For the first entry in my new Short of the Month series, I’m going to gush over what might be my favorite short film of the 1910s: Suspense, directed by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley.
If you’ve never seen Suspense, then I recommend watching the short in question before reading on. You can watch the short below:
This taut home invasion thriller is a gem of early cinema. The plot’s basic DNA– a woman left alone in her home is menaced by an outside force– would be shared by many movies to follow, from Sorry, Wrong Number to Panic Room. Running only ten minutes, Suspense keeps its story simple: a housewife and her child are threatened by a malicious tramp in their isolated house, the phone line cut and help far away. Can they be rescued in time?
Though thoroughly cinematic, Suspense was inspired by the theater. The chief influence is a grim 1902 French play titled At the Telephone, which was performed at the Theatre du Grand Guignol in Paris and at the Garrick Theatre in New York. Unlike the later works that would be inspired by it, the original story ends on a dark note as the husband hears his frightened wife and child being murdered by intruders over the telephone.
Though little known today, At the Telephone was quite the influential thriller. In its day, it was adapted into a 1904 French film. The story also inspired Griffith’s 1909 The Lonely Villa, which concludes with a just-in-the-nick-of-time rescue by the victim’s husband. Suspense is another variation on this story, but its cinematography and energy elevate it above its predecessors as a work of cinema.
If you seriously think all early films were theatrical and static affairs, Suspense will shock you to your core with its dynamic camera angles and groundbreaking use of split screen. These artistic choices are more than trendy stylistic flourishes or empty attempts at standing out. They serve the story and the movie’s raison d’etre: thrusting the audience into a state of dread and anxiety.
Take the early scene in which the maid, driven crazy by the isolation of the remote house, exits the front door. Instead of opting for a static frontal shot much the way such a moment would be viewed on a stage, Weber and Smalley place the camera at a high angle, gazing down at the maid from the top of the porch. The high angle strikes an ominous note, an almost God’s eye perspective.
The early moments also create a sense of voyeurism and privacy being invaded. Before leaving her bitter resignation letter, the maid peeks through a keyhole to watch the guileless wife interacting with her baby. Later, the tramp gazes in on the domestic scene through a window. As with later home invasion films, the security of the domestic space is compromised by criminal onlookers. The wife and her child are like goldfish in a bowl being eyed by a hungry cat.
The split screen in particular is used so well. Suspense was not the first to use the technique, but it might have been the first to split the screen three ways. Watching the film again, I was reminded of the vogue for complicated split screens in 1960s crime movies like The Boston Strangler and The Thomas Crown Affair. Those films use split screens to create suspense or to evoke the complexities of a criminal plot.
Suspense uses the device in the same vein as those movies in which we see at once the victim in her home, her husband far away at work, and the intruder as he finds the house key under the mat.
While Suspense lacks the overt violence audiences expect from home invasion movies today, the tramp is still a chilling character. His vacant expressions evoke the impassivity of wild animals and he is the one character in the short to not receive a single dialogue intertitle. It’s interesting how his exact intentions regarding the wife are never laid out. Does he just want to kill her or does he have more sinister intentions as well? That the film never tells us makes his entry into the bedroom all the more disturbing.
While DW Griffith is often marked as the nickelodeon era’s Master of Suspense with his races to the rescues and cross-cutting, Weber and Smalley go to show how Griffith was hardly the only pioneer in town. I dare to say they even out-Griffithed Griffith with this one! Suspense is a great introduction to early cinematic dramas: short enough to not tax a modern viewer uninitiated to the slower pace of older movies and still intense enough to quicken the pulse.
The inevitable reaction to learning Quentin Tarantino once graced the Broadway stage is a hearty, “The hell?,” probably followed by a potpourri of more colorful expletives if you’re feeling especially Tarantinoesque. But it’s true: for a few months in 1998, Tarantino was the star attraction of a revival of Wait Until Dark, a 1960s home invasion thriller penned by Frederick Knott of Dial M for Murder fame.
For those aware of this pop culture anomaly but who did not see it live, it is an event shrouded in a thick fog of mystery. Press photos show Tarantino dressed in grunge fashion and snarling beneath unkempt hair. Ads for the show promised audiences a night of unmitigated terror. If the critics are to be believed, what they got instead was unintentional hilarity.
