Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Sunday, December 16, 2012
Time keeps moving forward. I want it to stop, but it doesn’t. And there’s nothing I can do about it. Often looking for any kind of tradition in Hollywood films can be a losing battle but since I’m weird that way I wind up doing it regardless. The old 70s-era Saul Bass Warner Brothers worm logo is used at the beginning of the enjoyable ARGO which got me to think about how over his long career co-star Alan Arkin has starred in several films for that studio and a few are definite favorites of mine. FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, THE IN-LAWS, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER. All right, GET SMART maybe not so much. But any association he has with the studio and their myriad logos through the years goes all the way back to 1967’s WAIT UNTIL DARK, a film which I revisited not long ago and was very impressed by, almost surprisingly so considering its reputation as what on the surface seems like the dullest of concepts, a filmed stage play. Something that feels very much a product of the time it was made in while also managing to anticipate the extremes the suspense/horror genre would eventually arrive at in the years ahead, WAIT UNTIL DARK also marks the end of what can be considered the golden age of stardom for Audrey Hepburn who after this didn’t make a film for another nine long years and even after that only worked sporadically. In some ways playing as the most extreme terrifying end of a light and frothy thriller that would have featured the star such as CHARADE it combines the warmth her screen presence gives off with co-star Arkin playing one of his first leading roles, a character absolutely nothing like what his screen persona generally is. And with its various pieces WAIT UNTIL DARK plays extremely unified and tight, taking what feels like could simply be a gimmicky stage piece and making it into an actual movie. In some ways it feels like the most ideal movie to watch on a cold, snowy Sunday afternoon ever made.
When a beautiful woman named Lisa (Samantha Jones) smuggling heroin from Montreal to New York hands the doll containing the drugs for safe keeping to unknowing photographer Sam Hendrix (Efram Zimbalist, Jr.) the doll winds up his apartment. After the drug smuggler in charge of the operation who refers to himself as Harry Roat Jr. “from Scarsdale” (Alan Arkin) catches on to what she’s doing he kills her, leaving her to be found in the photographer’s apartment by his cohorts Mike (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston). Certain that the doll is in the apartment but with no idea where, the three men hatch a plan to find the doll taking advantage of Sam’s temporary absence with the unknowing help of the photographer’s recently blinded wife Susy (Audrey Hepburn). Mike pretends to be an old Marine buddy of Sam’s and Carlino claims to be an investigating policeman while Roat takes the guise of several people in search of the doll. As their charade continues they cause Susy to suspect her husband may have been responsible for the death of Lisa but they don’t anticipate what might happen when things go awry and Susy begins to catch onto them.
Never trust anyone from Scarsdale. You don’t want to go there. You definitely don’t want to live there. I say that from experience. But back to the movie. With a screenplay by Robert & Jane-Howard Carrington from the stage play by Frederick Knott, WAIT UNTIL DARK contains elements familiar from other Audrey Hepburn vehicles of the 60s—cinematography by Charles Lang who also photographed her multiple times before in films like SABRINA and CHARADE, a score by Henry Mancini which veers from suspense (actually, some of the most effective straight scoring of his long career) to an easy-listening version of the main theme heard in the background and even the star’s early comment to her onscreen husband blithely asking ‘What if I get chopped up in little pieces and dumped in the river?’ wouldn’t be at all out of place in something like CHARADE either. And yet as the tension slowly rises throughout the film towards the fever pitch of its famous climax it’s almost as if the actress herself is as thrown for a loop by the developments as the character she’s playing is and as a result WAIT UNTIL DARK becomes genuinely gripping to an almost surprising degree, all boosted along by what was then that universal fear of something unspeakably terrible happening to Audrey Hepburn, one who is even more vulnerable than usual.
It would be a stretch to say that the direction by Terence Young (best known for helming early Bonds DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and THUNDERBALL) transcends the material and in fairness it really doesn’t—like any number of other films based on stage plays it contains a few scenes up front filmed in various locations as if to pull a bait & switch followed by staging in the main set that doesn’t do all that much to remove the proscenium arch element from how the apartment is presented. It doesn’t really need to be more than it is anyway--this looks to be the only non-Bond film directed by Young that I’ve ever seen (there are always more films out there to discover) and considering how much of the story was already laid out all set in one location it might be tempting to dismiss his work in a keep-the-trains-running-on-time sort of way, but Young continually makes use of the space he has to work with in unexpected ways, sometimes having one or more of the bad guys silently doing something in the background unbeknownst to Susy or just the strangeness of her first appearance when she enters as the three men are there, already putting us on edge. The point when a certain something gradually comes into frame behind Richard Crenna at around the fifteen minute mark, giving an idea of how nasty things might turn, is one of those shots that is probably looks easier to do than it is and works expertly, giving off a frisson of timing and composition that far sleazier giallos several years later would strive for but not always achieve. What matters within the frame seems to be only what exists within this apartment, a world unto itself, and even when we briefly leave the apartment things never feel all that real as if there really is an active world out there--twice characters step out from a building to a nearly empty street to find a cab coming along for them to immediately hail and the New York location work of the row of brownstones Susy lives on (looking it up, St. Luke’s Place down in Greenwich Village which is also mentioned in dialogue) feels so deserted in such an unreal way it’s as if the film is trying at times to seem like the whole thing was really filmed on the Warner backlot when at least some of it clearly is out on location anyway.
