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Friday, July 2, 2010

Wait Until Dark, and films based on plays

It's time to pay respect to my all-time favorite film, Wait Until Dark, directed by Terence Young from 1967. This picture stars Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman unknowingly in possession of a doll filled with heroin. Trying to locate the doll are three criminals, played by Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, and Jack Weston. These men devise and perform an elaborate con to gain access to the apartment and talk their way to the doll. The film builds to a harrowing climax which takes place in total blackness (the theatrical run carried a warning that the theater was to be darkened to the legal minimum lighting for this scene).

I absolutely love everything about this movie. The performances are captivating and the plot is intricate and detailed. But what I can identify as its greatest asset is the dialogue. Wait Until Dark was adapted from a play written by Frederick Knott, so the task of sorting out what does and doesn't work in the plot had already been tested on live audiences. This results in a finely-tuned film that conserves its resources. The plot is totally dialogue driven, and is supported by visual cues. This style of screenwriting doesn't show up much anymore. It's tough to keep dialogue interesting.

The Big Sleep (1946) comes to mind, where Raymond Chandler's book was adapted as a film that sounded a lot like a book on tape. It's embarrassing to admit to being bored by a classic, but I think we've come away from that mode of storytelling in film for good reason. Wait Until Dark isn't wordy, but it somehow manages to develop its intensity through verbal exchanges, without relying on anything too over-the-top. That makes it lifelike.

Years ago, I started listening to movies to fall asleep (any music keeps me awake). I eventually moved on to old time radio programs from (which I can't recommend enough), but ever since I have heard Wait Until Dark dozens of times. This film has a lot in common with radio dramas, because it's quite possible to enjoy the film without any visual aid. I discovered this when I tried to let Psycho run at bedtime and was awakened in the most horrible panic a third of the way through, every night. Changing over to Wait Until Dark was a good choice.

I typically enjoy films based on plays, because the director recognizes that he has serviceable material on his hands and tends to approach it with respect, so we end up with everything great about the original, plus very tasteful film-only additions, like fully-imagined sets and evocative music. Other films in this style that I can recommend include Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and Dial M for Murder (1954, also written by Knott).

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