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Duality in Bob Rafelson’s “Black Widow” (1987) – The American Detective Movie Where Both Cop and Criminal Are Women

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Bob Rafelson’s steamy 1987 thriller Black Widow is the rare Hollywood movie to feature females as both cop and killer, and surely the only one in which both heroine and villainess are bisexual women attracted to one another. (Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques has two bisexual heroines who, like Black Widow’s, share a man and scheme to get rid of one another, but it is French and neither is a detective.) A cop who desires his suspect has a long tradition (Laura). Criminals, drawn to danger, sometimes fall for the detectives who are pursuing them. But the attraction is usually heterosexual, and the cop doesn’t usually sleep with his quarry’s boyfriend. Also, although lawmen sometimes face a choice of whether to save a villain’s endangered life (The Untouchables), the criminal doesn’t usually rescue the cop who is chasing him, as in Black Widow’s scuba diving mishap, where the murderess shares her oxygen with the detective as they ascend to the ocean’s surface, their bare legs undulating together erotically.

Rafelson uses his heroines’ similarity to set up a duality; they are the same sex but on opposite sides of the law. Through story structure in the screenplay by Ronald Bass, and through staging, cinematography, production design, costume design and hairstyling, Rafelson focuses on his heroines’ duality: besides their sex, they share salient character traits, and besides being law enforcer and law breaker, they have diametrically opposed styles, appearances and love lives. Midway through the film, when they finally meet, Rafelson develops this duality further; while they are physically attracted to one another they are simultaneously trying to incarcerate one another. Their differences diminish as the plain-Jane detective imitates the sultry black widow in appearance, behavior and tactics.

Using a parallel structure, the movie demonstrates the similarities and differences of Justice Department employee Alex Barnes and the seductress/murderess whose real name we never learn, but whose first alias is Catharine Petersen. Debra Winger, who had been playing the love interest or leading lady in films such as Terms of Endearment and An Officer and a Gentleman, has an unbecoming hairstyle and wardrobe as Alex. Theresa Russell plays the ravishing chameleon Catherine, who tailors her personality and appearance to tantalize each victim. Both are attractive, troubled young women who are dedicated to, and excel at, at their occupations. Both are out to “catch” someone, both engage in long preparation and extensive research, and both take on multiple false identities. But while Alex is frumpy – she wears baggy clothes and doesn’t bother to tame her out-of control hair – and celibate, Catharine is sleek, chic, well-coiffed, and well-groomed. She wears fitted, expensive-looking outfits, and she is always luring, marrying, or bumping off a lover.

In the film’s first scenes, set at night, we see Catharine, elegant and poised, applying eyeliner, then putting on sunglasses. She takes a helicopter, then a limo, from a plane to her home, the setting where she pursues her occupation of seducing and killing. The swank apartment has a black-and-white checkerboard pattern on the hall floor. Next we see Alex, disheveled and tense, rushing to work at her desk job at the Department of Justice. Wearing sunglasses, like Catharine, she passes through the lobby, which has a black-and white checkerboard pattern on the floor. These scenes demonstrate immediately some of the characters’ similarities and differences. We learn that Catharine romances and kills without getting caught, while Alex works compulsively, and never goes on a date.
Later Catharine, now sassy in red curls and a clingy, emerald-green wrap dress, goes to have lunch with her new husband, a Dallas toy manufacturer (Dennis Hopper). Sitting at his desk and looking at a cluster of beeping and blinking glass tubes, he is on the phone scolding the toy’s inventor for writing confusing directions: “I don’t know how to read the instructions. I’m only five fucking years old.” When he teases his wife by telling the caller she looks a little scruffy today, Catharine, seated cross-legged in a chair on the other side of his desk, pouts and slides her slinky skirt up her thigh, proving him wrong. A few scenes later Alex, going to work, forgets she’s carrying a gun, and a security cop detains her in the lobby and escorts her to her boss’s office. As her co-workers watch and razz her she playfully tosses up the edge of her long, voluminous gray, gathered skirt to reveal a not-very-sexy glimpse of calves shod in brown boots.

After Alex becomes suspicious of recent deaths of rich men married to the same young woman, we follow the pair as they separately pursue their occupations; Alex researches Catharine and Catharine researches her next prey, the owner of a museum in Seattle. Alex brings her work home at night, and sets up a projector and screen in her living room to examine life-sized slides of Catharine. Alex is immediately attracted to the glamorous woman, and superimposes her arm and hand over the image of Catharine’s arm and hand. She goes to the bathroom sink, regards her less-alluring image in the mirror, and bends over, jealous and despondent. The film cuts to Catharine as she, too, bends over; she is also at home at night, looking sensational as usual in reading glasses and a silk kimono, studying books and magazines, then watching a video of Northwest Indians, one of the interests of her intended’s museum.

As the film progresses, Alex visits the sister of one of Catharine’s late husbands, learning more about the black widow and getting closer to her quarry. In the following scene, Catharine, demure and bewitching, flirts with her next husband, telling him the old joke about how porcupines make love (very carefully) enchanting him, and getting closer to her quarry. In a later scene, set at night at her husband’s lakeside lodge, Catharine, wearing nothing but a camel-hair coat draped over her shoulders, stands in front of a fireplace. The coat drops to the floor to reveal, illuminated lit by firelight, the graceful silhouette of her back from the waist down. Then, her skin golden and her lovely face flushed from the glow of the fire, she bends to pick up her coat, and we see glimpse of her breast. Her husband (Nicol Williamson), reclining nearby on a mattress on the floor, regards her with frank appreciation. She drapes the coat over her shoulders and, barefoot, slowly approaches him, lowering herself, lying next to him and embracing him. In a stark contrast, Rafelson cuts to Alex at night, still at the office, playing cards with her boss and colleagues on a makeshift table. After the game, she is seated at her desk when her boss offers to massage her neck. When his fingers inch down toward her breasts, she turns abruptly, rebuffing his advance.

