Early in the 1952 mystery novel Black Widow, a detail of musical taste offers the reader a clue about one of the main characters: “There was a phonograph in the living-room. She made coffee and put on Welitch's [sic] records of the end of Salomé. She listened with all her body as if the music had been written especially for her.”1 The young woman in question, Nancy Ordway (known as Nanny), will soon be dead, her fate ultimately ascribed to a combination of general amorality, keen sexual desire for an inappropriate object choice, and a misjudged sense of her own ability to control the course of events. Who better as a figure of operatic identification for Nanny than Richard Strauss's (anti-) heroine? And given the date of publication, who better than Ljuba Welitsch as the diva of choice? Salome's importance to the story persists beyond this initial reference and pertains to Oscar Wilde as well as Strauss. It extends across media, too, into the 1954 film of the same title released by 20th Century Fox, which prominently features music from the opera and invites us to hear through Nanny's ears.
Meanwhile, in East Berlin, another young woman is seen to attend a performance of Salome at the Staatsoper. Here too, Welitsch is singing the title role. At this turning point in the Cold War spy film The Man Between (1953), our listener, Susanne Mallison (Claire Bloom), appears unmoved, certainly untransported; in this, she could hardly be more different from Nanny. Susanne has other things on her mind: if all goes according to plan, the final curtain of Salome will afford her a chance to escape from kidnappers. As film spectators, however, we may relish the rare spectacle of Welitsch in her prime, performing her most celebrated role, as a sequence during which The Man Between reaches a peak in emotional pitch. Unlike Nanny, Susanne will survive her story, and this contrast merits examination: in two near-contemporary films, the same operatic reference point indexes both the undoing of one woman and the resolve with which another makes her break for freedom. In the pages below, I want to ask how it is that Salome—and Welitsch's performance of it—appears to transfer a kind of genuine agency to one of these women, while offering only an empty promise to the other.
So much has been published in recent years about the meeting of opera and cinema that the near-total absence of Strauss's name from this literature is conspicuous. But music from Strauss's operas has seldom appeared in film; his works were not in the public domain during the mid-twentieth century, and Strauss (and his estate) often refused to license the music for use in other media.2 To my knowledge, the films introduced above are the only ones of the era in which music from Strauss's Salome appears—not just as passing allusion (as a listener in the know may discover in Franz Waxman's Sunset Boulevard score ), but foregrounded as music in the narrative world. There is much to unpack in contemplating the significance of Salome for these films: the broader cultural presence of Salome (and other Salomes) during the “long 1950s”; Welitsch as a transformative figure in the history of Salome performance; live operatic performance vs. opera as recorded object; the cinematic representation of women as listeners, and how this might inflect the much-discussed gender politics of Salome; the films' strategic alterations to both the opera's text and the operatic intertexts of their literary sources; and what the presence of opera within fiction and film can tell us about not only reception history but also the range of signification that Salome itself permits. In each case, the treatment of Salome allows us to consider how a film's citation and rewriting of a canonical operatic text may complicate received understandings of the work's meaning while also relying upon and to some extent reaffirming those understandings. Reiterating, contesting, and revising the image and story of Salome, mass-culture texts such as these (along with other artifacts from Bible epics to burlesque shows) have left traces on Salome and, in turn, become part of the opera's history.
“Salome Studies” is virtually an interdisciplinary field unto itself, pursuing the Princess of Judaea's textual and intertextual iterations across venues and media. But the decades after World War II have been underexamined. Scholarly fascination has fixated instead on the fin-de-siècle, an era replete with Salomes across the continuum of high-, low-, and middlebrow, as revealed by Larry Hamberlin's “Visions of Salome” exposé, among others.3 Some scholars have also pursued the “rich afterlife” of Salomé/e into radical Wilde stagings and experimental films from the 1970s to the present, but the mid-century remains a blind spot, despite being vastly productive in circulating and mediating the Salome narrative and its central character, in forms derived from Wilde and Strauss but also from a variety of alternatives (which perhaps never quite escaped the shadow of Wilde and Strauss).4 For my purposes, the following exploratory sketch of Salome's broad public presence during the “long 1950s” will frame the opera's significance for contemporary audiences, as a waystation toward addressing its place in Black Widow and The Man Between.
First of all, the status of Strauss's opera during these years commands attention. The period after World War II saw the normalization of Salome: the mitigation of its primary association with shock value. A High Fidelity headline of April 1962 asserted this bluntly: “There's No Longer Any Trouble with Salome.”5 Reviewing the now-classic Decca recording, critic Herbert Glass's accolades were primarily devoted to Birgit Nilsson and her technical mastery in the title role, but the headline's phrasing cannot help evoking other forms of “trouble” in the opera's history. More broadly, where earlier press coverage often continued to rehearse the tales of early scandal, by the 1950s critics are as likely to note that Salome was “hardly a shocker” anymore.6 In his 1964 book on the Strauss operas, William Mann asked readers “to remember how wild and incomprehensible [Salome] once sounded to ordinary opera-goers.”7 Apparently, listeners could now congratulate themselves on being more sophisticated than that.
Whether anything of value remained beyond the shock was open to debate. The following bears emphasis: in the 1950s, Salome's place in the performing repertoire was not yet taken for granted. The obituaries upon Strauss's death in 1949 foregrounded the larger question: “Will his music live? I think there is little doubt of that: though how much of it is a difficult question.”8Kobbé's Complete Opera Book, in the Earl of Harewood's 1954 revision to the 1919 original, newly identified Salome as being “on the fringe of every repertory,” but two years later Joseph Kerman would still assert with confidence that “Salome will fade from the operatic scene.”9 Stagings of the opera in these years ranged from the widely resisted Peter Brook/Salvador Dali production at Covent Garden in 1949 to a multi-racial cast that toured Salome in the American South with a subsequent off-Broadway run under consideration.10 But the opera arguably owed its good fortune primarily to a particularly distinguished cluster of dramatic sopranos: Nilsson, Astrid Varnay, Christel Goltz, and Inge Borkh, among others. Reigning preeminent (if briefly), by general acclaim, was Ljuba Welitsch. The frequency with which other Salomes have been compared (both then and since) to her performances of 1947–52 testifies to her priority, as does her recognition at the time within mass-mediated culture beyond opera.11 Welitsch's place in the postwar fate of Salome deserves deeper documentation and analysis, but here I take her as a kind of magnetic force behind the attraction of certain instances of fiction and film to Strauss's opera in the 1950s.
“Although plump, the soprano moves with easy grace.”
