Friday, August 15, 2014

Wait Until Dark (1967)

USA, 108 minutes
Director: Terence Young
Writers: Frederick Knott, Robert Carrington, Jane-Howard Carrington
Photography: Charles Lang
Music: Henry Mancini
Editor: Gene Milford
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Jack Weston, Robby Benson, Julie Herrod, Samantha Jones

A star vehicle based on a stage production and arguably a by-the-numbers thriller of the day, Wait Until Dark made a lot of money but tends to get lost in the glare of an especially historic year for film, which saw releases of Bonnie and Clyde, Dont Look Back, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and Play Time, among others. Those movies are a big deal. Wait Until Dark is more of a small-scale deal—a sentimental pick on my part, perhaps. It is one of the first movies I saw without parental accompaniment, a memorable experience because one of those old school gimmicks was involved: No one was allowed entrance during the last 30 minutes, at which point all the house lights of the theater were turned off (against public regulations, I might add) during a key scene.

The formidably glamorous Audrey Hepburn was already established as an archetype of the "manic pixie dream girl" and here she carries on, playing Susy Hendrix, a woman adapting to total blindness after she has recently lost her sight in a fiery car wreck. "Do I have to be the world champion blind lady?" she chirps playfully more than once, the very image of pluck. Set in downtown New York City, the movie has unmistakable connections to a contemporary TV series, That Girl. Susy's version of Ann Marie's "Donald," her husband Sam, is played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who also has a TV way about him (The F.B.I.). Director Terence Young is best known for making early James Bond pictures—Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball—and the experience serves this picture well, as it slips easily into creepy spy thriller / action mode, with eerie discordant music and a screenplay that plunges us into all kinds of mysterious ongoing nefarious activity. We barely have time to catch a breath, as the saying goes. Some potential spoilers ahead.

It is very much an Alfred Hitchcock tale, complete with MacGuffin in the form of a doll stuffed with heroin for purposes of smuggling and a "wrong man" scenario. Susy Hendrix is the "wrong man" (not to mention a version of the Hitchcock blonde) as she and Sam have come into possession of the doll, unknowing of its significance. When Sam has to travel for business, the bad guys show up at the Hendrix apartment looking for the doll, and soon enough one thing leads to another. The origins of Wait Until Dark as a stage production remain transparent, as the vast majority of action is centered in the Hendrix apartment, with the bad guys first attempting a kind of elaborate sting on Susy before progressing to the harder stuff. It is reminiscent in certain ways of a movie with a similar premise, based on a radio theater production, 1948's Sorry, Wrong Number.

Chief bad guy is a man named Roat, played with zest by a grandstanding, youthful Alan Arkin, who has something of a showcase role here and is well up to it. It verges on silly the way it is written, and Roat's cool sadistic side is almost comical caricature too, but never mind. The story moves quickly enough to obscure such flaws, and Arkin even at his most ridiculous retains a coiled power that is always a little unnerving. He still looks bad now, and he was a terrifying monster in the '60s. Richard Crenna and Jack Weston (more faces familiar from TV) are Roat's half-witted henchmen, coerced by him into the deal, and they are fine too.

It's a good premise, with first the unfolding sting, designed to prompt Susy to give up the doll in the spirit of a sincere misunderstanding, and then the vulnerability of the blind woman fully exploited. In the ingenious climax she is able to turn that very vulnerability against her tormentors. Susy only gradually realizes that the people coming to her door and calling her on the phone are not who they say they are, and the more she comes to understand that, in separate revelations, the more serious and worrisome the action becomes. The movie's best moments are at those points of understanding, when it is the best kind of chamber play and movie both, close and intimate and nerve-wracking.

Another movie it reminds me of is Marathon Man, also a gritty New York thriller with memorable musical moods, especially as it descends into a savage cat and mouse game for life and death. In Wait Until Dark, to defend herself, finally understanding her terrible jeopardy, Susy roams the apartment smashing all the light bulbs. Much of the rest of the movie occurs on a black screen (though she does forget one light bulb)—this was also the point when house lights were turned off in the theater.

While it remains stagy, Wait Until Dark is nimble and pointed, with lots of surprises and nice moments, wisely riding along on the powers of the original play when it has to. Audrey Hepburn is more star than player, but she's good enough at the physical mannerisms of a blind person. If her extreme cheer seems shallow, it comes to occupy more terrifying dimensions when the limits of her will to survive are revealed. Her persistent chipper way seems something else entirely then—steely if not pathological, reverting to her Holly Golightly persona. Arkin takes his stunt turns and everybody else knows to hit their marks from TV productions. So it goes like clockwork and the result is a nice little thriller. Too bad there will never again be a theater that turns off its house lights entirely for the end. [/nostalgia]

Top 10 of 1967
1. Wait Until Dark
2. The Graduate
3. Dont Look Back
4. Bonnie and Clyde
5. Play Time
6. In Cold Blood
7. La Collectionneuse
8. Cool Hand Luke
9. In the Heat of the Night
10. Point Blank

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