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

Discover the riveting duality in Bob Rafelson’s ‘Black Widow’ where female leads redefine the American detective genre.

Bob Rafelson’s “Black Widow” (1987) intricately explores duality within the American detective genre, featuring female protagonists as both cop and criminal.

This unique narrative twist challenges conventional gender roles, offering a refreshing perspective on the dynamic between law enforcement and lawbreakers.

Rafelson skillfully navigates the complexities of morality and justice, delivering a thought-provoking cinematic experience that defies traditional norms in the realm of detective movies.

“Black Widow” stands as a testament to the power of storytelling to reshape perceptions and subvert expectations.

Duality in Bob Rafelson’s “Black Widow” (1987)

Bob Rafelson’s provocative 1987 thriller, “Black Widow,” stands out in Hollywood as a rare film featuring a female cop and a female killer.

It is likely the only movie where both the heroine and the villainess are bisexual women attracted to each other.

In comparison to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques,” which has two bisexual heroines scheming against each other, “Black Widow” is distinctive in its portrayal of a detective.

While the tradition of a cop desiring a suspect exists (as seen in “Laura”), these attractions are typically heterosexual, and the cop rarely sleeps with the quarry’s partner.

Moreover, although law enforcement officers may face choices regarding a villain’s life, the criminal usually doesn’t rescue the pursuing cop.

However, in “Black Widow,” a scuba diving mishap unfolds differently, with the murderess sharing oxygen with the detective as they ascend to the ocean’s surface, their bare legs undulating together erotically.

Rafelson cleverly exploits the similarity between his heroines to establish a duality – they share the same sex but are on opposite sides of the law.

The screenplay by Ronald Bass, coupled with Rafelson’s focus on staging, cinematography, production design, costume design, and hairstyling, underscores the heroines’ duality.

Beyond their sex, they share key character traits, yet as a law enforcer and a lawbreaker, they exhibit opposing styles, appearances, and love lives.

As the film progresses, their differences blur, especially when the plain Jane detective starts emulating the sultry black widow in appearance, behavior, and tactics.

Utilizing a parallel structure, the movie highlights the similarities and differences between Justice Department employee Alex Barnes and the seductress/murderess Catharine Petersen.

Black Widow
Duality in Bob Rafelson’s “Black Widow” (1987)

Debra Winger, known for her roles as a leading lady in films such as “Terms of Endearment” and “An Officer and a Gentleman,” portrays Alex with an unflattering hairstyle and wardrobe.

Theresa Russell takes on the role of the beautiful chameleon Catherine, tailoring her personality and appearance to entice each victim.

Both characters are attractive, troubled women dedicated to their occupations, engaging in long preparation, extensive research, and adopting multiple false identities.

Yet, while Alex appears frumpy and celibate, Catharine exudes sleekness, chicness, and sophistication, always involved in luring, marrying, or eliminating a lover.

In the film’s initial scenes, set at night, we observe Catharine exhibiting elegance and composure as she applies eyeliner and dons sunglasses.

She then travels via helicopter and limo from a plane to her luxurious home, the backdrop for her pursuit of seduction and murder.

The upscale apartment features a black-and-white checkerboard pattern on the hall floor.

In contrast, the next scene introduces Alex, chaotic and tense, rushing to her desk job at the Department of Justice.

Similarly wearing sunglasses, she passes through a lobby adorned with a black-and-white checkerboard pattern on the floor.

These scenes promptly illustrate some of the characters’ similarities and differences. Catharine successfully engages in romance and killing without being caught, while Alex works compulsively and refrains from dating.

Subsequently, Catharine adopts a sassy demeanor with red curls and a form-fitting, emerald-green wrap dress.

She has lunch with her new husband, a Dallas toy manufacturer (Dennis Hopper), at his desk, where he scolds the toy’s inventor over confusing instructions, humorously remarking, “I don’t know how to read the instructions.

I’m only five fucking years old.” Teasing his wife about looking a bit scruffy, Catharine, seated cross-legged in a chair on the opposite side of his desk, playfully proves him wrong by sliding her slinky skirt up her thigh.

In contrast, a few scenes later, Alex, en route to work, forgets she’s carrying a gun. A security cop detains her in the lobby and escorts her to her boss’s office.

Playfully responding to the teasing from her co-workers, she tosses up the edge of her long, voluminous gray gathered skirt, revealing a not particularly alluring glimpse of calves clad in brown boots.

Following Alex’s suspicions about the recent deaths of wealthy men married to the same young woman, both characters embark on separate endeavors in their respective occupations.

Alex researches Catharine, while Catharine focuses on her next target – the owner of a museum in Seattle.

During nights, Alex brings her work home, setting up a projector and screen in her living room to examine life-sized slides of Catharine.

Alex is immediately drawn to the glamorous woman, superimposing her arm and hand over Catharine’s image.

In jealousy and despair, Alex gazes at her less all-around reflection in the bathroom mirror and bends over.

The film then transitions to Catharine, also at home at night, exuding her usual sensational presence in reading glasses and a silk kimono.

Engaged in studying books, magazines, and a video on Northwest Indians – one of her intended museum interests – she maintains her captivating appearance.

As the narrative progresses, Alex visits the sister of one of Catharine’s late husbands, gaining more insight into the black widow and drawing closer to her target.

In a subsequent scene, Catharine, demure and enchanting, flirts with her next husband, sharing the old joke about how porcupines make love (very carefully), captivating him and advancing toward her intended quarry.