After her acclaimed Covent Garden Salome in 1947 (on tour with the Vienna State Opera) and a highly publicized Met debut in 1949, Welitsch (see fig. 1) made news for her ability to attract a “two-block line of standees waiting for the doors to open” at each Met performance.12 Even at her death in 1996, obituary writers returned to the lore of Welitsch's first Met Salome and the ovation it provoked; despite singing other roles from Donna Anna to Musetta, her identity remained uniquely bound to Salome.13 But the initial acclaim did not last. As early as her 1952 return to the Met, critics observed a decline, describing a performance that was “flamboyantly effective in the dramatic aspects of her impersonation of Salome but remarkably thin and untelling vocally.”14 Even one-time booster Claudia Cassidy deemed in 1953 that Welitsch was no longer “equipped to sing Salome.”15 The following year, Welitsch was absent from the Met roster.16
Welitsch's success had never been only about her voice; sex appeal mattered a great deal. Writing in the journal Theatre Arts, Paul Moor credited Welitsch with raising the bar for dramatic performance at the Met but also noted that “Miss Welitsch's gown was slashed in front so that her impulsive lunges would reveal a column of alabaster flesh from the arch of her tiny foot all the way up to her iliac fassae, a truly stirring spectacle.”17 Less poetically, Variety reported “one of the sexiest exhibitions ever seen on the sedate Met stage. Although plump, the soprano moves with easy grace.”18 Both went on to compare Welitsch's dance to the world of burlesque and striptease; pin-up artist George Petty named her his first choice among the “nation's 10 best undressed women.”19
Welitsch's celebrity was also articulated in terms of “personality,” both explicitly and by implication in feature stories and interviews: “Welitsch is, to put it mildly, a most stimulating person, whether she is serving enormous helpings to her guests in her apartment in Vienna, or demolishing a plate of positively red-hot paprikas in a Balkan restaurant, or organizing an expedition to drink bottle after bottle of delicious heurige wine.”20 Welitsch was not the first opera singer whose star persona was constructed via a perceived and publicized personality; nor was she the first Salome to make a performance of sexuality. But on the cusp of the 1950s she offered audiences a package combining vocal mastery, physical desirability, affective intensity in the communication of desire, and a distinctive personal identity—down to earth but capable of going to extremes, both in art and in life. Welitsch was an attractive Salome in more ways than one.
Given the speed of Welitsch's rise and fall, her recording of the final scene from Salome—made just days after the March 12, 1949, Met radio broadcast—entered the marketplace with perfect timing, capitalizing on both her celebrity and vocal peak. With complete recordings of the opera not yet available, it became a standard recommendation: “If you want Salome, buy Welitsch's superb performance of the finale (LX 1241-2).”21 The classical music pages of Billboard deemed it a “must for all longhair and FM libraries,” even if “not suitable” for jukeboxes, and Billboard also placed the recording at number 1 on its classical album sales chart on May 28, 1949; it remained at the number 1 or 2 spot for most of the year.22 Concrete evidence of strong sales comes from a company insider: in a letter to Fritz and Carlotta Reiner, Edith Behrens, promotion and publicity head of Columbia Records' classical division, added a handwritten “P.S. Salome has sold out twice this week at our distributors. I can't even get one!”23 Although it respects the continuity of the score, Welitsch's recording is a solo showcase, omitting the vocal parts for Herod and Herodias and thus lacking the final call for Salome's death; even if the listener knows better, it may be possible here to focus more than usual on the singer's triumph rather than the character's defeat, a significant point for the cinematic readings below.24
“It takes courage to turn down a Richard Strauss score and insist on something better.”
The importance of recording, radio, and the popular press in making Welitsch's reputation may be understood in relation to other mass-mediated iterations of the Salome narrative and of Strauss's music in these years. Continuing the early twentieth-century legacy documented by Larry Hamberlin, Salome and her dance were still being parodied in song and referenced in performances on stage and screen: from a “Salome” song in the film version of Dubarry Was a Lady (1943) to a “Salomee” production number a decade later in Broadway's Hazel Flagg; from sixteen-year-old Beverly Ann Cort, dismissed from her Detroit-area high school in 1946 after doing a Salome dance at a school assembly, to the era's most famous striptease artist, Lili St. Cyr, who inaugurated a Salome number of her own by 1948 at the latest.25 Hamberlin reduces the opera's (and the character's) continuing impact to Sunset Boulevard—“Norma Desmond personifies the staying power of Salome in the popular consciousness”—but Desmond's Salomean aspirations may just as easily have been understood in relation, grotesquely, to these striptease contexts as to Wilde or Strauss.26 These contexts left traces on the opera, too, as already seen in Welitsch's reviews. Print sources (with precedents like George Sylvester Viereck's Salome: The Wandering Jewess: My First 2,000 Years of Love ) told still other stories, sometimes far from the Wilde/Strauss template, including Henry Denker's novel Salome, Princess of Galilee (1952) and Blaise Hospodar's pseudo-theological/historical study Salome: Prostitute or Virgin? (1953). (The answer? Virgin! This is also roughly the angle taken by Denker's novel.) Despite “Oscar Wilde's retroactive instrumentality in the Salome myth,” these texts and performances all participate in what Megan Becker-Lecrone has called a “two-thousand-year-old game of textual telephone,” and for mass audiences in the mid-1950s, varying media iterations could potentially be taken for so many versions of a story, not necessarily deviations from a single authoritative one.27
Television would soon beam Salome into American living rooms in more or less canonical forms: NBC Opera Theater's production of the Strauss in May 1954 (in which a young Sal Mineo lip-synchs the soprano role of the Page, and John Cassavetes that of Jochanaan)—“tepid stuff,” wrote one television critic—and the Omnibus presentation of Wilde's play on CBS in December 1955, starring Eartha Kitt with a score by Leonard Bernstein.28 Prior to these outings, however, came Rita Hayworth's Salome vehicle (1953). Based on director William Dieterle's own 1950 novel, The Good Tidings, this is one of the few Salomes of the decade to have received a smattering of scholarly attention, which typically frames the film by the measure of its perceived distance from Wilde/Strauss: “Hopelessly compromised between the demands of sex, appeasement, and the star system”; with a dance “as salacious as the heroine of a hygiene film made for bored seventh graders.”29 Hayworth's Salome converts to Christianity, dances to save the Baptist's life (unsuccessfully), and ends by witnessing the Sermon on the Mount alongside her beloved Claudius, a Roman officer and fellow convert.
This Salome reached the screen where other attempts (including, notably, by Orson Welles) had failed. The dance itself had been among the sticking points in the Production Code Administration's refusals to approve the subject for filming.30 For the Hayworth film, Columbia Pictures stated the intent to forego “a lascivious dance”; further demonstrating the normalization of Salome in the 1950s, the claim was made that “Salome's dance had been presented on the stage and also in opera without offense,” and therefore “the motion picture should be able to handle this equally without offense.”31 The rhetorical placement of Hayworth-Salome vis-à-vis stage and opera persisted in the film's publicity and press coverage, but whereas the PCA memo justifies the film on the basis of non-offensive precedents in high-culture venues, the publicity cites the fin-de-siècle Salome texts precisely in order to distance the film from them. This is most evident in a full-page item in Life magazine, “Salome, Nice Girl” (see link to image in footnote), in which Hayworth (in color) tosses a veil while posing before a life-size enlargement of a well-known Aubrey Beardsley illustration (in black and white), accompanied by a caption that compares Hayworth's “winsome Salome” to Beardsley's “less amiable view of the Biblical dancer.”32 With Hayworth positioned such that the line of her body is continued in an upward curve by Beardsley's hovering Salome, the image re-associates Hayworth with Wildean markers at the same time that it claims to distinguish the two. The fact that “the music is not that of Richard Strauss” was also noted by some critics,33 and indeed emphasized by a pre-written publicity article in the Columbia Pictures pressbook:
It takes courage to turn down a Richard Strauss score and insist on something better but nobody has ever accused Broadway choreographer Valerie Bettis of lacking guts. … The Broadway danseuse shook her pretty head at the Strauss version of the music for the dance and insisted Daniele Amfitheatrof be assigned to write a new score.34
The idea that Columbia actually could have chosen to use Strauss's dance music, if not for Bettis's objections, seems deliberately misleading here, in crediting Bettis and Hayworth with more agency in the affair than they actually had.35 If the goal was to sanitize this Salome by emphasizing its self-conscious distance from decadent Wilde and Strauss, the strategy was fraught with contradiction: promoting the film by publicizing what it isn't, thus issuing a reminder of what had both attracted and repelled audiences for a half-century. But this was less careless than canny, taking what had been forcibly excluded and embedding it visibly within the film's network of associations. This was one way of engaging with the Wilde/Strauss Salome in 1950s mass culture, and it may have been the most lucrative: the Hayworth film was a major box-office hit. It also became a part of the discourse about Salome; for example, C. G. Burke in High Fidelity, on the pronunciation of the opera's title, jests that “Slomy [sic] will always—or for a year or two—be associated with the biblical research of Miss Rita Hayworth, who appeared in the animated comic strip by that name.”36 But what would it have taken to persuade future operagoers that it was Wilde and Strauss who had gotten it wrong, and that a virtuous Princess of Judaea could well have danced her way into eternal life instead of perdition? Or even that the creative agency of women—those who dance, those who make dances—might be something to celebrate, as Columbia's pressbook suggests?
