Dueling Film Reviews - Round One: WHayes on "Wait Until Dark"

Posted 6/04/2010 by WHayes in Labels: , , , , , , ,
The mystique of old thrillers is much like the allure of an old car. At first glance: sturdy and elegant, with just enough nostalgia to flavor them with the inevitable shell of "back then, they had it right. This was the way to make a movie." Films like Psycho (1960 version), Night of the Living Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 version), The Shining, and Elevator to the Gallows [Ascenseur pour l'├ęchafaud - a tense 1958 French noir scored by Miles Davis] very much earned this veneer. 1967's Wait Until Dark is no exception.

Like its peer cinema, it has the pacing, atmosphere, direction, lineage (adapted from a 1966 play by Frederick Knott), and star power make for a well-executed and satisfying ride; its that 67 Camaro that looks like sex but drives like a tank. We lose something beneath the pretty memory paint -- we forget the shady ignition systems that took forever to start, the poor fuel-delivery tech that could leave you stranded with somewhere important to go, and the four wheel drum-brakes that couldn't stop you without a prayer.

Similarly, we forget that while the payoff made "old-school" thriller pacing so satisfying, we first had to slog through the monotony of slow, tedious character building. That buildup can add unneeded bloat to the runtime. To reach that payoff at journey's end, we'd occasionally be faced with moments that break the carefully constructed atmosphere.

Susy is a fantastic character (Hepburn's performance was Oscar-nominated), but she's also the focal point of all the films lumps. They're all cultural inconsistencies. Both alluring and childlike, intelligent yet helpless (she cracks the grifters' scheme quickly after easily picking up on the flaws in their performance, but is happy to stay with Sam though he constantly belittles her), beautiful but insecure, she's the conflicted portrayal of what we today understand the 60s "ideal woman" to be. It's a persona who'll be defiant and wily in misleading her captors, but also sincerely spout groan-worthy dialogue like "I wish I could do important things like cook a souffle, pick a necktie, or find wallpaper for a room."

I love this movie, and there are some great elements that make it memorable even today. The humor of watching the characters winkingly cycle through different personas, as if to say "we really do love this job," is priceless. We play along and savor the ride, especially as Alan Arkin and Richard Crenna ham it up as Roat Jr./Sr. and Mike Tallman, but its also incredibly frustrating to see Susy be spun around so cruelly. Look at that damn picture. There's something undeniably sensual in Hepburn's expression while Arkin hatefully looms, ready to penetrate her. Its undeniably problematic (that position doesn't even happen in the film), but, culturally, maybe we should expect no less than this. As Mike says, "this is the big, bad world full of mean people, where nasty things happen." Thankfully, Susy isn't so willing to accept those nasty things happening to her, and Dark gives us a great climax to attest to this. Its too bad our superwoman goes back to her old dependance in the denouement.

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