Black Widow (Rafelson, 1987) and American Horror Story

“Mr. Shin, I’ll tell you two things about me.  I’m very rich.  And I’m very wealthy.”  I can only assume that Ronald Bass wrote this great line of dialogue for Theresa Russell in Bob Rafelson’s underrated and very 80s thriller.

Russell plays Catherine Patterson, the eponymous Black Widow.  Terms of Endearment-powerhouse Debra Winger plays Alex Barnes, a federal agent on the trail of a string of seemingly innocuous millionaire murders (including toy-magnate Dennis Hopper).

Rafelson is probably best known for his loose trilogy of Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens and Blood and Wine, but this female-driven piece, presupposing Jamie Lee Curtis in 1989’s Blue Steel, has his fingerprints all over it.  As with any Rafelson work the blocking is key.  His characters move.  A lot.  This is the classic hunting, haunted detective on the loose of the slippery criminal tale.  It’s Popeye Doyle chasing Alain Charnier.  The beauty is that, though both hunter and hunted, there’s no hint of a condescending change in sexual politics for gender compensation.  It’s the same story just transposed over to a female, where the overarching perspective changes very little.

That’s not to say that Rafelson isn’t aware.  Alex is constantly hit on by coworkers.  She falls for one of Catherine’s potential victims.  But it’s the unsentimental charge of the film, complete with the tearless shot of Alex charging out of the prison in wide-shot at the end, that makes this less “feminine thriller” than it is just a thriller.

In a lot of ways this is the film that Robert Towne tried to make when he made Tequila Sunrise the following year.  I wrote about that film awhile back and how Towne’s direction and production design were the main failures of what may have been a fine script.  Rafelson utilizes the same exotic locations, the same sex-in-a-pool/hot-tub, the same ‘befriend your enemy’ strategy, even some of his sunset, silhouetted wide-shots predict Towne’s.  The main differences are that Rafelson seems far more invested in performance than in anything else, and he draws fine ones from both leads, perhaps Russell’s finest, and that Rafelson’s idea of exoticness leans more towards Vertigo-enigmatic locales than it does on palm trees and Hawaiian shirts.  When Alex and her lover walk through a misty, tropical location one recalls Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart amidst towering trees – and all of the sensuality and silent horror that comes with that moment – before one realizes that they’re on a day trip through Hawaii.

What is it with some of these films and underwater sex?  Seriously.  The Gibson/Pfeiffer scene in Tequila Sunrise is as slapsticky and embarrassing as the infamous sequence in Showgirls.  While Russell’s skinny-dipping scene doesn’t quite reach that level of absurdity, it’s still awkward, shimmering, and cringe-inducing.  The moment, from a story perspective, is not only fine but necessary, but still, the direction here points to some odd 80s thriller trend that I have to investigate further.

Rafelson and Bass also utilize time compression frequently.  We never directly see the results of any of Catherine’s plotting – a strategy that helps writer and director in pulling off a final bit of subterfuge at the end, and that also places the concentration of the picture more heavily on the obsession (of both protagonists) than on the act itself.  As we learn gradually, Catherine doesn’t need more money.  There’s also little focus on the pleasure she gets from killing.  From a few drawn out lines, and the lack of evidence otherwise, we’re left with a sort of rut/niche (however you prefer it) that she’s carved for herself.

 

American Horror Story:

Aside from starting to finally checking out Deadwood, this is the only show I’m currently watching.  It’s uneven and ridiculous, and those are the reasons I like it.  The last episode, which featured less genre horror and more horrific events – a school massacre and a teenage overdose – point to what could potentially be a very interesting twist on theme and title of the show.  The “American Horror” is not only overt homages to classic American-produced pictures like Rosemary’s Baby, but also to that brand of everyday, cultural horror that is unique to, or at least predominantly, American.  There’s no avoiding the Columbine and Virginia Tech echoes as a main character in the show systematically and coldly kills his classmates (it’s a chilling scene and the best bit of directing that American Horror Story has thus far displayed).  That he’s also whistling a song pulled directly from Kill Bill (okay, I know, it’s actually from Twisted Nerve, but the proximity of the references – Kill Bill in 2003, Twisted Nerve in 1968 – to our reality, not the show’s, make’s the Tarantino reference all the more palpable and accessible) is a direct media implication, and even an ironic indictment.  Certainly though, AHS doesn’t glorify this type of violence – the scene is disturbing, the violence off-screen, and the perpetrator suffers long after (interesting, though, that the slain students aren’t shown on-screen, but the murderer’s death is shown in wide-shot and in slow-motion).

The drug overdose in pill form, while most definitely not only American, is still most directly tied to our culture’s obsession with body image, dependency and easy accessibility of prescription drugs.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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