Sunday, 25 December 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967)

I've been a fan of Audrey Hepburn since I was a young 'un, and this is one of her best showcases. It helps that it is also one of the least 'Audrey Hepburn' movies she ever made. A cold, brutal thriller with a pitch black sense of humour, Wait Until Dark remains a terrific chiller nearly 60 years after its release.

Based on the play by Frederick Knott (Dial M for Murder), Wait Until Dark tells the story of Suzy Hendricks (Hepburn). Recently blinded, she is trying to come to grips with her new life. Living in a basement apartment with her husband, she spends her days navigating the claustrophobic confines of her home or at classes.

Little does she know that when her husband leaves for work, a trio of ruthless crooks are waiting to infiltrate their apartment to locate a consignment of heroin her hubby unknowingly brought into the country, concealed in a child's doll.

Slowly realising that the sudden stream of visitors are up to no good, Suzy has to figure out a way to defeat these evil men before they kill her.

Nowadays, Alan Arkin is mostly known for his work in comedies. In Wait Until Dark, he dials it all back to play 'Harry Roat Jr', the mysterious psychopath who sees nothing wrong with tormenting, blackmailing or killing anyone who gets in his way.

His vicious, mocking performance is the perfect complement to Hepburn -- he offsets the easy comfort of the veteran star's presence, turning what could have been a gimmicky thriller into something more unpredictable and unsettling. 

Playing Roat's flunkies, Richard Crenna (Rambo, Body Heat) and Jack Weston are ultimately just as helpless as Suzy. Forced to act as Roat's accomplices, they quickly grasp just how much trouble they are in, and their uneasy alliance with Roat provides an extra layer of tension to an already disturbing story.

While the cast are uniformly terrific, Hepburn is the heart of the movie. Having her in the lead works, not just in terms of audience identification, but her star persona is also a terrific misdirect. The audience goes into the movie with a certain series of expectations about her character -- innocent, child-like, maybe a bit lacking in agency -- and the filmmakers play on them with an exquisitely cruel touch.

Hepburn and Suzy are trapped in a movie they are not built for, and so watching the character struggle comes with an added meta-textual punch.

Wait Until Dark was directed by Bond alum Terence Young. A fine, underrated director, he brings a palatable sense of claustrophobia and danger to the film that prevents it from feeling as stage-bound as Hitchcock's adaptation of Knott's previous stage thriller Dial M for Murder.

A coarser, more visceral filmmaker than Hitch, Young creates a movie that feels far more modern than its pedigree would suggest. Once the cast is whittled down to Roat and Suzy, the movie suddenly feels extremely unsafe.

As heroine and villain scrabble around the darkened apartment, the movie begins to feel like the meeting point between the Gaslight-style thrillers of Old Hollywood, in which female stars were menaced by unseen intruders, and the more explicit thrillers and horror films of New Hollywood.

The last 20 minutes of Wait Until Dark is a masterpiece of escalating tension and false flags. Every time it feels like the story is heading into the home stretch, another obstacle lurches into view. It is excruciating.

While this year's Don't Breathe flipped the premise on its head, it cannot match the slowly escalating dread of Wait Until Dark. Featuring a great story, superb direction and a cast at the top of their game, it is an old-school thrill ride that never feels old school. Watch it with the lights out.

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