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Wait Until Dark
Once again, a stage production confined to a few rooms proves to be excellent thriller material, as America's favorite Audrey Hepburn scores as the blind and vulnerable woman beset upon by a trio of murderous con-men. Sure, it's a stage play, but if audiences buy the setup, many a good stage play hs been turned into a good movie. Wait Until Dark by and large translates beautifully to the screen. For basic shocks, it outdoes 90% of movies that call themselves horror films.
Just about the time when it was once again becoming a fringe-market genre, several late-60s titles got the scare show moving again in the mainstream. Polanski's Rosemary's Baby was probably the biggest booster, but the previous year's Wait Until Dark was an excellent shocker that attracted audiences that wouldn't be caught dead at a Hammer film. The Audrey Hepburn fans who thought they'd find themselves in another Charade discovered a much darker thriller that cleverly moved from suspense into more dangerous territory, and experienced some extremely effective shocks that would be the envy of any horror producer. Yes, film theorists will be quick to point out that the conservative plotting never implicates our heroes in any 'dark themes' - we know from the start that Sam and Susy are totally innocent - but the overall superiority of the show makes such concerns seem more like excuses to validate lesser movies: 'Oh, horror film x is significant because it proposes a voyeuristic understanding with the audience', etc. This is a straight thriller that exists for its own entertaining sake.
The adaptation of Frederick Knott's stage play opens the story up only slightly. After a swift title sequence, the play remains rooted in Susy Hendrix's claustrophobic one-bedroom apartment, with only an occasional bit on the street outside. The apartment setup is somewhat similar to Knott's Dial M for Murder, another complicated stage thriller that was successfully translated to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock.
Terence Young's tight and meticulous direction shows us the workings of the intricate scams Roat and co. run on the defenseless Susy, being careful to keep us informed of every nuance. The suspense is excellent, for there's tension among the crooks and enough deceptive play-acting to keep us unsure of the bigger picture, until some decisive violence puts us on the right track. We get to play along with the con men, watching weasely Jack Weston enjoy his role-playing. Richard Crenna's villain may be softening in the presence of Hepburn's innocent, a feeling easily encouraged by our association of the actor with more positive roles.
Aided by the ability to cut away to a few telling scenes outside the apartment, the story of the three villians might actually be told better on screen. The only possible weakness (I haven't seen the play) are the disguises adopted by Alan Arkin, which wouldn't fool any sighted person. It's possible that stage audiences were expected to be partially fooled by the appearances of Roats Senior and Junior. Arkin's character is otherwise brilliantly conceived, but the acting stunt of multiple roles, even as overt charades, doesn't work too well.
Arkin makes his bespectacled, cool mastermind the kind of brilliant reptile that only exists in complicated thrillers. We're given a setup scene that neatly establishes his superiority to his hired cohorts (very similar to Ray Milland's baiting of Anthony Dawson in the Hitchcock film) and from then on we are far too caught-up following the clever con to get critical about plausibility. In the accompanying interview doc, Arkin says he wanted Roat to be a total weirdo, wired on several drugs at once, and audiences were surely intimidated by his clever manipulations and mannerisms. Knott, the writers and Young also make sure to give us a gruesome shock near the beginning to assure us that the film means business. The discovery of an unexpected corpse not only sets the tone, but is guaranteed to disturb general audiences unaccustomed to seeing their 'princess' Hepburn in such dire jeopary.
The logic and clever plotting never falter, and Young works the film into a suspenseful frenzy when it comes time for the blind Hepburn to go one-on-one with her main assailant. (slight spoiler) The big gimmick here is a blind person's use of darkness to even the odds with a sighted foe, and the story works out some nice variations on the idea, without getting silly. 1 Then Young pulls out his big surprises, not by withholding information, but by keeping us informed of where Audrey and her attacker are at almost every moment, in a confined space that we now know by heart. It may be a mainstream Hollywood picture, but for real scares, Wait Until Dark betters its contemporary competition, not to mention many of the later Giallo and slasher pictures.
Audrey Hepburn is the center of the film and shows us a fairly realistic portrait of a woman coping with her dark new world. Our sympathy for her is high, especially with Efrem Zimbalist Jr's demanding husband, whose insistence on his wife's self-reliance makes some viewers dislike him ... why isn't he coming to the rescue, as in 99% of other thrillers? Arkin has the showy part, and once again gained a lot of attention. Unfortunately, this may have been his career height. When graduating to lead roles, he didn't create the same stir - as witness the fumbled Inspector Clouseau and the career-numbing Catch-22. Arkin wasn't the sort who was going to kiss the girl and be the hero, and most of his later films weren't as interesting. (Good exception: the very-impressive Popi, 1969.
Warners has given its DVD release of Wait Until Dark an enhanced transfer and fine compression; with the widescreen aspect ratio restored, a particular shot near the end has all of its original impact (you'll know what shot I mean). There is some grain, but overall the disc looks terrific on a big monitor.
The extras are good, too. Alan Arkin and producer Mel Ferrer (Audrey's husband at the time and yes, the star of Scaramouche) contribute to a nice interview- doc that covers all bases without overstaying its welcome. Arkin's soft-spoken thoughts on the Roat characterization are very interesting. Another text extra talks about the stage version, including Quentin Tarantino's abortive acting gig a few years back as Roat. A pair of effective trailers are included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Wait Until Dark rates:
Supplements: interview-doc, trailers
Packaging: snapper case
Reviewed: August 7, 2003
1. Theater owners were actually asked to try and lower the house lighting for the 'dark' scenes, a gimmick that may have had a great subliminal effect - I remember the theater seeming darker than ever during these scenes when I saw the picture new, but I don't remember being conscious of the house lights being dimmed.