Reel Rumbles: “Charade” vs. “Wait Until Dark”
A woman receives something valuable from her husband, and a rogues gallery of street toughs tries to bully it out of her. This describes two Audrey Hepburn movies from the 1960s, Charade (1963) and Wait Until Dark (1967), but which slick caper flick is the coolest and classiest? Let’s blow this case wide open.
Round 1: Directing
Wait Until Dark is helmed by Terence Young, a name unknown to most despite his direction of some of the most successful and beloved movies of the 1960s: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball. Where those Bond movies are globetrotting actioners, Wait Until Dark is almost entirely confined to an apartment living room. Young wrings plenty of tension from the small setting, especially by playing with diegetic lighting.
A more famous name among cinema buffs is Stanley Donen, who directed Charade in the midst of a career that includes Singin’ in the Rain and several choreography credits. There’s no dancing in Charade, but the film is a superb cocktail of tonal styles. It’s a romance, a thriller, a comedy. Donen keeps himself mostly invisible, but there is some neat on-location shooting at Parisian destinations like the Pont au Double and the Royal Palace Garden Colonnade.
Winner: Terence Young, Wait Until Dark
Round 2: Acting
Chemistry, thy name is “Grant and Hepburn.” That applies to both Hepburns, actually. A young Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn elevated a screwball script into a legendary studio-era staple with Bringing Up Baby. A quarter of a century later, an older Grant somewhat reluctantly agreed to partner with the much younger Audrey Hepburn for Charade. The age mismatch isn’t the problem he reportedly feared it would be – their banter is exhilarating. In addition to the principles, the supporting cast of Charade includes a dark and sleazy Walter Matthau, an apish George Kennedy, and the always-creepy James Coburn.
Wait Until Dark is an actor’s movie, but with just two great roles. Hepburn plays a woman who was recently blinded in the prime of life. Her fixed, unblinking gaze makes you quickly forget that the actress can see the people and props around her. The other great performance comes from Alan Arkin, who adopts different disguises and voices over the course of the film. An end credit montage acknowledges that the movie stars “Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Alan Arkin, and Alan Arkin.” (Charade has a snazzy credit sequence, too, but it comes at the beginning.) It was only Arkin’s second major role, but it remains one of his most powerful.
Winner: Grant, Hepburn, Matthau, Kennedy, and Coburn, Charade
Round 3: Story
There are few enough movies about blind people that the prominent inclusion of a sightless character is enough to make a film a “high concept” piece. The blindness of Hepburn’s Suzy Hendrix is the essential fact of Wait Until Dark around which all other plot points revolve. The con that Arkin and his henchmen (Richard Crenna, Jack Weston) are running is your basic heroin-smuggling operation, but with a kink: the child’s doll they use to transport drugs winds up in the home of the blind Suzy when her husband (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) agrees to carry it for a stranger. When the husband goes away on business, Suzy doesn’t know where the doll is any more than the criminals do. Her blindness is both an asset and a liability as the crooks try to use her to find the goods. SPOILER ALERT: A big, black safe in the middle of the apartment is a perfect red herring.
Hepburn’s character in Charade is also in possession of something valuable that belonged to her husband. Yet not only does she not know where it is, she doesn’t know what it is. That doesn’t stop her husband’s associates, a desperate bunch of cruel ex-soldiers, from haranguing her. The only kind one is Grant, but it seems certain that he’s using his charm to the same ends that the others are using violence and intimidation. The big reveal of the husband’s treasure and a Matryoshka-like series of reveals about Grant’s character make Charade a prime example of a crowd-pleasing, star-powered, twist-filled mystery-comedy.
Round 4: Music
Henry Mancini scored both Charade and Wait Until Dark. He had a jazzy, sultry, undercover kind of aesthetic that would reach a catchy peak in 1963’s The Pink Panther. Both soundtracks include vocal songs that date the films – not in a bad way – to the swinging sixties. Hepburn was a “good luck charm” for Mancini, who had earlier scored Breakfast at Tiffany’s and composed “Moon River” for her. He wrote that he had an “image of Audrey in my mind” when he sat down at the piano to find the sound for Charade. Mancini’s tenser score for Wait Until Dark is affecting, but it was a track from Charade that got an Oscar nomination – one of 18 Mancini received in his career.
And Charade takes the matchup 3-1! There was never much doubt; Charade is a must-see for film fans and a top-200 movie on Flickchart. But if you love it (and who doesn’t?) you’ll almost certainly love Wait Until Dark, too.
Charade stats on Flickchart:
- Global ranking #158
- Wins 55% of matchups
- 7 users have it at #1
- 103 users have it in their top 20
Wait Until Dark stats on Flickchart:
- Global ranking #442
- Wins 53% of matchups
- 0 users have it at #1
- 21 users have it in their top 20