Black Widow (1987 film)

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Black Widow
Black widow film.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byBob Rafelson
Produced byLaurence Mark
Harold Schneider
Written byRonald Bass
Music byMichael Small
CinematographyConrad L. Hall, ASC
Edited byJohn Bloom
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • February 6, 1987 (1987-02-06)
Running time
102 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$10.5 million[1]
Box office$25,205,460[2]

Black Widow is a 1987 American neo-noir[3] thriller film starring Debra Winger, Theresa Russell, Sami Frey, and Nicol Williamson. Dennis Hopper has a short role at the beginning of the film.

It is a crime drama about two women: one who murders wealthy men whom she has married for their money (and keeps moving west), and the other an agent with the Department of Justice who grows obsessed with bringing her to justice. It was directed by Bob Rafelson, from a screenplay by Ronald Bass.


The story centers on two women. Catharine is a psychopathic[4] femme fatale who preys on wealthy middle-aged men, seducing them into marriage and then fatally poisoning them. Each death is misdiagnosed as Ondine's curse, a condition by which seemingly healthy middle-aged men die in their sleep. Justice Department agent Alexandra "Alex" Barnes stumbles onto the first murder while investigating another case. As Alex delves further into the case, she uncovers a pattern which she believes ties the same woman to several similar murders.

Using exhaustive research and preparation as well as identity and appearance changes, Catharine weaves her web anew with each murder, killing a publishing magnate, a toy maker, and a museum curator, and is quickly moving on to her next victim: Paul Nuytten, an international hotel tycoon. Later, she reveals that she has been married six times, and possibly has murdered all her husbands.

After the death of the rich, lonely museum curator in Seattle, Alex's boss Bruce gives her tacit permission to hunt down the killer, and Alex goes undercover as "Jessie Bates" to track down Catharine and identify her next potential victim. The trail leads from Seattle to Hawaii, where Catharine is moving on Paul. With the aid of a private investigator, "Jessie" arranges to meet Catharine; the two women become friends. Catharine arranges for them to compete for Paul's affection; he's attracted to "Jessie," but falls for Catharine's charm and her stylishly executed seduction. Catharine marries him and, during the reception, reveals to "Jessie" that the "black widow" knows about the federal agent.

"Jessie" tries to warn Paul of Catharine's murderous intentions but he is skeptical, refusing to believe she is after his money; in the event of either of their deaths, their wills both stipulate that their net worth be left to the Cancer Foundation and not to each other. The private investigator is found dead of a suspicious drug overdose, after Catharine had forced him at gunpoint to inject himself. After Paul's apparent death, Catharine accuses "Jessie" of killing him, and "Jessie" is arrested when the police find poison in her room. Catharine meets with Paul's attorney, who explains that Paul was a resident of Florida, and according to state law, a spouse has the right to overturn charitable bequests stipulated in their spouse's will. Catharine then tells the attorney that shortly before his death, Paul had expressed "profound reservations" about the Cancer Foundation.

Catharine visits "Jessie" in prison, and while they talk, Catharine is confronted by the sister of one of her husbands and victims: Sara Petersen, the publisher. Then Paul enters the room, alive and well, and now aware that Catharine was in fact after his money. Catharine, shocked, realizes that her attempt to double-cross Jessie/Alex has failed. Catharine is arrested, and Alex emerges as the heroine, leaving as reporters attempt to question her.



Film4 notes that Black Widow succeeds through Rafelson's "menacing direction" and Debra Winger's "convincing struggle with temptation", while Theresa Russell "steals the show as the sexily assured devil sitting on her tracker's shoulder".[5]

Vincent Canby, in The New York Times, writes that while the film promises more than it can deliver, its classy looks make it both soothing and "redeemingly funny, in part, at least, for not becoming mired in its own darker possibilities". He praises Winger for "the gift of seeming always to have hidden reserves of feeling that might erupt in chaos at any minute", while Russell "comes into her own" in the film, and has "a clear-eyed sweetness that adds unexpected dimension to the homicidal Catharine."[6]

Roger Ebert gave Black Widow a mixed rating of 2.5 out of 4 stars, praising the performances by the main actors yet lamenting that "The movie makes no effort to keep us in suspense", by revealing too much too soon about Russell's character.[7]

As of October 2019, Black Widow holds a rating of 48% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 21 reviews.[8]


  1. ^ "Black Widow (1987)". AFI Catalog.
  2. ^ "Black Widow – Box Office Mojo". Retrieved May 27, 2010.
  3. ^ Silver, Alain; Ward, Elizabeth; eds. (1992). Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (3rd ed.). Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press. ISBN 0-87951-479-5
  4. ^ Leistedt, Samuel J.; Linkowski, Paul (January 2014). "Psychopathy and the Cinema: Fact or Fiction?". Journal of Forensic Sciences. London, England: Wiley. 59 (1): 167–174. doi:10.1111/1556-4029.12359. PMID 24329037.
  5. ^ "Black Widow: Review". Film4. 2012. Retrieved September 25, 2012.
  6. ^ Canby, Vincent (February 6, 1987). "Film: Black Widow, from Bob Rafelson". The New York Times. New York City: New York Times Company. Retrieved September 25, 2012.
  7. ^ Ebert, Roger (February 6, 1987). "Black Widow". The Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago, Illinois: Sun-Times Media Group – via
  8. ^ "Black Widow reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. San Francisco, California: Fandango Media. Retrieved February 21, 2019.

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