Friday, October 26, 2012

'Wait Until Dark' Was Classic Suspense

Few of their mid–20th century contemporaries could match the appeal of Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly.

A large part of their appeal, I think, was the fact that they could be credible damsels in distress — but, when it became clear that no one was going to come to their rescue, they were able to rescue themselves ... plausibly.

There was steel beneath the facade.

Not an easy task, considering that both actresses, especially Hepburn, seemed rather frail. You wouldn't think from looking at them that either could stand up to a sudden gust of wind.

But, somehow, they did. It was largely because the characters they played were resourceful and independent — truly deserving of admiration.

My admiration for Kelly knows no bounds, but, frankly, Hepburn takes the prize for her performance in "Wait Until Dark," a movie that made its debut 45 years ago today.

Hepburn played a young blind woman who was believed to be in possession of a doll that had been used to smuggle heroin into the country.

The doll had actually been given to Hepburn's husband by a woman he met on a flight. The doll's presence in the apartment was unknown to Hepburn.

But that was something that a trio of criminals — played by Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston — who wanted the doll (or, rather, what was inside it) did not know. They assumed she knew things she did not.

And they tried to take advantage of her blindness, playing the roles of police officers who were investigating a suspicious death in the neighborhood. Through this ploy, they won her confidence, gained access to the apartment and searched unsuccessfully (and right under Hepburn's nose) for the doll.

With the help of a young girl named Gloria, Hepburn's character discovered what was really going on around her and fought back.

Modern audiences might not appreciate the way most of the action in the film takes place in a small apartment. But "Wait Until Dark" was a psychological thriller, and there are few scenes in movie history that are as gripping as the climactic struggle between Hepburn and her ruthless nemesis, played by Arkin.

Each time I have watched "Wait Until Dark" — and I have watched it many times — I have been struck by how effortlessly the movie leads the viewer to empathize with Hepburn's predicament.

That, it seems to me, is the essence of a truly suspenseful movie. The viewer can see the threats to Hepburn, but she cannot. It reminds me of what the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, used to say.

Hitchcock rejected the idea that suspense could be achieved merely by watching an explosion. True suspense, he said, came from letting the audience in on the presence of a threat — a ticking bomb, perhaps — of which none of the affected characters in the scene was aware.

Hepburn proved that he was right.