This, then, delivers us back to The Man Between and Black Widow, films that arrived in the wake of the Hayworth epic, bringing elements of the Strauss opera to screen and soundtrack within narratives not even remotely based on it. As noted at the outset, Welitsch herself is directly significant to both, but in Black Widow, her specific presence in the source novel has been omitted from the film, while The Man Between introduces both Salome and Welitsch despite their absence from its source text. The questions remain: how is Welitsch significant to each film (whether present or absent), and of the connotations Salome and Salome had accrued, which ones matter here, and how? That there is no simple transfer of meaning from the Wilde/Strauss Salome to these films will be clear; much depends on the uses to which the music is put, and on the scenarios of listening that each film sets up. I begin with The Man Between, which confines its engagement with Salome to a comparatively limited space.
“It seemed unusually long tonight, didn't it?”
Set in divided Berlin in the very recent past, The Man Between observes the moral ambiguities of the Cold War through the eyes of Susanne Mallison (Claire Bloom), who arrives from England to visit her brother and his German wife, Bettina. The “man” of the title is Ivo Kern (James Mason), who turns out to be Bettina's first husband (she has remarried, having thought him killed in the war), but by the time this is revealed, his worldly air has proved irresistibly attractive to Susanne. Ivo is “between” East and West; working undercover for the East in ways that will endanger Susanne, he also aspires to escape his past by proving his potential value to the West. Thanks to its noirish postwar intrigue and morally compromised protagonist, The Man Between has been compared ever since its release to one of director Carol Reed's earlier films, The Third Man (1949). The comparison has never been kind to The Man Between or to its music, since Anton Karas's zither theme from The Third Man had comprised one of the era's most striking scores.37 The opening credit sequence of The Man Between does promise a musical attraction, “SALOME played and sung by LJUBA WELITSCH,” but not until nearly an hour into the film is Strauss or Welitsch heard. Until then, John Addison's tense score with solo saxophone dominates the soundtrack, mostly to be replaced after the opera-house episode by a Mantovani-like texture of heavily reverbed strings with vibraphone.
Salome plays no role in the novel on which The Man Between is based: Walter Ebert's Gefährlicher Urlaub (Dangerous Vacation), originally serialized in Der Tagesspiegel under the title Susanne in Berlin (where it was pseudonymously credited to Lothar Schuler).38 But the novel does include two trips to the Staatsoper: the first to Strauss's Rosenkavalier, the second and dramatically central one to an unidentified performance.39 The latter occurs after Susanne has been abducted into East Berlin; Kalendar, an East German operative, hopes to move against a Western agent who will participate in the deal to return Susanne to her family, with the rendezvous to occur after the performance. Ivo hatches a plan that is identical in novel and film: in the confusion of the post-opera crowd, Susanne and Ivo will swerve into another car and be whisked away to safety.
With multiple intermissions and a corps of dancers, the novel's unidentified opera is certainly not meant to be Salome. Susanne and Ivo continue to hear the music of the final act as they wait outside, while Ivo jokes about familiar operatic clichés: the overweight soprano and the blood-drenched plot, the latter reinforcing the novel's own threat of fatality.40 Opera's significance to the fiction, then, is limited, an event during which a suspenseful plot device can occur, though also creating distinctions: Susanne is aesthetically susceptible to opera, Ivo is ironically detached from it, and Kalendar uses it as a means to a nefarious end.
The film opens up other possibilities, by allowing us to hear and see the opera performance, and to observe the protagonists as opera spectators. Salome is never mentioned by name in the body of the film, nor is Welitsch; if the performer in the film is actually meant to be Welitsch, as herself, singing Salome, this is never specified beyond the opening credits. And the choice of opera and singer may have been dictated simply by the availability of footage. News items in late 1951 had announced Welitsch being filmed as Salome at the Vienna State Opera for the forthcoming Cinerama anthology, which promised to showcase her red hair in Technicolor and her entire performance on a grand scale.41 When This Is Cinerama was released in June 1952, however, Welitsch and Salome were no part of it; perhaps better suited to its project of inspiring awe through technology, the film featured a scene from Aida instead. It seems likely that, if the Vienna filming of Welitsch's Salome actually did occur, we are seeing a bit of it repurposed in The Man Between. This would link up with another piece of news, from earlier in 1951, to the effect that Alexander Korda had acquired the rights to Salome and Der Rosenkavalier for film purposes. Korda had been involved with Welles's unrealized Salome projects, but here he appears to have been acting on behalf of the director-writer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Music News speculated that the team would follow up their soon-to-be-released Tales of Hoffmann film with one of Salome.42 More likely, the rights were acquired for the Powell-Pressburger Golden Years project, a Strauss biopic that never found financing.43 As a production of Korda's own London Films (though Reed, not Korda, is the credited producer), The Man Between would have afforded an opportunity to put those rights to use via its required opera scene. If Salome's use was not a foregone conclusion, its availability was fortuitous, for it inflects the film's meaning in provocative ways.
As played out in the film, the scene takes just over three minutes from Salome's final scene, editing together three separate sections of the score. For just under a minute of this (in four separate shots), Welitsch is seen on stage—her occasional, starkly dramatic gestures contrasting with the other figures, posed as still as waxworks. Cutting between stage and spectators, the first part of the sequence may feel akin to the suspenseful oratorio sequence in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much: a musical performance as a space of danger but also an opportunity for action.44
The sequence begins by dissolving from Susanne's face at an earlier hour directly to a shot of Welitsch on stage, intimating a connection between the two. Welitsch occupies the foreground, addressing the audience rather than Jochanaan's severed head, as she sings from “In der ganzen Welt war nichts so Rot wie dein Mund” (one measure after rehearsal number 336).45 “Mund” coincides with a cut to Bloom and Mason; ten seconds later, another cut takes us to the opera house's vestibule, where Halendar (the book's Kalendar), askew in an angled shot strongly reminiscent of The Third Man's visual style, conspires with his fellow agents. At this edit, Strauss's score and the sound recording are audibly edited as well, skipping ahead and surging into dramatically urgent music at “Ah! Warum hast du mich nicht angesehn, Jokanaan?” (two measures before rehearsal 340), which from here plays out uncut for approximately two and a half minutes. Beginning this passage in the vestibule, the scene returns to the opera box with Halendar as he retrieves Susanne and Ivo, and grants us another, brief view of Welitsch on stage. Where the novel had shown Ivo poking fun at opera's clichés, here we get evidence of his aesthetic engagement instead: leaving the box, he sneaks a glance back at the stage, coinciding with the gleaming high note ending the phrase “du hättest mich geliebt!” the first time Welitsch sings it.
