Black Widow

(Bob Rafelson, USA, 1987)


If I had to nominate the Ten Great Fiction Effects, right up there (alongside Revenge, The Eternal Triangle, etc.) would be the mirror-rival – a theme that has returned to haunt quite a few movies of the mid 1980s. The mirror-rival is a bit like the doppelgänger – that duplicate shadow of your self that keeps disappearing around corners, whom you pursue and eventually and terrifyingly become, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson”, R.W. Fassbinder’s Despair (1978) or Joseph Losey’s Mr Klein (1976]). The mirror-rival is more like the psychotically violent twin, hidden away until he or she emerges to wreak catastrophe in films like Sisters  (Brian De Palma, 1973) or The Other (Robert Mulligan, 1972). But the true mirror-rival is more fundamentally disturbing than either the dopplegänger or the twin, because he/she is actually real, and quite independent of the main character.


The mirror-rival always appears as a reverse, negative image of the hero – on the other side of goodness, law or normality. The hero, almost by definition, is already somewhat elevated and estranged from society (think of Mad Max  [George Miller, 1979] or Dirty Harry [Don Siegel, 1971]), and thus sees in the hated villain someone who is also endlessly fascinating – the only person in sight who could ever be his or her equal or rival – and perhaps even the symbol of what the hero most secretly longs to be.


You don’t have to go far back in film history to see the mirror-rival at work. From just the early 1980s recall Year of the Dragon  (Michael Cimino 1986 – cop Stanley White fighting it out on a bridge above the world with Triad chief Joey Tai); Tightrope (Richard Tuggle, 1984 – Clint Eastwood as a cop watching his own kinkiness mimicked and exaggerated by a murderous fallen cop); Once Upon A Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984 – a man’s treacherous best buddy steals his money, his power, his woman and indeed his very life); and Scanners (David Cronenberg, 1981 – supernatural Christ and Anti-Christ figures deforming and eventually swapping each other’s bodies). The 1970s model is Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) – a growing, ever-more homo-erotic bond between hero and villain played off against the destined moment when one must kill the other, both knowing in their hearts that they are just sacrificial scapegoats for the rest of the normal, work-a-day world.


Come the mid 1980s, the mirror-rival can be found in a few strange and interesting places – cross-reference with Jonathan Demme’s great Something Wild   (1986), for instance. Like in the Old Hollywood days of A Stolen Life (Curtis Bernhardt 1946) or Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray 1954), we have a fine and fierce female duo (Debra Winger versus Theresa Russell) in Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow.


Black Widow is no knockout in Rafelson’s career – it marks a fairly modest return to form – but it deserves mention for the intrinsic interest of its theme. Here we have two special, extraordinary women figures placed in mirror rivalry – both of them lacking a key trait that the other possesses. Alex (Winger) is a brilliant, self-appointed detective tracking down the black widow, Catharine (Russell), who keeps changing her identity in order to marry men and then kill them for their money (Dennis Hopper has a particularly delicious scene as a man-boy millionaire magnate). Alex apparently lacks seductiveness (and a sex life – note the masculine diminutive of her name); Catharine lacks compassion (and a love life).


Rafelson, working from a good, tight script by Ronald Bass of Rain Man  (1988) fame, spins a psychological and narrative intrigue in which these characters will somewhat change positions through an intimate coming-into-contact – first, via a man (ageless French hunk Sami Frey as Paul Nuytten) with whom they both have an affair (the classic exchange token between mirror-rivals); and second, via a direct and thrilling moment of lesbianism (it’s just a kiss, but it really sizzles in context).


Black Widow seethes under, rather than explodes through, its exaggeratedly cool surface-tone; but that, in itself, is a frisson worth experiencing.

MORE Rafelson: Blood and Wine, The King of Marvin Gardens

© Adrian Martin March 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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