Black Widow 2

Later, both women have setbacks. Alex warns a Seattle police detective that the museum owner’s new wife plans to kill him, and the cop treats her like a crank. The film cuts to the museum owner telling his wife that a reporter (Alex in disguise) wants to write a profile of her, altering Catharine that someone is on to her.

In another visual manifestation of their duality, in staging and in costume design, Alex is associated with water and blue, and Catharine with fire and red. The two women are first shown in the same place when they get on a ferry, Catharine in a long, supple gabardine coat, driving a late-model Mercedes and Alex in a long, stiff, baggy jacket, on foot. They finally meet at a scuba diving class in a pool after Alex quits her law enforcement job to pursue Catharine, and finds her in Hawaii. Alex, who is all work, is likened to water and blue, the cold color and the traditional hue of police uniforms. Catharine, by contrast, is shown standing nude and then having sex in front of a fireplace, and later, with a new conquest, Paul (Sami Frey), in front of an erupting volcano in Hawaii. She is passionate and murderous, and associated with fire and red. Paul later mentions a belief that a goddess of devastation lives in the volcano and makes fire from time to time (just as Catharine turns murderous occasionally and kills a husband).

After Alex tracks Catharine to Hawaii and the two women meet, they begin a relationship. Although Alex abhors the crimes, she is attracted to the criminal. While Alex has been spending most of her time at her desk, at a low-paying job, Catharine has led a dangerous and action-packed life, traveling from city to city, marrying rich and interesting men, poisoning them, and inheriting their fortunes. Alex watches Catharine at work manipulating her next victim, Paul, from the other side of his back yard in Hawaii. Catharine watches Alex from the other side of a farmer’s market as the cop tries to get rid of a pesky private detective she had hired earlier to find the black widow. Realizing Alex is out to get her, Catharine begins to plot to get Alex.

Simultaneously, they begin an understated, unconsummated romance. At their first meeting at the scuba diving class, a tracking shot shows a succession of students, all young women, lying on the grass, practicing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The camera pauses as Alex lowers her face to Catharine’s, and jokes about not taking the gesture, so similar to a kiss, personally. After the class, they lie next to each other on chaises longues, sipping frothy drinks. Catharine is a blonde bombshell in a snakeskin-patterned bikini, her long, straight hair falling over a shoulder. By comparison, Alex, lying on the chaise next to her, looks plain and pale; she wears an unattractive bathing suit with a big tie like a bow, and a long, baggy blue shirt over it. They go to Catharine’s hotel room for a drink, and Alex reclines on her bed. When they have a picnic, they lie side-by-side on a blanket and talk about romance. Catharine rests on her elbows as Alex, propped up on her side, facing her, gazes at her intently; their faces are very close. Catharine turns and lies on her back, telling Alex about her husbands and her feelings for them, leaving out the part about doing them in. She turns again and the two women, each resting on an elbow, gaze at each other. After scuba diving, they sit on the beach, side-by-side, to watch the sunset. With Catharine’s blessing and encouragement, Alex sleeps with Paul, who Catharine, to whet his appetite, has declined to have sex with. With Alex thus occupied, Catharine searches her apartment, and when she finds a hankie in a drawer, she smells it and brushes it against her cheek in an old-fashioned, romantic gesture. And, at her wedding, Catharine, looking gorgeous in a sinuous, white silk-charmeuse gown, accepts a gift of jewelry from Alex, a pin in the form of a black widow. Unexpectedly, Catharine grabs the back of Alex’s neck, pulls her toward her, and kisses her forcefully, stunning Alex, and sending her reeling. Finally, at the film’s conclusion, Catharine tells Alex that of all her relationships, she will remember this one.

Not only does Alex find Catharine attractive, she begins to copy her. The first day they meet, Alex borrows one of Catharine’s dresses for an evening party and employs her hairdresser to shape her unruly curls. Alex is attracted to Catharine’s boyfriend, and sleeps with him. As the film progresses, she employs Catharine’s tactics and uses subterfuge to try to entrap the murderess. In the last scene, Alex has been transformed from an unkempt Department of Justice office worker, with wild hair and ill-fitting clothes, to a chic young woman with a stylish hairdo, and a fitted, décolleté dress, striding confidently out of a county courthouse in Hawaii.

The conclusion is character-driven and inevitable. Both women are compulsive and neither will ever give up; since Catharine won’t stop killing, she is doomed to be caught once Alex is on to her. But even though Alex prevails and puts Catharine behind bars, Catharine has prevailed in the sense that she has influenced Alex, who has become more like her. The divide between cop and criminal has narrowed. Alex has dirtied, if not bloodied, her hands. She has left her law-enforcement job, and used morally questionable methods – taking on disguises and using subterfuge – to pursue Catharine. She did not warn the murdered museum owner that his wife planned to kill him. Catharine couldn’t frame her for murder, but she has left her mark on Alex.