Across a series of shots from the vestibule to the exterior, where Ivo and Susanne stroll back and forth in anticipation, Welitsch's voice and the orchestra retain nearly the same volume and presence they possessed within the house. This aural priority references the characters' own consciousness of the continuing music; as Ivo tells Susanne, the action will begin, “About the time the opera ends.” The music likewise enhances the spectator's sense of duration and suspense, though a moment of correspondence between spoken and sung text adds another level of meaning. Susanne's demand to Ivo, “At least tell me what I am to do,” is echoed directly by Welitsch's voice, asking, “Was soll ich jetzt tun, Jokanaan?”—again allowing an affinity to be inferred between Susanne and Salome (and, more ominously, between Ivo and the severed head). As tension rises, both in Strauss's score and through the rapid visual editing, Welitsch arrives at Salome's third and last statement of “du hättest mich geliebt”; the final, sustained word is synched this time first with a shot of Ivo and Susanne, tensely looking to the right; then cutting to their apparent point of view, of a street decorated with posters of Stalin; and finally a shot of Halendar, also watching and waiting.
At this point, further surgery is done on both score and performance. The line that should directly follow—“Und das Geheimnis der Liebe ist grösser als das Geheimnis des Todes …”—is cut, as is Herod and Herodias's subsequent dialogue, the actual kiss of Jochanaan's mouth, and the bulk of Salome's final utterance. The audio jumps ahead to land at Salome's triumphant last words—“Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jokanaan. Ich habe ihn geküsst, deinen Mund!” (cutting directly from rehearsal number 349 to 359)—and, for the first time since Ivo and Susanne left their seats, we see the stage itself again, in the same framing in which we left it. Welitsch is gesturing dramatically toward the apparent head; a cut back to a longer shot is matched to the second “Ich habe … ,” Welitsch now posed in victorious attitude. Totaling almost thirty seconds and coinciding with peak tension outside of the opera house, this is an unexpectedly extended moment of luxuriance in the performance, visible only to us and not to any of the characters, but once again heightening suspense by conveying that the opera's end, and thus the beginning of the offstage action, is nigh.
Here, however, anyone familiar with Strauss's score will be surprised. Having returned to the exterior scene as Welitsch sustains the pitch on “Mund,” a shot arrives in which Susanne enters the frame, followed by Ivo, as the music ends and applause begins. “Listen,” says Susanne; Ivo responds, “It seemed unusually long tonight, didn't it?” But the opera was actually cut short, concluding without Herod's command, “Man töte dieses Weib,” and without a Weib being getötet. Instead, where the score has been brought to halt is the cadence at rehearsal number 361; that is, precisely the moment when the “most sickening chord in all opera” has been resolved.46 Salome appears to have survived this performance of the work: with the film's help, Welitsch's character outwits Strauss's score, Wilde's plot, and the necessity of her own undoing, rewriting the script to end instead with her ecstasy. (Here, for once, is a Salome who has anticipated Carolyn Abbate's “anti-essentialist advice”: “Get the head of Jochanaan. And avoid the soldiers with the shields.”47)
Using Strauss's own final page here might have functioned effectively if Ivo and Susanne were, say, gunned down at this moment. But the music as used is neither isomorphic to action nor “anempathetic”; it does not unspool mechanically, indifferent to the protagonists. Instead, by discharging its accumulated emotional power in their direction, it offers some of that power to them and opens up the space in which their escape may take place. The revision thus suits the scene and the film by alerting us that scripted endings are subject to change and master narratives may be outwitted. More specifically, if Salome can survive her opera on this occasion, we may sense a transfer of female agency and competency to Susanne, and thus the possibility that she will similarly survive her own story.
On the narrative surface, very little connects Susanne with Salome, and yet the extended citation of this particular opera in her proximity prompts deeper reflection. This may then add a layer to our assessment of Susanne as a sexually inexperienced young woman whose desire threatens to overtake her; who enjoys flirting with Ivo, especially insofar as it unsettles her brother and sister-in-law and exceeds their image of her as a child. We may also recognize that Ivo's ultimate death in some way proceeds not only from the Cold War conflict, but also from Susanne's initial inability to recognize the gravity of the situation into which her desire leads her. Although Susanne has not demanded his death, nor danced for it, she is unwittingly a fatal force. Yet her crossing of paths with Salome one night at the Staatsoper activates connections that add nuance and resonance to her character, complicating our sense of her potential rather than condemning her. Welitsch, too, emphatically triumphant in the film's rewrite of Strauss's score, has done her part to authorize a different ending for Susanne.
This, however, is not an ending that Nanny Ordway enjoys in Black Widow, either the novel or the film; Salome does not come to her rescue. Among significant differences between The Man Between and Black Widow are the forms of reception and mediation represented in each case. For purposes of plot and characterization, it matters that Nanny listens to records while Susanne attends a performance. This is not to suggest that any essential disenchantment or loss of aura afflicts music in recorded form, nor that value necessarily accrues to “presence” or “liveness”—The Man Between's performance, of course, also comes to us mediated by recording—but the two films do roughly align with these clichéd positions. Attending Salome at the Staatsoper is a one-time event; Susanne and Ivo have only one, drastic chance at authoring their own script. By contrast, Nanny's relationship to recorded music can take an obsessive form: a locked groove of “Salomania” with no escape route. But what may matter most, in its final impact on the narrative and on our experience, is that the Black Widow film amends its source by displacing the diva, limiting “opera” to orchestral strains. The impact of that exclusion can be assessed after first considering the presence of the operatic voice on the source novel's printed page.
It seemed natural to ask her home for a nightcap. She said: Yes, she'd come if we could play Welitch's Salomé. I had it, she knew. She'd seen it on the shelf.
Like Susanne in Berlin, Black Widow was published under a pseudonym, Patrick Quentin, used by Hugh Wheeler and Richard Wilson Webb for a series of mystery novels featuring the theatrical producer and sometime detective Peter Duluth (renamed Peter Denver in the film).48 Later the Tony Award-winning author of the books to several Sondheim shows and the 1974 revision of Bernstein's Candide, Wheeler at least seems to have been knowledgeable enough about music to make strategic reference to it in his fiction.
In Black Widow, the protagonist himself is implicated in the story's murder case. With his wife away at her mother's sickbed for an extended visit, Peter begins an acquaintance with Nanny Ordway, who he meets at a party upstairs from his own apartment, hosted by the actress Carlotta “Lottie” Marin and her husband Brian. Peter takes the innocence of their friendship for granted and offers Nanny the use of his apartment as a writing studio during the days while he is out. When Nanny is found dead there, Peter is the prime suspect—of adultery as well as murder.