Let me just sample a few of the revival’s notoriously bad reviews for you—or rather, Tarantino’s bad reviews:
New York Amsterdam News: “Tarantino as the cold-blooded, mean killer was hilarious. He couldn’t scare a fly. In fact, when he spoke dramatic, threatening lines, the audience responded with laughter.”
New York Daily News: “As a movie director Tarantino may be the new Alfred Hitchcock, but as a stage actor he is the new Ed Wood. He has the vocal modulation of a railway station announcer, the expressive power of a fence post and the charisma of a week-old head of lettuce.”
The New York Times: “Mr. Tarantino seems menacing to nothing except possibly [the] script. Whether raising his voice in deranged fury or softly promising to commit unspeakable tortures, he registers at best as merely petulant, like a suburban teenager who has been denied the use of his father’s Lexus for the night.”
But for me, there’s more interest in this revival than mere celebrity schadenfreude. The more you research it, the more questions begin to emerge. Like in the first place, why was a 32-year-old thriller revived on Broadway in an era where stage thrillers were unfashionable? Did Tarantino seek out the producers or did the producers seek out Tarantino? Was Tarantino put to poor advantage by dated material or was a classic play sabotaged by Tarantino’s presence? And what was so bad about the experience that none of the cast and crew want to discuss it even years later?
The history of the 1998 Wait Until Dark starts with a revival of another Frederick Knott play. A new production of Dial M for Murder starring Roddy McDowall and Nancy Allen toured the United States during the 1995-1996 season. While critics were concerned those rascally boomers and Gen X-ers would find the show too talk-heavy and quaint (one review mentions an audience member standing up during intermission to shout, “Who cares?!”), it was enough of a modest success for the octogenarian Knott to ask the show’s producer Robert Young if he would help him bring another work of his back to the Broadway stage after 32 years: Wait Until Dark.
Knott’s second-biggest hit, Wait Until Dark is about a drug deal gone wrong. After a plane ride from Canada, Greenwich Village photographer Sam Hendrix is handed a child’s doll by a mysterious woman named Lisa. She claims she will pick it up from him at a later time. Turns out the doll is packed with heroin and Lisa is a drug mule hoping to wheedle her partners-in-crime out of the profits. Unfortunately, Sam claims to have mislaid the doll in his apartment when she asks for it back. Now three criminals connected to Lisa have targeted the Hendrix domicile, intent on procuring the heroin.
The leader, a suave psychopath who calls himself Harry Roat Jr., devises an elaborate plan to get the drugs back without violence: luring the husband away with a phony assignment, the men will pull a con on Sam’s blind wife Susy to terrorize her to giving them the doll without knowing its true contents. Little do they know that Susy has no idea where the doll is either—or that her other senses are sharp enough to sniff out their games. By the time the jig is up, it becomes clear the conflict will end in violence, famously climaxing with Susy fending off the homicidal Roat by smashing all the light sources in the apartment. Their showdown, one of the most celebrated sequences in thriller history, literally left audiences screaming in the aisles.
Running for 373 performances, Wait Until Dark was the sleeper hit of 1966 with Lee Remick and Robert Duvall heading the show, and it would be even more successful on the West End with Honor Blackman, where it ran for almost two years. A film version starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin swiftly followed in 1967, raking in over five times its budget. While the critics complained about plot holes and the middle section being convoluted, ticket sales revealed the property was critic-proof.
Regardless of this previous success, bringing the show back to Broadway was risky. Stage thrillers were common enough between the 1920s and the 1950s with hits like The Bat and Night Must Fall, but their presence began to wane in the 1960s and 1970s. Ira Levin’s satirical Deathtrap was the genre’s last hurrah, both homaging and deconstructing the old thriller masters like Knott. However, even if thrillers were not common on 1990s Broadway, regional theaters were another matter. To this day, Wait Until Dark is a staple of community theater with its single set, cat-and-mouse games, and famous showdown in absolute darkness. The 1967 film is a classic in its own right, benefiting from marvelous performances and tight direction. With all that in mind, why shouldn’t a Broadway revival have had a decent shot at success?
Gathering the cast and crew
Considering Knott had not written a play since the 1960s, I was surprised to find he was so involved in the revival, to the point where he modified his own script. There is no copy of this revised script available anywhere, so I had to comb through reviews to find out what he changed. The most significant addition is a brand-new prologue in which Lisa (a character kept off-stage in the original play) desperately searches the half-lit apartment for the doll. The scene ends with the lights going out and the audience hearing her scream before being murdered by Roat. Despite this added scene, the running time was shorter than the original by about 20-30 minutes, in part because the intermission was snipped. Other changes were made to modernize the story, such as Susy buzzing people into the street door. Finally, the setting was changed from Greenwich Village in the 1960s to the Lower East Side in the present day.
