I’ve been asked a number of times since completing BLACK WIDOW about the relationship between the film and the Evelyn Dick ‘Torso Murder’ case that took place in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1945.
BLACK WIDOW is loosely inspired by the Evelyn Dick story. However, it is more greatly inspired by the idea of making a noir style film in general, and creating a classic 'femme fatale' character in particular.
Originally, I was intrigued by the way Evelyn Dick was portrayed in the 1945 newspapers as a femme fatale and based on court and police transcripts, the way she seemed to be playing up that role herself. I suppose the notion of a femme fatale was simply part of the broad culture at the time it’s interesting to note that 'Mildred Pierce' opened in Hamilton the same day John Dick’s dismembered torso was discovered. I found the idea of the way fiction and pop culture influence reality rather intriguing.
We intended to mythologize the Evelyn Dick story, shaping it into the form of a 40's era film noir, but doing so obviously took us further and further from the true biographical details of the Torso case. We didn't want to make a bio-pic that had already been done - and officially, Evelyn Dick was eventually acquitted for her husband’s murder. So we could not portray her as the killer in the movie and remain within the limits of the law. But how could an archetypal femme fatale not be murderous, and not be ultimately punished? These rules of the genre were much more important to us, so we chose to run with the fiction and soon moved away from the Evelyn Dick story.
For me, BLACK WIDOW is something of a love letter to classic cinema, and the film noir genre in particular. As a student, I was immediately drawn to film noir the dark, graphic, shadow-strewn frames, the morally bankrupt world, and especially the bold, aggressive and lethally dangerous femme fatales. More recently, I became interested in making a ‘ripped from the headlines’ kind of film, centring on a prototypical crime, that could be cross-bred with the musical genre to create something darkly comedic and, hopefully, very off-kilter.
Musically I was inspired by Mary Margaret O’Hara’s contribution to our last film, YOUKALI HOTEL (2003), in which she sang the 1942 song Something I Dreamed Last Night. Somehow her rendition managed to hold on to the period feel of the song, yet at the same time she made it thoroughly modern and entirely her own. Her approach to the song was like looking at the past through a contemporary lens that distorts the view, but in a most beautiful, artful way. In fact, this idea very much inspired the entire approach to BLACK WIDOW; I didn’t want to simply mimic the style of classic film noir, but playfully (and lovingly) bend it, distort it, and exaggerate it as much as we possibly could.
While Patricia Fogliato and I were writing the film, we turned to Blues guitar great Jeff Healey for advice on 1940’s musical repertoire. Jeff has an incredible collection of 78s meticulously organized in his basement library. He also possesses an awe-inspiring, encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz recordings stretching from the late teens through to the mid-forties. His advice in selecting music for the film was absolutely indispensable. Being a true jazz purist, though, Jeff didn’t fully approve of our ‘distorting lens’ approach to some of the recordings. Nevertheless, he did very graciously agree to produce and perform on two ‘authentic’ tracks for the film, Love For Sale and Make Love To Me.
Perhaps the biggest concern in the development of BLACK WIDOW was finding the right performer to portray the femme fatale, Eve Hardwick. In the spring of 2004, we came across a reference to a young Toronto singer, Sarah Slean. I picked up a couple of her albums and was immediately blown away, not only by her music (which is brilliant) but also by her inherent theatricality. She is a natural-born actor, and this is totally evident in each and every song. Later, closing my eyes and listening to her record her vocal tracks for the film, I was struck by the image of a girlish Judy Garland being possessed, Exorcist-style, by Marlene Deitrich.
Sarah had never acted in a film before, and by the time we got to the camera & wardrobe tests, she appeared to be nervous and was clearly feeling lost. She tried on gown after gown under the lights and seemed to be growing increasingly uncomfortable which made me feel very nervous as well. Then she tried on what we called the “Gilda gown” jet-black and shimmering with a life of its own. Suddenly her character, the period, the whole film noir world of BLACK WIDOW snapped into sharp focus for her. And for me too, because finally our femme fatale was standing there before us, ready for her close up.
- David Mortin, May, 2005.