That Nanny was no innocent becomes evident in the course of things: she is the titular black widow, plotting to finger Peter as the father of the child she has conceived with her lover—none other than Brian, the bored and idle husband upstairs, who sorely feels his status as mere accessory to the famous Lottie. Peter, so the plan goes, will have to pay support, and Nanny and Brian will run off together. Some readers, however, may question Nanny's character early in the book, at the passage already quoted: at her apartment, according to Peter's first-person narration, “There was a phonograph in the living-room. She made coffee and put on Welitch's [sic] records of the end of Salomé. She listened with all her body as if the music had been written especially for her.”49 This brief episode of listening and embodied identification (omitted from the film version) is soon followed by another, on a different phonograph, to a second copy of the same record. Peter narrates again:
It seemed natural to ask her home for a nightcap. She said: Yes, she'd come if we could play Welitch's Salomé. I had it, she knew. She'd seen it on the shelf. Her roommate's phonograph was being repaired and she'd missed it so much.
We played the Welitch Salomé. I didn't want to give it much volume because it was late. But the jangled, disturbing music filled the apartment. She listened, rapt, the way she had done in her own apartment. When it was over, she said:
“That's the way I would like to write. Just like that. That sort of mood.” She paused and then quoted softly: “ ‘Das Geheimnis der Liebe is [sic] grüsser [sic] als das Geheminis des Tod [sic].’ It's corny, maybe, but if you could do it right in a story!”
“The secret of love,” she said, “is greater than the secret of death.”
She looked so young and solemn that I grinned. “Treated à la Somerset Capote.”50
With the error-filled libretto quotation, it is hard to know whether the authors neglected to check the source or if Nanny is being implicated as a poseur. Above and beyond this, the mediation of these experiences of Salome through Welitsch remains significant: in this passage, her name twice occupies the authorial slot where we are accustomed to see Strauss's or Wilde's, as if to acknowledge the power of Welitsch's renown and her best-selling record to communicate knowledge and experience to a susceptible listener in the early 1950s. Further, the quoted line of text cannot have been casually chosen; Constantin Floros has called this epigram “the key sentence of the [final scene's] monologue, and probably of the entire opera,” and has described Strauss's strategy for isolating it (via tempo, dynamics, scoring, and harmony) as an especially foregrounded utterance in the score.51 Latching on to this phrase, Nanny has received Strauss's message.
The keys to Peter's apartment come with permission to continue listening, and Salome goes into constant rotation. Nanny leaves notes and doodles for Peter: one self-portrait shows “a girl listening to a phonograph with notes coming out of it”; another, more revealing, depicts “a girl dancing with wild abandon. Under it was typed: Triumphant Dance of Female Genius.” Within a male-authored fiction of the 1950s, we are probably meant to infer that a woman who articulates the possibility of “female genius” is trouble (and is in for trouble). It could be tempting, following Lawrence Kramer in his assessment of the operatic Salome's fantasy of assuming “logocentric authority,” to presume that this aspiration “must, of course, come to nothing,” were it not for the pressure that Carolyn Abbate has rightly put on that “of course.”52 Yet fiction, film, and opera present different conditions of possibility for the representation of a character's self-fashioning, and with Nanny confined to the page, “Patrick Quentin's” novel is the least generous, indeed the most punishing, of these texts.
Strategically undermining Nanny's ambitions, the novel presents her as an epigone of outdated symbolists and decadents: as quoted above, she aims to write like Wilde—or does she aim to synaesthetically approximate the “mood” of Strauss's music in prose? As an authorial move, this is strikingly similar to that credited (though positively) by Patricia White to Alla Nazimova's Salome film of 1923 as an instance of “the female tradition of appropriating Salome”: “Nazimova also affiliated herself with Oscar Wilde—with his authority as well as with his notoriety.”53 Yet Black Widow is less than receptive to such affiliations, as suggested by Peter's immediate recalibration of her aesthetic to the middlebrow level of Maugham and Capote. Responding to the film, too, one critic inferred that Nanny “imagines herself an authoress,” with “imagines” as the key word (as if “authoress” didn't communicate condescension enough).54 But what if, instead of aiming at the register of Wilde and Strauss, Nanny were seeking to emulate the power of Welitsch's delivery? Latent though this possibility may be within the text, the persistent evocation of the soprano as performer-author may yet introduce into the reader's imagination something more radical than the narrative can quash.
Having worked in Peter's apartment for a week, Nanny informs him of her progress (after Strauss has greeted him at the door):
“I've started my new story. From Salomé. ‘The Secret of Love.’ ”
“Is it greater than the secret of death?”
“That's what it's meant to be about.”
All of this is setup for the events that occur when Peter brings his wife, Iris, back to the apartment after her absence, not having explained his arrangement with Nanny. Upon their arrival,
The phonograph was going full blast. Salomé was screaming her lungs out over Jokanaan's severed head. Iris picked up a piece of paper. …
Those damned drawings! I took it from her. This time it was a kid's circle and line sketch in ink of a girl hanging by the neck from a rope. Under it was typed in block capitals:
THE SECRET OF LOVE IS GREATER THAN THE SECRET OF DEATH? [sic]
Nanny's fate, at any rate, does not remain secret for long: “Her red chiffon scarf was knotted around her neck and she was dangling by it from the metal stem of the chandelier.”55 Undone by Salome's own iconic accessory (for this scarf must surely be construed as a veil, repurposed), Nanny is just as significantly denied in her attempt to seize the privilege of authorship: her literary aspirations trivialized, and the plot she attempts to author in her own life foreclosed.
Nanny's body, we learn, has been hanging for at least three hours; the Salome recording has apparently been on continuous repeat at high volume for the entire afternoon (automatic changers and repeaters were standard features on phonographs, making this technically plausible). Although the phonograph does not become evidence, the note and drawing do, and despite Peter's explanation of the quotation's source, the police read extra-operatic significance into it. Peter subsequently mulls over these words: “Could Nanny have intended exactly this? Could she have been monstrous enough to have wanted her dream lover not only to lose his wife and his self-respect but also to be accused of her death? The secret of love merged with the secret of death?”56 Is this what the novel fears from a triumphant dance of female genius?
By the time Peter arrives at these thoughts, Nanny's “monstrosity” has become clear. The book never explicitly connects her fondness for Salome to her skewed moral compass (after all, Peter and Iris also own a copy), but the ultimate construction of Nanny's character is deeply congruent with familiar tropes of Salome reception. Petra Dierkes-Thrun sums up Wilde's depiction of Salome as “the emphatic and ecstatic assertion of a transgressive individual … able to satisfy her own needs recklessly and triumphantly by savoring her own aesthetic and erotic desires and consuming herself in her own pleasure,” and it is no stretch to see Nanny attempting to access this way of being in the world, perhaps without having processed how both play and opera end.57 (Recall that the Welitsch recording of the final scene omits the voices of Herodias and Herod, and thus, like Susanne's night at the Staatsoper, concludes without a “Man töte dieses Weib!”) Tropes of mental illness, familiar from analyses of Salome as a hysteric, also pervade the text of both the novel and the subsequent screenplay. Early in the investigation, the Lieutenant asks Peter, “did Miss Ordway seem like a neurotic girl?” The diagnosis appears contagious: Peter identifies a friend of Nanny's as “an obvious neurotic” because of her “contempt, the female fear and loathing of the male.” Amplifying views of Salome as femme fatale, Peter's conception of the dead girl becomes ever more extreme: “It was Nanny Ordway from whom all horror flowed,” a horror that was “intangible, insidious, stealing tentacle-wise through my clothes, crawling even down my throat into my lungs.” Tentacles soon give way to the arachnid imagery of the book's title: Nanny was the “breed of spider which paralyzed its victims with a poisoned bite and kept them alive but passive for the eventual meal[.] That was the Nanny-spider.” Or, as Herod would bark, “Ich sage dir, sie ist ein Ungeheuer!”58
But who killed Nanny? “Male spiders don't kill female spiders. Flies don't kill spiders, either. It had needed a worthy antagonist to kill Nanny Ordway. What are the spiders' mortal enemies? The wasps.”59 Lottie, discovering the threat to her marriage, had throttled Nanny, strung her up, and forged the drawing of the hanged girl. No slouch in the femme fatale department herself—and a performer who can deploy her skills both on- and offstage—Lottie would not hesitate to let Peter take the fall. In a last twist, the authors hint that Lottie's authority as an actress will serve her well before her next audience: the jury. Perhaps female genius will dance triumphant after all. And perhaps the true difference between Nanny and Lottie is that one woman has looked to outdated models of transgressive authorship, while the other relies on her own wits and genuine talent in performance. Might Lottie herself, between the lines, also have been listening to Ljuba Welitsch, but taking away a different message?