But even now in a time when the concept of a film version of a stage play probably seems as antiquated as possible and even more difficult to make cinematic (this was something Polanski recently succeeded at doing with CARNAGE but even that was relegated to art houses) yet the way things are filmed keeps the pace going the mood going the screws tightening and the level of confusions of the doll plot to confuse Hepburn are that but with ‘the doll’ said so many times it begins to have a hypnotic effect. Keeping its lead character offscreen for much of the first half hour WAIT UNTIL DARK carefully lays out its cards—the interplay between the three men, the backstory of Suzy and her husband (Zimbalist in what has to be the most thankless role of all time—he’s not even allowed to be the one who figures out where his wife is at the very end). Much of the story is frankly a gimmick with some of the drama early on not doing much beyond giving the actors something to play before the suspense really kicks in, like Susy’s frustration to her husband about having to be ‘the world’s champion blind lady’, the red herring quality of that mysterious safe in the middle of the room or the early tension with brat-who-proves-herself Gloria (Julie Herrod) forgotten about pretty quickly and getting lost in the mechanics of the ‘plot’ being devised to trap Suzy that it’s all just a smokescreen as if the film is also trying to convince us as that things are more complicated than they seem.
Placed up against the tough but slightly more sympathetic Crenna whose Mike follows an arc out of James Mason in THE RECKLESS MOMENT and the loutish thug (possibly a disgraced cop) played by Weston who just skirts the edge of being comic relief Arkin’s Roat is something else altogether—not a Hitchcock villain, not a Bond villain, he’s pure evil, not even human, the middle ground between Ross Martin terrorizing Lee Remick several years earlier (also to a Mancini score) in EXPERIMENT IN TERROR and Andrew Robinson’s total monster later on in DIRTY HARRY. Roat’s appearances in the apartment sporting other guises unknown by the blind Suzy only adds to the gimmick, maybe watering down when he finally reappears as his true self just a little--Roat Sr. comes and goes so fast it works as simply being disorienting but when he turns up as Roat Jr. the performance being given by the character is almost too mannered and anyone would be justified in wondering if Roat had spent some time training for this scheme at Second City.
But none of that really matters beyond how it keeps the gears clicking as Suzy pieces together what’s going on and finally taking action, building to the famous climax where she breaks every light (she thinks) in the apartment to get her on equal footing with her attackers which on initial release apparently had the gimmick of the theater turning out every light possible that contains a now-legendary jump scare which has borrowed a thousand times by now. Here it works beautifully. The final image before the ‘THE END’ title card is almost a reminder that the ultimate goal of it all is nothing more than to have Audrey Hepburn feel safe again, along with the satisfaction that this poor blind woman who was once terrified of a tiny little flame could take total care of herself in the end. The soothing lyrics of the theme song are a way back into the elegance she projects, as we return to the real world, making us think that all the real Roat Jrs. From Scarsdale can never harm us. Not exactly true but Henry Mancini is always good at making us forget things like that for a few minutes.
The cast is excellent and as I rewatch certain sequences I find myself admiring how much more they bring to it than what is presumably on the page. The always endearing Audrey Hepburn’s determination when she’s all alone, Crenna’s eyes darting around when he’s speaking to her, Weston’s slovenliness, Arkin’s madness. There’s particularly good chemistry that comes from the developing relationship between Hepburn and Crenna, almost more insinuated than anything in dialogue, and when Arkin is in his ‘real’ guise as Roat, Jr. the weirdness he gives off during every single moment is unforgettable. The film was produced by Mel Ferrer, Hepburn’s then-husband—apparently their marriage was in the process of falling apart at the time—and I always find myself thinking of Zimbalist as a sort of surrogate for him in the small role of Sam which almost lends an extra level to the whole thing as if the husband really is the one pulling the strings behind it all. It’s reading much more than necessary into the film which really is an extremely slick, well-made thriller that maybe doesn’t have much in the way of subtext to it, but nevertheless remains effective on its own.
Of course, maybe we wind up bringing our own personal subtext to things anyway. I’ll admit to a strange attachment to Alan Arkin throughout his long career, here in a role unlike any other he ever played. And yet, here he is playing against one of the most beloved woman in screen history who ultimately is absolutely terrified of him. Plus he’s from Scarsdale and I definitely have some experience with women wanting to stay the hell away from me so there you go. And, just like always, there’s nothing I can do about any of those things. Very recently I spotted someone I went to high school with in my office building. An actress who I’ve spotted in one or two things she was going to an audition but didn’t appear to know who I was when I walked past. I doubt she would have had any memory of me anyway. Just as well. Once from Scarsdale, always from Scarsdale, I suppose. That’s the way it is as time moves forward.