by Jay Seaver
Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin were born five years apart, but while "Wait Until Dark" is near the beginning of Arkin's career, Hepburn would would enter semi-retirement afterward, not yet forty. This means that while Audrey is still Audrey, young Alan Arkin (with hair!) might seem rather jarring to those who know him as an older character actor. But you get used to it, especially since the movie itself is a thriller so taut that it's not uncommon to have people describe it as a horror movie.It starts with some heroin being sewn inside a doll so that it can be smuggled from Montreal to New York, but it went astray on the way. Mr. Roat (Arkin) knows that courier Lisa (Samantha Jones) gave it to unsuspecting graphic designer Sam Hendrix (Efram Zimbalist Jr.). Roat strong-arms small-time crook Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and former cop Carlino (Jack Weston) into getting it out of the Hendrix apartment - ideally by talking wife Susy (Hepburn) into giving it to them. And if words aren't enough, well, Susy recently lost her sight, and is still somewhat dependent on the neighbors' daughter Gloria (Julie Herrod) for help - and might not realize what's going on in and around her apartment while she's supposedly alone.
"A classic of grueling suspense."
Wait Until Dark started life as a play by Frederick Knott, and if you remove the hardly-necessary scenes in Montreal and the airport from the beginning, it becomes more clearly so, with almost all the action taking place within Susy's apartment or just outside, with director Terence Young and director of photography Charles Lang frequently choosing angles that don't necessarily put the entire apartment in the same shot as might be the case on the stage, but which let the audience see where everything is, both for later reference and to rub their noses in just what Susy is up against, as one side of the screen will often show her while the other has something sinister happening within her line of sight.
Young lets that build, not quietly, but with quantum leaps, and even moments when Susy starts to get an inkling as to what is going on make things more tense than less: The danger suddenly becomes real as opposed to theoretical, and the means she uses to fight back may play to her advantage, but still feel desperate. By the end, the tension is almost unbearable, because if this is a game, Roat's team has more experience and has done more to rig the board in their favor. Mostly, though, it's because Young and screenwriters Robert & Jane-Howard Carrington have established the most crucial thing: That even if Susy and Gloria sometimes get snippy with each other, they are basically decent people while Roat at least is ruthless.
Audrey Hepburn was nominated for an Oscar for this role, and she does her part to keep the tension cranked, especially toward the end when she plays Susy as increasingly panicked. Before that, though, Hepburn is giving the character her trademark class and wit, even as she's chafing at the expectation that she be a "world champion blind lady", also showing that while Susy has some practice at navigating the world by sound, touch, and memory, it's not second nature yet.
She spends most of her time on-screen playing off Richard Crenna's Mike, and it's easy to overlook what Crenna does here - he's the sympathetic criminal, forming a rapport with his mark but resigned to the job at hand. Doing it opposite a blind woman, though, means it can all play across his face without disguise, although he's still a bit circumspect. The rest of the cast is nifty as well - Jack Weston makes Carlino a harder-edged complement to Mike, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is a pleasant fellow who easily fades into the background, and Julie Herrod (reprising her role from the play) has a sassy, kind of bratty prickle as Gloria.
Still, the cast member that will be best remembered next to Hepburn is Alan Arkin, and why not? He's gleefully malevolent, threatening enemies and allies with equal relish. No matter what goes on, he gives the impression of being in control, and always having a little fun, especially when Roat gets to play an extra role or two. Arkin also gets the chewiest bits of dialogue in a fun script, thrusting words out like knives while Hepburn gets little firecrackers.It's material that Hepburn, Arkin, and Crenna can dive into, and Young continually puts them in position to make the most of it. Whether you see it as horror or thriller, or the point right on the border, it's a font of nail-biting tension, as suspenseful as movies come.
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originally posted: 10/27/14 14:49:45