Friday, October 14, 2016

Wait Until Dark

Watch this back-to-back with Don't Breathe, and you'll appreciate how Wait Until Dark (1967) is the superior handling of the material. Don't Breathe devotes most of its time to stalking and violence. Wait Until Dark builds on a foundation of character interaction and dramatic irony, so by the time we get to the violent, stalking bits, they're that much more impressive.

Based on a play by Frederick Knott, Wait Until Dark bears the hallmarks of the stage. The setting is mostly limited to a single basement apartment, there are only a handful of characters, and much of the plot and background is conveyed through extended dialogue pieces. Yes, at times, it feels stagy (some of that dialogue could have trimmed or condensed), but the movie feels cinematic. Director Terence Young moves his camera fluidly through the confining spaces and uses shadows to perfectly create tense and claustrophobic suspense.

Audrey Hepburn plays Suzy Hendrix, a blind woman whose husband (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) unknowingly acquired a doll stuffed with heroin. The strange but dangerous criminal Roat (Alan Arkin) wants the doll, and he blackmails professional crooks Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston) to pull off a deceptive scheme to get it.

Wait Until Dark, at its most basic, is about the isolated woman in peril and then takes it a step further by making her blind. Here's a woman who is still having difficulty getting around her apartment without bumping into something. Now strangers are coming into her home and telling her they're old friends of her husband, the police, or whoever. That'd be overwhelming to the average person, much less someone who can only recognize them by voice. And when no one else is talking and she suddenly suspects someone is in the room with her...

Character dynamics dictate how the plot unfolds. Suzy is a vulnerable innocent caught in the middle of a scheme she's not aware of, Roat is a sadistic monster who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants, and while Talman and Carlino might be criminals, they are more measured and less cruel than Roat. How they all play off each other will determine who lives and who dies.

The crooks, not knowing where the doll is, use subterfuge and role-playing to learn from Suzy where it is. The irony is she doesn't know either. Talman poses as friend of her husband, and Carlino plays the role of detective, and with Roat adopting a couple of different disguises, they try to convince Susy that her husband was having an affair with a woman who was later murdered (Roat killed her, in case you were wondering).

Things seem to be going swimmingly for the trio, and Suzy becomes increasingly panicked and frightened. But then, little things trip them up, little things only a blind person would notice, and gradually, Suzy begins to piece everything together and fight back. Not in a physical in sense. She's very much in danger, but if she's to survive, she'll have to outwit and outthink three dangerous men.

The final confrontation, shot mostly in the dark, is less of a cat-and-mouse chase but more of a chess match between two adversaries who take turns snatching the upper hand from each other. It's a much more cerebral, psychological confrontation than one would expect, and it's nail-biting, especially because it's in almost total darkness, pitch black save for the dim glow of a match or an open refrigerator light.

As sharp as the writing and direction are, the movie wouldn't have worked without the right actors. Hepburn is perfect as the vulnerable heroine and convincingly blind; you're with her every step of the way. Crenna and Weston make for good, more complex villains; they're smart enough to not want anything to do with Roat, admirable enough to not want to harm Suzy, but not fast enough to realize where everything is heading.

Arkin is the scene stealer, almost comical but very menacing. His disguises reminded me of Peter Sellers, and he looks odd; the round sunglasses and cropped hair make him look like a beatnik poet, and he has a very laid-back, self-amused air about him, but don't take him lightly. He can get nasty and is always thinking three steps ahead of everyone else. When he explodes, he's a monster.

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