Peter: “She's a nut about that piece.” Iris: “She must be a nut about other things too.”
Nunnally Johnson began his Hollywood career as a writer and soon became a producer, too; well-remembered films to his credit range from The Grapes of Wrath (1940) to How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). After Millionaire, he took on the triple role of writer/producer/director, and his second film in this capacity would be Black Widow, a project in which he saw affinities to both Laura and All about Eve.60 Johnson's screenplay and the resulting film are quite close to the source novel; plot, characters, and whole chunks of dialogue are transferred practically intact, though Technicolor and Cinemascope offset the book's noir tendencies. Casting decisions have an impact, too, and a frequent critique has been that former child star Peggy Ann Garner, a relatively late replacement in the part, fails to convince as the scheming Nanny.61 At least one critic mistook Lottie (played for hauteur by Ginger Rogers) for the “black widow” of the title (“And she's absolutely hateful as the ruthlessly dominating wife—the ‘black widow’ who devours her mate”).62 In certain shots, Nanny and Lottie are styled similarly enough that they almost appear as mirror images (fig. 2), allowing the film, more than the book, to hint at a fatal affinity between them.
The film also follows the book in its use of Salome as Nanny's music of choice, but it differs in how it deploys this music, not least in that it allows the filmgoer to hear Strauss's music.63 As the book's first phonograph scene at Nanny's apartment is omitted, Salome is only heard at Peter's in the film, where it emanates as if from thin air, the hi-fi being fashionably concealed within mid-century furniture (the shooting script specifies “a Capehart or some other such luxury phonograph”).64 In another, more crucial change, where the book had specified Welitsch's recording, which of course includes only the opera's final scene, the film makes no mention of Welitsch, entirely excluding the singing voice along with the opera's sung text. Pragmatic concerns may have dictated this: Welitsch's career had slipped by 1954 and a direct reference to her could have seemed dated; licensing her recording for use in the film could have posed challenges, as would the mixing of spoken dialogue over the sound of Welitsch's singing; instrumental music is simply less distracting as underscore.65 And so, the film gives us the bleeding chunk even more familiar than the final scene: the “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Often disparaged for “its offensive lapses of taste,” the Dance's easy extractability from the opera score can be seen either as a problem (a late addition, a betrayal of organic unity, an excerpt with a calculated market value) or as a key to its power as “a disembodied emblem of desire.”66 Of most importance in the Black Widow film, though, is what Abbate among others has described as the Dance's “impossibility”: in any staging or other representation, “its failure is eternally guaranteed (no staging can be the Dance in all its mythic force).”67 Though it makes no attempt to choreograph a dance, Black Widow nevertheless introduces an element of the impossible, or at least the incongruous, in emphasizing the strong affective power of this voluptuous music for Nanny (Peggy Ann Garner being no Ljuba Welitsch), and this incongruity may reflect on her authorial ambitions no less than the novel's more overt undermining of them.
I will discuss the shooting script together with the film as released, noting the occasional variation between the two. Twenty-two minutes in, after a certain amount of flashback exposition, the image dissolves to a Manhattan skyline shot, which then pulls back to reveal Nanny with Peter (Van Heflin) in his apartment. In the film, the “Dance of the Seven Veils” fades in along with this shot, starting seven measures after rehearsal Q, but as of a script revision dated May 19, 1954, the use of Strauss's music seems still to have been in doubt: “Nanny reclines on the windowseat, her eyes closed as she listens to the music of ????” The dialogue does go on to identify Salome by name (though flagged with a tentative question mark), and quotes the “Geheimnis der Liebe” line, or rather misquotes it exactly as the novel had.68 In the film as released, the dialogue is slightly different: Nanny first speaks the line from Salome in English translation, at which point Peter yawns conspicuously before providing the original German from the libretto (correctly this time, and in a stilted accent). Neither character yet identifies the opera by name, but Johnson seems to assume a viewer sufficiently versed in Salome to recognize it regardless.
In the novel, of course, this exchange occurs while Welitsch's recording is on the phonograph, including that line from the libretto. But here, the dialogue's reference to secrets of love and death is accompanied instead by a segment of the Dance that leads to one of its biggest tunes, indeed one of this opera's most familiar (ex. 1). For a listener who knows Salome, this creates an intermedial dissonance by calling up memory of a different line of text. Developed earlier in the orchestra during Salome's song of desire for Jochanaan at rehearsal number 93, where it is associated with her refrain, “Nichts in der Welt ist so weiss wie dein Leib / … schwarz wie dein Haar / … rot wie dein Mund,” the tune also returns in the interlude between scenes 3 and 4 (at rehearsal number 142), before being foregrounded in the Dance. Then, in Salome's final address to the severed head (rehearsal number 335), she sings the text (with verbs changed to past tense) to this melody in full for the first time; last, it features orchestrally at the climactic clash two measures before rehearsal number 361. (It was thus also the last music from Salome heard in The Man Between.) Because of the recurrence of this theme, the distance between the textual references to Salome's final scene and the film soundtrack's focus on the Dance is nominally collapsed here, allowing the film access to the final scene's musical material while continuing to exclude the soprano's voice. In this first phonographic scene, the Dance builds toward the “Nichts” theme's entrance at rehearsal T and plays through to the fourth measure after U, when Peter casually turns it off midphrase.
Shortly thereafter, Nanny enters the apartment alone for the first time to the sound of distant music (again the “Nichts” theme at rehearsal T). Although this could initially be interpreted as a phonograph playing from another room, we understand that the music has been thoroughly internalized by Nanny when Peter's housekeeper enters, interrupting Nanny's thoughts and truncating the music. It then returns for another ten seconds, and in both of these brief appearances, Strauss's score has a spectral sound, calling to mind the geheimnisvolle Musik identified by Salome herself in the opera's libretto; beyond being played slower and at low volume, it seems to have been subtly recomposed for uncanny effect. Having no parallel in the novel, this scene forces the film spectator into identification with Nanny and allows an access to her consciousness that had not been available to the book's reader. Here, the “impossibility” of the Dance takes the form, even in retrospect, of ultimate undecidability: does Nanny's imaginary dance music show her in the grip of creative inspiration (would this be an inception of the novel's “triumphant dance of female genius”?) or rather in the grip of consuming passions scripted for her by Strauss's music? Peter Franklin has written of “critical moments in cinematic texts where Music, like the women whose voices it may empower, might legitimately threaten the status quo, mobilizing its established arsenal of associative signification, of emotional ‘expression’. … In the process, it signals those points where the popular medium permits and even invites alternative, non-normative readings.”69 This brief moment of “metadiegetic” music in Black Widow is one, I would argue, that may fall into this category, at least to the extent that we are open to the possibility of Nanny's “empowerment.” This is complicated, since ultimately we will recognize that allowing Nanny this power has enabled the weaving of her web. But once the strains of Salome have echoed in our ears along with hers—once we have shared this affective experience with her—it becomes harder to accept Nanny as strictly a “purpose girl” (as she is later described in the film) or an entirely demonized figure.
