Sunday, April 14, 2013

Audrey Hepburn and the Three Scourges

I've been going through my archives, finding posts I like for re-showing. With some editing, this is a DVD review I originally posted in August 2008:

When I saw Wait Until Dark in its original 1960s theatrical release I didn't see what I saw when I watched it on DVD a few days ago. What I saw over 40 years ago was a suspense movie about a blind woman being manipulated by some criminals, and what I saw on DVD was a very resourceful woman outwitting some criminals despite her blindness. My perception had changed over time. In the sixties women's lib was a big buzz, but I wasn't taking it serious. I was wrong. The people who made Wait Until Dark were ahead of me. They knew the power of a smart woman.

Audrey Hepburn is one of my favorite movie stars. I think she exudes star quality a lot of today's stars just don’t have. My impression of Audrey is of her stunning beauty, but that was downplayed in this movie. At the time it was made she was in her late thirties, but still had a glow of youthfulness, as you can see in this screen capture from early in the movie. She looks more like a cute housewife than a movie star, and that's right for this film.

The movie is from a play, and is staged like a play. Except for a few establishing outside shots, most of the movie is set in a basement apartment. The tension is supplied by the group of criminals out to get a doll stuffed with heroin, the MacGuffin of the story. Alan Arkin as Harry Roat is superb. He is easily the most chilling because of his flippant attitude. You can just see the psychopath in him oozing out.

Two solid character actors, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston, complete the trio of crooks out to get the goods. Nowadays you wouldn't expect to see anyone go to so much trouble for some dime bags of smack, but for the purposes of the plot we believe it.

As Susie Hendrix, Audrey is completely self-reliant, despite being blind only a year. She’s afraid of fire, which is what caused her blindness. Roat exploits that fear. The end scene, which must have played extremely well in a theater, is still completely chilling. The lights go on and off, putting Roat in the same situation as Susie. It was something I well remembered despite the time lapse of four decades.

As chilling as that last scene is, equally chilling is Susie’s entrance into the story, as the men wait in her apartment. That is where credibility goes out the window, though. Crenna and Weston don’t know immediately she is blind. Why Crenna didn't just grab her as she came in the door is a puzzle, except that it serves the plot — and the visuals — better if Susie is allowed to go through her paces while the men stand motionless, undetected.

Even though it’s stagy it's still a fine movie, a suspenseful story made great by the performances. The only character who doesn't get a lot to do is Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., as Susie's husband, Sam. Zimbalist was moonlighting from his TV gig at The FBI.

Director Terence Young did a terrific job with the material. In a stage play we couldn't have gotten such well-composed shots as Carlino standing half in shadow while Susie walks through the room, unaware. Brrrrr.

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