(NOTE: Possible spoilers for Wait Until Dark and Panic Room contained herein.)
The times they do keep changing. Frequently not for the better.
This week’s cheery news (news to me at least) was that my area’s last good video store–which happened to be the first store I ever rented a video from back in the early eighties and has for years been the only vid-store in town that wasn’t fronting a porn-shop–went out of business.
So no more cheap fixes on movie night.
No more browsing long shelves for interesting things I missed and probably never would have known about otherwise.
For now, at least, there’s one chain record store left (I notice everyone still calls them record stores even though they’ve now sold mostly sell CDs and DVDs for nearly as long as real record stores actually existed).
This record store is in the mall, right next to the biggest movie theater.
Between ten bucks and a quarter for Liam Neeson’s latest and a run through the used DVD rack where I could pick up three movies for seven bucks (at least as cheap as the rental option, actually, just nowhere near the selection), I decided on the latter.
The best of the three movies I bought was Panic Room, David Fincher’s auteur-ish 2002 take on the vulnerable-actress-trapped-in-her-home-by-psychopaths genre which reaches back at least as far as noir-ish items like The Spiral Staircase (1946, where the actress was the estimable Dorothy McGuire and the director was the minor auteur Robert Siodmak) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1949, where the actress was the more-than-estimable Barbara Stanwyck and the director the minor auteur Anatole Litvak) and which remains defined by 1968’s Wait Until Dark, which was directed by Terence Young (reliable but nobody’s idea of an auteur) and starred Audrey Hepburn.
I haven’t seen The Spiral Staircase and it’s really been too long since I’ve seen Sorry, Wrong Number for me to make a fair comparison. However, as I, like all people of quality, am a huge fan of Stanwyck, I’m guessing there’s a reason I haven’t revisited it even once. Something to do with an excess of artificiality if memory serves. And believe me, as a fan of artificiality in the old Hollywood manner, it had to be pretty excessive to leave me cold.
There’s a lot of artificiality in Wait Until Dark as well. But I watch it on a regular basis, including this week….right after I watched Panic Room.
It’s well made, of course. No movie is worth re-watching if it doesn’t meet that test. But Sorry, Wrong Number was well made, too (I do remember that much). For that matter, so is Panic Room, although, even as a fan of its two stars, Jodie Foster and Forrest Whitaker–two actors who I really wish worked more–I doubt I’ll bother seeing it again.
Actually, I should qualify that “well made” slightly for Panic Room.
It’s well made by modern standards and, seeing it side by side with one of Old Hollywood’s last gasps in nailing-down-the-basics, it certainly suffers by comparison.
Wait Until Dark keeps its physical and psychological spaces firmly fixed. It’s easy to know where everyone is–in body and mind–at all times, a quality I actually find pretty handy in a thriller. Panic Room’s spaces are, like those of nearly all modern thrillers, hopelessly confused. A standard walk-through of the space that’s about to be invaded at the very beginning–in this case a four-story Manhattan apartment–feels like a tacked on device where Dark’s similar meet-and-greet is integrated and organic. Worse, Fincher’s “device” does nothing to help the viewer stay oriented as to what’s going on later when the action starts–that is, the opening scene fails to serve its only good reason for existing.
Doubtless the subsequent confusion is meant to make some sort of statement (I mean, I’d hate to think it was merely incompetence, what with all that showy camera work going on) but it’s the sort of statement a director typically makes when he doesn’t have faith in his ability to disorient us any other way.
You know, by doing something like actually scaring us.
And that’s the trick with these things.
How exactly do you scare an audience which knows good and well that no actress big enough to play these parts in a big-budgeted script that elicits our sympathy–not Jodie Foster, certainly not Audrey Hepburn (Stanwyck died, but, assuming memory serves at least a little, with her character it came more as a relief than a tragedy)–is ever going to be killed on-screen by murderous psychopaths.
Especially not if one of the criminals (Richard Crenna in Dark, Forrest Whitaker in Panic Room) turns out to have a conscience that can be appealed to (and here, Panic Room burns the narrative basics again by having the man with the conscience play the bigger role and by playing out the final confrontation that is built into the structure–the vulnerable actress/star finally pitted, one-on-one, against the real murdering psychopath, as something other than the climax). Not that Dwight Yoakum, good as he is here, was ever going to match Alan Arkin, but there’s no way for the air not to go out of the thing just when the tension should be mounting if you play that crucial element off to the side.
So, if Panic Room–which, all complaints about the modern-ista technique of trashing basic narrative in order to be-different-for-the-sake-of-being-different aside, really is well-acted and directed–didn’t hold my interest all the way through the first time, why does Wait Until Dark hold my interest every single time?
Arkin’s certainly part of the reason. The lessons he gave in quiet menace–lessons which, he reveals in the DVD’s making-of documentary, made the producers very nervous during the first weeks of shooting because they had no idea what he was up to–have never really taken hold in modern Hollywood. I mean Yoakum’s character, by no means the worst example of overkill even in my relatively limited experience, comes into the invasion-space wearing a ski-mask while his two partners (thinking the place empty) are showing their faces.
After all, there’s nothing wrong with marking the real baddie in this situation. Heck, Arkin’s character enters wearing a leather coat and dark glasses.
But, going back to narrative basics again, the subsequent “reveals” should amount to something–something which deepens the terror rather than disperses it.
Something more disturbing, perhaps, than finding out Dwight’s not wearing a hair-piece for this role.
Yeah, something more than that.
If you want me to stay interested all the way through, anyway.
So there’s that for a reason to watch–Arkin becoming more terrifying as the movie goes along. And more terrifying still (as opposed to more pathetic) when his own moment of vulnerability finally does arrive.
Plus all that about using the narrative basics because the basics really do work.
Pretty good reasons on their own.
But the real reason I watch Wait Until Dark regularly is because it has a moment at the end which I haven’t seen in any other movie of this type or, come to think of it, in any other movie at all.
It has a moment–a moment that lasts exactly as long as it takes to shout “Oh God!” and resonates far, far beyond the echo–in which Hepburn conveys real physical terror.
In that single moment, she achieves a feat I haven’t seen (or, more particularly, heard) in any other movie.
She sounds like someone who genuinely fears for her life.
She sounds that way every single time.
She sounds terrified in a way that actresses as great as Barbara Stanwyck and Jodie Foster (fair claims for the very best of the respective generations just before and just after Hepburn’s own, in which exactly no one thought she was the very best) could not approach–could not approach, in Stanwyck’s case, in a movie where her character actually was going to die.
And Hepburn sounds that way–a way Barbara-freaking-Stanwyck and Jodie-freaking-Foster couldn’t sound–even though she’s Audrey Hepburn being stalked by a psychopath in a set of movie-land circumstances where there’s no possible way her character is going to die.
So I guess the main reason I watch Wait Until Dark once a year or so is the same reason that makes any art worth revisiting as something more than comfort food.
Every now and then, I want to stand in awe.
(Now, such a scene as I’ve described can’t arrive in a vacuum…so here’s the “reveal” scene–one of many memorable moments that precede the finale (which I’m not linking on the chance somebody might want to watch the movie). It’s highly theatrical and, I think, all the more effective for being so.
Incidentally, this is the second time in the last few weeks I had to upload my own video to YouTube so I would have something to show. Not sure yet whether this will develop into a habit.
Anyway, this mostly quiet scene is about a thousand times as effective as Dwight Yoakum getting his hand caught in a “panic room” door that isn’t supposed to let such things happen and screaming his head off–the equivalent confrontation moment in Panic Room.)