Still playing its one lonely record, the phonograph is next heard (as in the novel) upon Peter's return with Iris (Gene Tierney). The script insists that the film audience is made aware of the music before these characters are: “The music of Salome can be heard coming from the apartment even before the elevator door opens and Peter and Iris get out.”70 Not merely audible but intensifying toward climax, this is the same passage of the Dance that was heard when Peter and Nanny listened together, beginning a few measures later, at rehearsal R, but this time Peter turns it off at a strategic moment, just as the score has begun the “Nichts” phrase, in the fourth measure of T. The remainder of this scene plays out much as in the book, with the phonograph's volume emphasized (Iris: “She must be deaf.” Peter: “She's a nut about that piece.” Iris [studying the drawing]: “She must be a nut about other things too.”)71 The drawing referenced here matches the description in the novel exactly, with a sketch of a hanged girl under the “secret of love” quote with an added question mark. In the aftermath of this scene, with the arrival of the police, the source of this quote and of the music is identified by name for the first time in the film. Peter: “That's a quotation from the opera, ‘Salome.’ She was writing a story around that theme, I believe. …”72
Near the film's end we are shown multiple flashback versions of Nanny's death and the events leading up to it. In the script, no mention is made of music in these sequences, but strains of Salome do return on the soundtrack. (However, unlike a similar crime-scene instance of recorded music from opera in a nearly contemporary film, The Blue Gardenia [dir. Fritz Lang, 1952], where an orchestral recording of the “Liebestod” from Tristan ultimately exonerates a murder suspect, here it plays no overt role in unraveling the mystery. It remains lurid music for a lurid event.) In the first flashback, Brian (Reginald Gardiner) reports learning of Nanny's pregnancy and her scheme; initially scored by the recording of the Dance as source music, the flashback picks up the Strauss precisely where the film had last left it (when Peter turned the phonograph off before the discovery of the body, though the flashback returns to a chronologically prior moment). Lottie's version, a pure fiction in which she claims to have overheard Peter and Nanny struggling, does not include the music, perhaps a sign of her story's falsehood. Finally, when Detective Lt. Bruce (George Raft) narrates his reconstruction of what occurred—a “flashback” to events that he did not actually witness, which we take for truth on the joint authority of policeman and filmmaker—the Dance is once more in place. “You filthy, dirty little beast,” Lottie snarls, and as she goes in for the kill we hear Strauss from an earlier point of the score than any prior instance, back to the key change eight measures before Q, continuing through the “Nichts” theme and on to the measure before V. (Eight measures before Q also happens to be precisely the moment of “masterly, deeply-thrilling kitsch” where Robin Holloway insists that Strauss's “‘genius for bad taste’ is clinched with ‘triumphant banality’.”73 Our filmmakers have listened well.) In this scene, a chorus of male authorial voices—the investigating Lieutenant within the narrative, auteur Nunnally Johnson pulling the triple strings of script, production, and direction, with Wilde and Strauss hovering in the background (but with Welitsch safely beyond earshot)—have united to reveal, with collective authority, a “truth” that will allow narrative closure and the restoration of order.74 Considering once again the mooted “impossibility” of the Dance, what can we take away from a film that ultimately defines its realm of possibility by using Strauss's score to choreograph a scene of deadly woman-on-woman violence? Although some might prefer a triumphant dance of female genius, at least Black Widow cannot be accused of pretending that opera is innocent of the undoing of women.
Until now, I have dwelled on Salome as source music in these films, but Black Widow the film goes significantly beyond Black Widow the novel (and also beyond The Man Between) in its engagement with Salome elsewhere on its soundtrack. Credited to Leigh Harline, the score adopts motivic material by Strauss as its basis, though this may not be conspicuously apparent. A title credit notes the following, in addition to Harline's authorship: “Theme—‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ from ‘Salome’ by Richard Strauss.” Like The Man Between, this film promises Salome to its viewer at the outset, likely as a condition of licensing. With Salome as source music so foregrounded in the film, however, it is easy to interpret this credit as referring only to the music heard from the phonograph. But the credit is literal: a “theme” from the Dance is woven into Harline's score, and it is taken from none other than “Nichts in der Welt …,” its descending melodic contour recognizable though its meter has been translated from triple into duple. As one of the opera's most recognizable lyrical passages, “Nichts” is well chosen as melodic material for the score, in contrast to the music of the “Geheimnis der Liebe” phrase quoted in the dialogue, which is calculated to foreground a textual statement rather than its own musicality.
By the time we see the credit to Salome on the screen, we have already heard Harline's treatment of it. The strings introduce this material as a typical opening-credits “big tune” (“Tutti sonore e molto vibrato” in the conductor's score), repeating it over changing harmony, spinning it out into a rhythmically flexible continuation, and arriving back at the main descending line for a climax.75 After the credits, this material is most prominent in Harline's score during the film's first half-hour, coming forward in an extended flashback sequence narrating Nanny's progress uptown; at each new stage, with a Strauss-based theme as refrain, we see a street sign, ascending from West Ninth Street to 17th, 24th, and 45th Streets. The conductor's score for the “West Ninth Street” cue, in which the relationship to the Strauss original is especially clear (ex. 2), even announces: “Based on ‘Salome.’ ” After Nanny's corpse is found, this music is rarely reprised (until it is reasserted in the final credits music, joined by Rachmaninovian piano en route to a culminating cymbal crash). Harline varies the harmony from one appearance to the next, and although it never sounds “like Strauss,” the occurrence of the same melody in Strauss's own orchestration in the phonograph scenes creates a common sonic ground.
This material is developed in yet another form within the film's diegetic music, but is mostly concealed beneath dialogue, and comes from an unexpected source; it will be noticed by only the most attentive (or Strauss-literate) viewer. Twice, first at Lottie's party, and later (though earlier in actual plot time) in a restaurant where Nanny is waitressing, we hear a piano. In both cases, what appears to be generic background pop segues into a cocktail-piano elaboration of the “Nichts in der Welt” theme, almost literal at first, but decorated with Liberacean filigree. In the first instance, it emerges when Nanny and Peter meet on the terrace at Lottie's party, just in time to accompany Nanny's statement of identity: “I'm a writer.”76 (Nanny thus approaches Abbate's description of the opera's Salome: “scandalously, she insists on her status as an artist.”77) The subtlety of this musical occurrence might be felt to mitigate its significance, but I would propose the precise opposite: Salome is woven into even the most obscured layers of this film's music, always promising to prop up but ultimately only undermining Nanny's capacity for authorship (as a writer of fiction, as an author of her scheme, as a figure with authority over herself), and in any case demonstrating the sheer amount of deliberate labor that goes into delivering Salome as a conventionally repressive intertext.