Leonard Foglia was hired as director. He’d recent success with Master Class and a pre-existing attachment to Wait Until Dark, which had been his senior thesis when getting a theater degree. Feeling that earlier production was lousy, Foglia wished to redeem himself with the revival. His direction would incorporate cinematic touches, such as scene transitions that emulated jump cuts with clicking noises and flashing lights.
Of course, there was no getting a 32-year-old show produced without celebrity wattage to draw audiences. Dial M benefitted from Roddy McDowall and Nancy Allen’s combined presence, so Wait Until Dark would have to procure similar star power, a feat easier said than done. In an interview with Indianapolis Monthly magazine, Young and fellow producer Allen Lichtenstein bemoaned the difficulty of getting movie stars to commit to weeks-spanning Broadway runs. While most celebs liked the idea of having a Broadway show on their resume, few were willing to pass up more lucrative movie deals in exchange.
Though Jennifer Jason Leigh was originally cast as Susy Hendrix in late 1997, she backed out by the new year, leaving it open for Marisa Tomei, then most known for her award-winning turn in My Cousin Vinny. No doubt for the producers, she represented the best of both worlds, bringing both movie star allure and a decent amount of stage experience with her. The two subordinate criminals were played by Stephen Lang and Juan Carlos Hernandez. Long before committing himself to Avatar‘s proposed 999 sequels and playing a (very, very different) blind character himself in Don’t Breathe, Lang racked up stage credits throughout the 80s and 90s, even playing Hamlet in 1992. Hernandez brought plenty of stage experience as well, though Wait Until Dark proved to be his only Broadway engagement. Rounding out the main cast was Imani Parks as Susy’s bratty kid neighbor Gloria, her previous stage experience including a revival of Show Boat and The Lion King musical.
Of course, the most memorable casting choice was for the chief villain… though memorable for all the wrong reasons.
If one director encompasses the attitude of the 1990s, I can think of no one more appropriate than Tarantino. The one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction made Tarantino the new Orson Welles. Adored and despised, Tarantino represented the zeitgeist: irreverent, brutal, and ironic. His sharp features and six-foot-one height made him imposing on sight, perfect for a heavy. With all that in mind, casting a young celebrity du jour famous for his violent movies as your knife-wielding, bloodthirsty villain makes perfect sense if you’re the one managing the money.
For his part, Tarantino was excited to take the role. Not content with just writing and directing, he wanted to be a triple threat by adding acting to his accomplishments. He’d done small parts in his own movies and even played a raping, killing nutjob opposite George Clooney in 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn, but he craved more. Proud of his work in From Dusk Till Dawn and feeling his thespian skills went unappreciated, the chance to play an even bigger part on Broadway proved too great a temptation to resist. It was a wish come true… perhaps come true while he had a monkey’s paw in his pocket.
Tarantino’s limited stage experience (and by limited experience, I mean he did some community theater in his teens) does not seem to have worried anyone. He was a big name, he was willing to put other projects on hold to commit to the production, and he was not required to carry the show since Roat only appears sporadically between the first scene and the climactic showdown. Tomei and Lang were the ones with the lion’s share of the script, so Tarantino could rest easy and just look threatening when his time came to stalk on-stage. Hopes were certainly high, as the show made three million dollars in advance ticket sales alone.
The revival’s first night before an audience was at the Wilbur Theater in Boston on March 5, 1998. Tickets were a hot item with many eager to see Tarantino and Tomei in the flesh. After 11 previews, the show finally opened on April 5 at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theater, where it played for the remainder of its run.
Critical reaction was almost universally negative, as everyone knows. Consistently, Tomei and the set design tended to receive the most praise: Tomei was sympathetic and convincing, and the rotating set was meticulously designed to go down a bit into the audience, involving them more in the action. Parks merited a few good notices and Hernandez was deemed competent, but no one else proved so lucky. Lang was dismissed as a bore. Foglia’s direction was accused of being too rushed, disrupting the slow simmering of suspense.