In a later nighttime scene at her husband’s lakeside lodge, Catharine, wearing only a camel-hair coat draped over her shoulders, stands in front of a fireplace.

The coat falls to the floor, revealing the graceful silhouette of her back from the waist down, illuminated by firelight.

Her golden skin and flushed face create a captivating image as she bends to pick up her coat, offering a brief glimpse of her breasts.

Nearby, her husband (Nicol Williamson), reclining on a mattress on the floor, admires her with frank appreciation. Draping the coat over her shoulders barefoot, she slowly approaches him, lowering herself to lie beside him and embracing him.

In stark contrast, Rafelson shifts to Alex at night, still at the office, engaging in a card game with her boss and colleagues on an improvised table.

Following the game, seated at her desk, her boss offers to massage her neck. When his fingers move toward her breasts, she abruptly turns, rejecting his advance.

Subsequently, both women face setbacks. Alex attempts to warn a Seattle police detective about the museum owner’s new wife’s murderous intentions, but the cop dismisses her as a crank. The film then shifts to the museum owner informing his wife that a reporter (disguised as Alex) wants to write a profile on her, signaling that someone is onto Catharine.

In another visual representation of their duality, conveyed through staging and costume design, Alex is linked with water and blue, while Catharine is associated with fire and red.

The two women are initially depicted in the exact location when they board a ferry, with Catharine in a long, supple gabardine coat, driving a late-model Mercedes, and Alex in a long, stiff, baggy jacket, on foot.

Their first encounter occurs at a scuba diving class in a pool after Alex resigns from her law enforcement job to pursue Catharine, finding her in Hawaii.

Alex focused on work, is symbolized by water and blue – the cold color and the traditional hue of police uniforms.

In contrast, Catharine is portrayed standing nude and engaging in sexual activities in front of a fireplace, and later, with a new conquest, Paul (Sami Frey), against the backdrop of an erupting volcano in Hawaii.

She exudes passion, is prone to murder, and is connected with fire and red. Paul later mentions a belief in a goddess of devastation residing in the volcano, creating fire occasionally, analogous to Catharine’s occasional murderous tendencies.

After Alex traces Catharine to Hawaii and they cross paths, they initiate a relationship.

Despite Alex’s aversion to the crimes, she is drawn to the criminal.

While Alex has been confined to her desk at a low-paying job, Catharine has led a challenging and adventurous life, traversing cities, marrying affluent and intriguing men, poisoning them, and inheriting their fortunes.

Alex observes Catharine manipulating her next victim, Paul, from the other side of his backyard in Hawaii.

Conversely, Catharine watches Alex at a farmer’s market as the cop tries to rid herself of a persistent private detective she had previously hired to uncover the black widow.

Recognizing Alex’s intent to apprehend her, Catharine begins plotting to outsmart Alex.

Simultaneously, they embark on a subtle, unconsummated romance.

During their initial encounter at the scuba diving class, a tracking shot captures a sequence of students, all young women, practicing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the grass.

The camera lingers as Alex playfully lowers her face to Catharine’s, jesting about not personally taking the gesture akin to a kiss.

Following the class, they recline on chaises longues, sipping frothy drinks.

Catharine, a blonde bombshell in a snakeskin-patterned bikini with long, straight hair cascading over her shoulder, contrasts with Alex, appearing plain and pale in an unattractive bathing suit with a large bow tie and a long, baggy blue shirt.

They proceed to Catharine’s hotel room for a drink, where Alex reclines on the bed. During a picnic, they lie side-by-side on a blanket, discussing romance.

Catharine rests on her elbows while Alex propped up on her side, gazes intently at her. They share close moments, and after scuba diving, they sit on the beach together, watching the sunset.

With Catharine’s approval, Alex sleeps with Paul, whom Catharine has chosen not to engage in sexual activity with to pique his interest.

In Alex’s absence, Catharine searches her apartment, finding a cloth in a drawer, which she smells and brushes against her cheek in a romantic, old-fashioned gesture.

At Catharine’s wedding, she accepts a jewelry gift from Alex – a black widow pin. In a surprising turn of events, Catharine grabs the back of Alex’s neck, pulls her in, and passionately kisses her, leaving Alex stunned and bewildered.

Ultimately, in the film’s conclusion, Catharine informs Alex that this relationship will be the most memorable of all her connections.

Not only does Alex find Catharine attractive, but she also starts emulating her.

Alex borrows one of Catharine’s dresses for an evening party on their first day and enlists her hairdresser to tame her unruly curls.

Alex is drawn to Catharine’s boyfriend and engages in a romantic encounter with him. Alex adopts Catharine’s strategies as the film unfolds and employs deception to trap the murderess.

In the final scene, Alex undergoes a transformation from a disheveled Department of Justice office worker with wild hair and ill-fitting clothes to a chic young woman with a stylish haircut and a fitted décolleté dress, confidently striding out of a county courthouse in Hawaii.

The characters dictate the resolution, and it unfolds inevitably.

Both women exhibit compulsive behaviors, and neither is willing to concede defeat; as Catharine persists in her killing spree, she is fated to be apprehended once Alex catches on.

However, despite Alex ultimately succeeding in putting Catharine behind bars, Catharine triumphs in the sense that she has shaped Alex, molding her into a more resembling figure.

The gap between law enforcement and criminality has diminished.

In her pursuit of Catharine, Alex has compromised her principles, resorting to morally ambiguous tactics such as adopting disguises and employing subterfuge.

She chose not to warn the museum owner about his impending danger. While Catharine couldn’t frame her for murder, she has undeniably left an indelible mark on Alex.

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