To make an obvious, yet crucial distinction, it is not Salome itself—neither Wilde's words nor Strauss's music—that extends a false promise to Nanny Ordway; it is the film (and the book before it, in different ways) that has a vested interest in making this appear to be the case, in transforming a space of identification into a space of containment. Inspired to emulate the “mood” of Salome, its “depth and grandeur,” Nanny is rewarded by the persistence of this music even in death, setting the mood for the discovery of her hanging corpse. Harline's motivic play with Strauss's melody persistently frames Nanny as she ascends toward her supposed goals, and thereby stakes the claim that authorship, the power to remake Strauss's voice toward an enunciation of narrative, still resides there, on the soundtrack, in Harline's hands, blocking Nanny's desire to reimagine authorship with herself at the center. That the film goes so far as to surround Nanny with Strauss as both score and source music, the latter sometimes within her control but at other times beyond it, suggests how deliberately Nanny's undoing is plotted and abetted with the aid of this music. Ultimately, the effort that goes into wielding Salome as a blunt instrument against her feels excessive and gratuitous, communicating a lack of faith in Salome's stability as a symbol. The film seems to know, or to fear, that Salome just might envoice Nanny.
Here, too, the transfer of Salome from the voice of Welitsch to the voice-less dance has consequences. By absenting Welitsch, or any soprano for that matter, the film minimizes the potential for an oppositional reading of Salome to impact the course of the narrative or its meaning. For what it says about Nanny, this matters: it is one thing to be obsessed with the power of Welitsch's final scene; it is quite another to fixate upon the Dance, a musical episode that has almost continually been viewed askance, even by Salome's admirers. Rendering the diva disposable—asserting a model of authorship to which a strong performer-as-author is inconceivable, and within which Nanny has no place—the film, even more than the book, fails (or does not even attempt) to escape the structure and presumptive meanings of the Salome narrative as received. Further, despite reducing Salome to her body as imagined in the orchestral dance (even though this is smudged repeatedly by the quotation of the final scene's epigram), the film supplies no dancing body to embody a resistance to the text. Nanny had “listened with all her body” to Salome, but this was scarcely enough. In the end (and here film and novel once again converge), the only body implicated by this music is a dead one, the young woman with the throttled neck. (And by using only music from Salome that precedes the demand for the head, the film heads its Nanny-spider off at the pass.) To twist the knife just a bit more, the nominal diva—Lottie—is the appointed executioner.
And yet, something may still escape the film's totalizing and indicting deployment of the opera. There is perhaps poetic justice that Strauss and Salome received no mention in contemporary reviews of Black Widow, nor did they play a role in Fox's publicity for the film, while the diva, as so often the case in opera, stole the show: courting excess to the point where too much is exactly enough, Rogers's highly self-aware performance is oddly like the music of Salome itself. If not exactly envoiced, she was certainly enriched, and she also won the opportunity to transgress the boundaries of her familiar star persona. As Rogers recalled in her autobiography:
When Black Widow was released, the reviews were mixed, but Darryl [Zanuck] was absolutely right about my casting. The whole film community was shocked that I played such a role. Even today, people walk up to me and say, “I saw a film of yours and couldn't believe you were the murderess. How could you do it?” “Very easy,” I tell them, “they paid me.”78
“Somebody shot the stripper!”
Nunnally Johnson's next film as writer/director/producer, How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955), follows a pair of dancers, Stormy Tomato and Curly Flagg, who go into hiding on a college campus after witnessing a murder at the San Francisco burlesque club where they work. Accidentally hypnotized in the college dorm, Curly (a role meant for Marilyn Monroe but played by Sheree North, fresh from her turn on Broadway in Hazel Flagg's “Salomee” number) is given a suggestion that causes her to bump and grind upon hearing a familiar name:
And what does Salomy do when she hears the music?
Proceeding from this, a running joke has Curly repeatedly mishearing near-homonyms:
And all the poor kid wanted was a little piece of salami …
Salami, honey, not Salomy …79
The puns become ever more forced, culminating at the college's commencement ceremony via a professorial reference to “the battle of Salamis.” If The Man Between offered an exemplary Salome performance as a space in which agency might become possible, while Black Widow betrayed anxiety over a desire for authorship fed by Wildean/Straussian inspiration, How to Be Very, Very Popular farcically forecloses the possibility of authorship or agency entirely for its “artistes.” Curly's Salomean dance is not even one that she consciously intends, but merely the product of autosuggestion, instigated by a male hypnotist who is also incompetent to control her actions. Nevertheless, there is something potent about Popular's anarchic graduation scene, an impromptu production number led by the hypnotized Curly and set to “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” Here, Salome's dance is refigured as something collective and exuberant, distributing micro-transgressive agency among a mass of dancing bodies, upsetting the hierarchies of the occasion and the institution. Insofar as the scene's confusion ultimately brings the killer to justice, this dance allows death to be thwarted rather than courted.
The anarchy of this moment was echoed (by chance, to be sure) decades later when music by Strauss—the “Dance of the Seven Veils” once again—was brought into yet another context, in the theater company Elevator Repair Service's 2013 production Arguendo.80 Its spoken text was taken directly from the oral arguments and Supreme Court decision in the case Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc. (1991), which examined whether an Indiana prohibition on public nudity compromised the freedom-of-expression rights of women employed by adult-entertainment establishments—in a nutshell, whether they could be required to wear G-strings and pasties while performing. The case further inquired whether this sort of performance could be taken to constitute artistic expression; whether “stripping” is “dance”; how the venue of performance frames its meaning; and whether these performers were in fact authors of expressive acts. The staging of Arguendo was far from staid: as the company's artistic director John Collins describes, “the lawyers and judges are freed from the decorum of the courtroom and are allowed to engage in a kind of dynamic physical dance that emerges from their words. At times this dance dares to be completely absurd.”81 This absurdity accelerated deliriously in a culminating scene, during which Mike Iveson, as the attorney presenting the dancers' case, performed his own striptease, first down to a gold thong, and then in full nudity, all set to a brief, interminably looped passage from Strauss's dance music (fig. 3). Meanwhile, Justices of the Court glided in swivel-chairs across the stage, scattering papers into the air. More than merely madcap, this climax succeeded in taking questions about expression and authorship, performance and authority, the display of gendered bodies and the spectator's desire (or lack thereof) for that spectacle, and raising those questions to the meta-level of reflection upon Elevator Repair Service's own theater piece, while the strains of Strauss evoked more than a century's worth of Salomes and Salome dances and the boundary lines that they have troubled.
That Salome's Dance (and not, say, “Put the Blame on Mame,” or even “The Stripper”) could once again play the role of iconic musical touchstone for a scene of striptease in the 2010s should not be surprising, but that it now does so in the context of experimental theater rather than mainstream media (much less in actual striptease acts), as it did regularly in the 1950s, may represent a decisive return of Salome to its nominally high-culture, fin-de-siècle origins. But it returns there, not only via a performance like Arguendo but also in some radical stagings of the opera itself, with a provocative critical edge, and I will speculate in closing that it owes that capacity for critique, and thus much of its enduring interest, at least in part to its extended sojourn in popular culture. Decades of mass mediation, citation, and parody, through which Salome's significance and meaning were contested and revised, left it a changed work, but an enriched one, even if it abetted various misogynies along the way. Contrary to Herbert Glass's 1962 assertion, Salome has never been “no longer any trouble”; rather, without the trouble, there would no longer be any Salome.