotelier, then stumbling over a predictable twist ending seemingly stolen from the Hays Code era. Unlike many other neo-noir femme fatale films of the 80s (Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981) and Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) come to mind), it doesn’t have the nerve to get properly nasty and caustic. It sets itself up for brilliance yet settles for formulaic tepidness.