Being the most high-profile member of the cast, Tarantino naturally received the most vitriol. Tarantino was deeply hurt by the reviews, his legendary confidence sustaining blow after blow with each nasty word put down in black and white as he mentioned in an interview with Variety: “I tried not to take it personally, but it was personal. It was not about the play—it was about me, and at a certain point I started getting too thin a skin about the constant criticism. It started getting to me. It’s fucked up when people make fun of you.”
Tarantino did get one thing wrong there: in some of the critical notices, there was quite a lot of complaining about the play. Barring only Tarantino, Knott’s writing received the most scorn. While Wait Until Dark was criticized as contrived when it first premiered, the passage of time added another adjective to the critics’ arsenal: dated. Try as he did to modernize the story, Knott’s changes were apparently uneven: Carolyn Clay of The Boston Phoenix mentioned that the telephone lacked an answering machine, for instance. Characterized as slow and musty, many critics argued the show was past its expiration date. The New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley’s words about the play best reflect the general sentiment: “today [the play] comes across as a tediously contrived wind-up toy that yells ‘Boo!’ just before it runs down.”
Audience reaction was more mixed. The 2018 Adam White article on the revival samples both positive and negative comments from normal theatergoers. One spectator called the production “weird and excruciating,” while another was spellbound by the sound design and Tomei’s performance. Going through this Broadway forum thread on the topic is much the same. Some claimed the play was the scariest experience they ever had in the theater, vividly recalling thousands of audience members screaming in unison during the play’s famous jump scare, while others claimed there was laughter throughout and that the revival came off as a slapdash effort.
Bad reviews or not, the show did maintain good attendance for a time, buoyed by Tarantino’s presence. Unfortunately, other issues plagued the run, such as Tarantino getting arrested after hitting a photographer. There were rumors that Michael Richards of Seinfeld fame might take over Tarantino’s role come June, either because Tarantino wasn’t interested in continuing the show or because the producers thought that Tarantino was just that awful depending upon the source. This recasting never happened because the show did not last long enough. It closed after 97 performances and was swiftly forgotten as though it were a bad dream.
Aftermath—What went wrong?
It’s easy to blame everything on Tarantino, but many poor decisions were made in trying to revive this play for a 1990s audience. Obviously, I cannot say for sure whether or not the revival was bad as I was too busy playing with Rugrats toys back in 1998. No recording of the production exists either, so all I have to go on are the reviews and recollections of theater goers. Even so, I still have my theory as to why this revival failed. My hypothesis comes down to two factors.
1. Tarantino was miscast—or at the very least, he was not experienced enough to do the role justice.
Now obviously, I cannot judge the performance properly as I did not see it. That being said, given my exposure to Tarantino’s movie roles, I can easily imagine him struggling with Knott’s verbose dialogue (decidedly void of his beloved f-bomb or any curse words for that matter) and substituting loud-mouthed swagger for chilling menace. An actor playing Roat has the challenge of combining genuine threat with humor and reptilian charm. Perhaps Tarantino was not experienced enough to go beyond one of those notes at a time.
Still, I have to take the critics with a grain of salt because there is a common willingness to get nasty in these “professional” reviews, almost as though they just wanted a chance to dump on a famous person they didn’t like. Tarantino was then, as he is now, a controversial figure. Not everyone enjoyed the hyper-violent style of his films or his brash, arrogant manner off-screen. Take this unwarranted comment on Tarantino’s weight from the Entertainment Weekly review: “Tarantino, out of his overcoat, appears to have prepared for this role primarily by hitting the dessert cart. If only his acting were half as substantial.”
Of course, not everyone hated Tarantino’s performance either. Ain’t It Cool News found Tarantino “deliciously evil.” A staff reporter for the MIT newspaper claimed Tarantino and the show as a whole were not as bad as the media had them out to be in what might be the revival’s most positive notice:
“[Tarantino’s] character was quite believable: well suited to Quentin’s pre-existing image, yet different enough so that you knew it wasn’t just him being himself. His best moments were during the blackout scene towards the end, where he and Tomei exchange dialogue in the dark. Their interplay was quite natural, and helped bring the show over the top.”
I’ll conclude this section with a comment from actor David Carradine, who Tarantino asked point blank about his chances on Broadway years after the revival closed. Carradine is reserved but thoughtful on the matter:
“I think your experiment came too soon, and you used too much of your clout to get the part. […] You …understand violent people. What’s inside them. I think, while you were suffering on Broadway, you might have forgotten that that guy you were playing, at least one of him anyway, was such a person. You seemed to be apologizing for him.”
