Sunday, October 18, 2009

Weekly Rant: Wait Until Dark

I don’t particularly enjoy the experience of being scared in a movie theater, and though I’m not exactly squeamish about fake blood, I experience no visceral thrill watching big screen dismemberments. Consequently, I’m not a big fan of the horror genre, whatever the term “horror genre” means these days. (Aside: For more on the “What is horror?” debate, check out the November edition of The Conversations in which Ed Howard and I discuss Trouble Every Day. I mention this now in case anyone wants to track down the 2001 Claire Denis film in advance of The Conversations piece. Heads up.) Anyway, given my lack of fondness for the horror genre, I often find myself on the outside looking in come October, when theaters show fright fests and bloggers debate various scary movies I haven’t seen and likely never will. It’s just not my cup of tea.

But this week’s rant isn’t about the emptiness of the horror genre. (To each his/her own.) Instead this is my opportunity to pay tribute to one of my favorite scary movies (not exactly horror), Wait Until Dark, while also ranting about the element of the film that makes it unfortunately preposterous. If you’ve never seen Wait Until Dark, stop reading now and go rent it (or download it, or whatever). One night this week, turn off the lights and watch the movie without interruption. I promise you’ll jump out of your skin at least once. It’s unavoidable. That said, if you have seen the movie, read on.

Wait Until Dark thrives on a (mostly) clever (but sometimes too clever) story that’s built around an Oscar-nominated performance by Audrey Hepburn as Susy, a woman recently blinded who is struggling to adapt to her darkened world. For my money, it’s Hepbern’s ideal role. I can’t think of another actor who is so effortlessly vulnerable (and that’s before factoring in the character’s blindness) and yet so full of moxie. (Audrey lost the Best Actress race to Katharine Hepbern for Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner in a packed field that included Anne Bancroft for The Graduate and Faye Dunaway for Bonnie and Clyde, in case you were curious.) But equally terrific is Alan Arkin as Harry Roat, a diabolical thug determined to find a doll filled with heroin that he’s convinced is in Susy’s apartment. Roat is unflinchingly vicious, truly one of the most terrifying villains you’ll ever come across. And that’s why Wait Until Dark is a fun to revisit, now that Arkin only lands the cantankerous yet cuddly grandfather type roles (Indian Summer, Little Miss Sunshine, Sunshine Cleaning, Get Smart, etc.). And that’s also why Wait Until Dark is sometimes absurd.

See, this is Harry Roat …

But then so is this …

And so is this …

That’s right. Harry Roat’s ingenious plan to trick the blind Susy into revealing the location of the doll requires not only that his two conmen associates pretend to be an old friend (Richard Crenna as Mike) and a police detective (Jack Weston as Carlino) but also that he play-act two parts, the grumpy Roat Sr. and the mild-mannered Roat Jr. Both of these characters are played well by Arkin, of course, but it’s utterly ridiculous to imagine Harry Roat, who has an accent as thick as the hull of a battleship, stepping into these roles. It’s a cute idea on paper, but it doesn’t pass the sniff test on the big screen.

The best way to illustrate the preposterousness of the play-acting is to imagine Harry Roat outlining his plan:

Roat: “We’re gonna get the blind lady to tell us where to find the doll.”

Carlino: “Great idea. You can rough her up and she’ll never be able to identify you because she’s blind.”

Roat: “No, I don’t want to hurt her.”

Mike: “Why? I mean, you left a dead woman in the closet. You just threatened us with a knife. You love violence.”

Roat: “Yeah, I know. But it just doesn’t seem very sporting. The blind lady couldn’t defend herself.”

Mike: “So what do you have in mind?”

Roat: “Well, you and Carlino used to con people with that old jealous-lover bit, and that gave me an idea. You’re not the only ones who can act, so I figured I’d infiltrate her apartment by going in disguise.”

Carlino: “Disguise? Why? First of all, she’s blind. Second of all, you already walked into her apartment without a disguise. How come you’re suddenly worried that people in the building will see your face?”

Roat: “Worried? Oh, I’m not worried. But I’m Method actor and I really draw a lot from props. I can’t just do the voice. I’ve got to inhabit the whole character, walk in their shoes.”

Mike: “That would explain the dark sunglasses and the leather jacket, because your personality sure matches your wardrobe. I, for one, can’t picture you playing anything else. How are you going to get past that accent? It’ll never work.”

Roat: “You doubt me?! Normally I kill people who doubt me, but not when someone challenges my acting ability; then I want to prove it on the boards. You’ll see. I’m an incredible character actor. When I’m not breaking people’s legs I like to squeeze in a little dinner theater. One summer I did Shakespeare in the Park. I showed up for auditions and immediately they wanted to cast me as Tybalt. Such lazy type-casting. That really pissed me off, so I tried out for the part of Juliet’s nurse just to spite them. Got it, too. And I was terrific.”

Carlino: “So you’re going to impersonate a woman?”

Roat: “No, no. I’ve been working on a character I call Roat Sr. He looks a bit like a grayer Mark Twain, and he’s a gruff prick. But I’m also fond of a character I’m calling Roat Jr. He’s a soft-spoken guy. The first one is more of a physical performance, and I didn’t buy all that stage makeup for nothing. The second one really stretches me emotionally. I’m torn. I think I’ll play both of them.”

Mike: “Wouldn’t it just be easier to ransack the blind lady’s apartment when she leaves to go to school or to wait until her husband comes home, jump him, blindfold him and then rough up his wife until he gives up the doll?”

Roat: “Easier, sure. But even though I make my living as a murderous thug, my first love has always been the theater.”

That's what they all say.


Richard Bellamy said...

Very funny! Yeah, sometimes you really have to suspend disbelief. Why are they doing this? I guess when I saw this the first time, the mounting tension distracted me from logic. Despite the illogical premise, my younger brother jumped inches out of his seat when the film cuts to the car smashing into one of the guys Roat is eliminating. Illogical or whatever, the film is suspenseful.

Unknown said...

This may be my fave Alan Arkin performance (after FREEBIE AND THE BEAN). His hipster take on a hitman is pretty funny while also menacing at the same time. I cringed when I heard that Tarantino played this character of Broadway opposite Marisa Tomei in the Audrey Hepburn role. I heard he was awful (not surprising).

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, fellas.

I love this movie and Arkin, but you I can't help but laugh about it, too.

J.D. Yeah, as awful as it is to imagine QT as Roat, if QT also played Roat Sr and Roat Jr, it must have been insufferable.

elgringo said...

Growing up in a PG-13 or less type of household, Wait Until Dark was coveted by Young Me. Besides Audrey Hepburn, herself, nothing has ever made me so happy to have my sight as this movie.

John said...

Despite a weak premise, “Wait Until Dark” is a great thriller. I actually saw the original play with Lee Remick in the role way back when. I was a young teenager at the time. Arkin is menacing and the final 15 minutes or so will make you jump out of your pants. BTW, Robert Duvall played Harry Roat Jr. in the original Broadway production.

For anyone interested you can check out my own review at

Jason Bellamy said...

John: Thanks for the comment. Duvall (in his prime) would have been great.

Interesting anecdote in your review about George C Scott being up for the part before Arkin. They're such different actors. It's hard for me to imagine.

Thanks for stopping by. It's a great movie, ridiculous premise or not.