Friday, November 4, 2016

My Fair Lady With a Switchblade, or Thoughts on Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark

From the 1966 stage play of the same name, Wait Until Dark (1967) featured Audrey Hepburn from Charade (1963) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) in the darkest film of her career as Susy Hendrix, a blind woman who fights off three men in her bohemian Greenwich Village apartment.  Sincerely terrifying, especially on a first viewing, Audrey was convincingly blind without using sunglasses and had no superpowers to rely on like Matt Murdock other than her quick wit and survival instincts.
Alan Arkin portrays the sadistic Roat, the leader of the old-school thugs armed with brass knuckles, straight razors and switchblades.  There’s not a gun among them, which dates the movie but also hearkens back to a time when guns weren’t needed to add dramatic tension.  Alan Arkin would go on to play Yossarian in Catch-22 (1970), feature in Edward Scissorhands (1990), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), The Rocketeer (1991) and win an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine (2007).  Richard Crenna, who would go on to play Col. Trautman in the first 3 Rambos and Jack Weston from The Cincinatti Kid (1965) and the original The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) play Mike Talman and Carlino, a couple of con-men.  Together they craft an elaborate, Hitchcock-esque scenario for Suzy, a radio play performance for an audience of one in order to convince her to give up the heroin-filled doll that her husband inadvertently smuggled back from his trip to Montreal.
The first third of the film follows these three miscreants as they focus on Suzy and plan their crime.  It almost becomes a caper movie, with a set-up that builds negative anticipation because it’s focused on one of Hollywood’s most beloved and respected actors.  It’s a rare example of perfect casting; past and contemporary audiences remain completely and unequivocally are on Audrey Hepburn’s side, which makes the movie all the more terrifying.
Suzy is married to Sam; a photographer portrayed Efrem Zimblast Jr., which is notable because he makes his living in a visual profession.  She assisted by 12-year-old Lisa (Samantha Jones), an upstairs neighbor who wears glasses.  The introductory scene of Roat features him wearing impassive and ominous sunglasses.  We as an audience interact with the film primarily through sight.  These visual cues (pun intended) are subtle reminders of Suzy’s disability and serve to ramp up the tension.  The audience is helpless; we can see the dangers literally in front of Suzy, and yet we are powerless to warn her.  The only thing we can do is watch and hope for the best.
Reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder (1954, and another stage play), Wait Until Dark was expertly directed by Terence Young from Dr. No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963) and Thunderball(1965).  Audrey received an Academy Award nomination (Katherine Hepburn won for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), and Wait Until Dark would go on to inspire David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002) and ironically, two movies from 2016: Hush (2016) and Don’t Breathe (2016).

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