2. Putting “the chief avatar of the desensitized 90s” into an old-fashioned thriller was not the best idea.
I will admit my bias: I like this play and don’t agree with the critics’ harsh assessment of it. When done right, Wait Until Dark is a buffet of dramatic irony. The audience holds the most information, privy to the full truth of the situation whereas the characters only know different bits of the big picture. The fun comes in seeing how the blind woman and the criminals try to deceive one another. The men prey on Susy’s insecurities while Susy eventually preys on their arrogant underestimation of her competence.
That being said, the play is not perfect. The first act is quite slow and the charade plot can be confusing if you aren’t already familiar with the story. And, yes, there is one big plot glitch. These issues perturbed critics in the 1960s—it isn’t a shock that it would only get more ire from sophisticated NYC critics decades later, though ideally presented, it might have proven itself a crowd-pleaser.
And then there’s the problem of trying to update the story to the late 90s. Obviously, when Wait Until Dark debuted, it was presented with a contemporary setting. While it wasn’t uncommon for subsequent productions to keep it in the then-present, even by the 1970s some directors chose to make the play a period piece due to its sheer 60s-ness. The more successful 2003 London revival went all-out with groovy Swinging Sixties atmosphere and the 2013 Jeffrey Hatcher re-adaptation moves the story even farther back to the thick of World War II. Ironically, the Hatcher version does a great job modernizing the story by embracing the old-fashioned elements while also giving the play snappier pacing (and filling in some of the aforementioned plot holes).
Young joked that had Tarantino written Wait Until Dark, the play would be over in seconds because his Roat would just shove a gun in Susy’s mouth and demand the doll. While this was said in jest, it actually foreshadows a serious problem regarding audience expectations. When putting Quentin Tarantino, master of ultraviolent, postmodern cinema as a drug-dealing psychopath in your play, audiences drawn to the production by his presence alone likely had a certain idea of what to expect… and it wasn’t an old-fashioned mystery-thriller with only two on-stage killings.
The anonymous writer for the Harvard Crimson put it the best when s/he said:
“…Wait Until Dark is a period piece, a clever, understand brew of Hitchcockian suspense and late-’60s proto feminism. It hearkens back to the good old days, when drug dealers carried knives, not guns, and when West Side Story was still considered gritty.
Suddenly, in walks the chief avatar of the desensitized ’90s and POOF! the spell is broken. On press night, when Tarantino opened a closet door to reveal the body of one of his victims, some people actually laughed. And can you blame them? I mean, this is Quentin Tarantino! They were probably expecting him to kill her on-stage and toss off a twisted one-liner before her body hit the floor. They were probably expecting him to actually shoot heroin, not just talk about it.”
Exactly. If anything, the combination of Knott’s old school style and the hip 90s aesthetics probably just felt like a theatrical version of the “Hello fellow kids” meme.
The best that can be said of the revival is that it did not permanently hurt anyone’s career. After the show closed, Tarantino began writing the script that would one day be Inglorious Basterds. Lang and Hernandez never returned to Broadway, but Lang’s seen plenty of cinematic success and Hernandez has recently appeared in shows like Tell Hector I Miss Him and Thunderbodies. Tomei and Foglia’s stage careers bounced back, and Parks went on to become a prolific audiobook narrator. About the only sour note is that this revival marked Knott’s last real involvement with the theater, a dismal note on which to end a largely successful playwriting career.
It’s easy for us with the benefit of hindsight to mock this revival’s creative decisions, but as cynical as most get about the motives of producers, you have to remember these people were not out to make a flop. Considering they thought an extended run was a major possibility, I’m going to surmise this revival was not intended to be a hit-and-run exploitation of a celebrity-mad public (at least, not exclusively an exploitation of a celebrity-mad public), but an honest attempt at a solid, crowd-pleasing potboiler. People forget how often great entertainment comes with an element of risk. Still, the unfortunate truth about risks is that they don’t always pay off. This revival is a textbook example.
I’ve got to give Tarantino this, he hasn’t let failure scare him away from future risk-taking. After The Hateful Eight premiered in 2015, Tarantino expressed interest in adapting the film for the Broadway stage and even said that he wanted to try directing plays once he bows out from filmmaking. After researching the Wait Until Dark saga of misery, I hope he does it. It would be nice to see him try again, the critics be damned.