Movies Till Dawn: In Praise of Richard Crenna

Wait Until Dark” (1967, Warner Archives Collection) In Terence Young’s film version of the stage drama chestnut by Frederick Knott, Audrey Hepburn is the blind woman who, unbeknownst to her, has a doll stuffed with stolen heroin that belongs to malevolent beatnik Alan Arkin. Richard Crenna and Jack Weston are a pair of hapless crooks blackmailed by Arkin into retrieving the goods by using her impairment against her and impersonating an Army friend of Hepburn’s husband (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) and a nosy cop. A taut thriller that overcomes the implausibility of its plot mechanics through terrific performances and a gotcha ending that still rattles nerves; Hepburn and Arkin demand the most attention as absolute opposite sides of the moral fence, leaving Crenna to do what he did best in this middle portion of his career: play average-seeming guys whose former-football-hero exterior belied a complexity and latent desire to do right, even if they happen to be on the wrong side of the law. Crenna (1926-2003), a Los Angeles native who went to school at Belmont High before attending UCLA, had been acting on radio and later television for three decades prior to appearing in “Wait Until Dark.”

He specialized in goofball kids, like the helium-voiced high schooler Walter Denton on “Our Miss Brooks,” or straight arrow young guys like Luke McCoy on “The Real McCoys” before an Emmy-nominated turn as a progressive senator on the short-lived “Slattery’s People” ushered Crenna into grown-up roles. It would be another decade-plus before Crenna would hit paydirt with these sort of characters, like Kathleen Turner’s ill-fated husband in “Body Heat” or the card champ in “The Flamingo Kid” (though TV would give him some of his best parts, such as his Emmy-winning turn in “The Rape of Richard Beck,” Vincent Bugliosi in “And the Sea Will Tell” and as H. Ross Perot in “On Wings of Eagles”), but you can see in “Wait Until Dark” how Crenna was ideally cast as quietly upstanding or tragic men: as he lies over and over to Hepburn, consoling her, assuring her that everything will be all right, his eyes carry the weight of all the regrets and poor decisions that have brought him to this crime and this beautiful woman who, in another life, could have been his. As it stands, Crenna’s “Mike Talman” gets a second or two of redemption before the whole house of cards crashes down on him; for him, that fleeting moment was probably the worst part of the whole deal. Warner’s Blu-ray includes a brief interview with Arkin and Mel Ferrer, who was married to Hepburn and produced the picture for her, as well as the original trailer, and a teaser spot that warns audiences about the film’s big gimmick: during the final face-off between Hepburn and Arkin, theaters showing the film would dim their lights to the legal limit and then turn them off, one by one, until the audience was left in total darkness.

The Man Called Noon” (1973, Kino Lorber) Though a likable and dependable actor, Richard Crenna was afforded leading man status mostly in made-for-TV features like “Fire in the Sky,” a Steven Bochco-penned remake of “Double Indemnity” and a series of cop thrillers with Crenna as detective Frank Janek. On occasion, he also earned top billing on several features, including the crime caper “Midas Run” (1969), with Fred Astaire, and the offbeat haunted house picture “The Evil” (1978). Between those projects, he also starred in this British-Spanish-Italian Western, based on a Louis L’Amour novel and directed by the eclectic Peter Collinson (“The Italian Job,” 1969). Crenna’s inherent world-weariness does much to enhance his character, which begins the film as a literal blank – a nameless figure who loses his memory after a failed assassination attempt. The path back to his identity is aided by outlaw Stephen Boyd (nicely underplaying for a change, but stuck with an baffling accent) and rancher Rosanna Schiffiano; through them, he learns that he is not only the notorious gunfighter Jubal Noon, but in possession of a gold mine coveted by a double-dealing judge (Farley Granger) and a vengeful widow (Patty Sheppard). Producer Euan Lloyd and actor-turned-writer Scot Finch, who previously collaborated on a slew of unremarkable Western and action films (including another L’Amour adaptation, “Shalako,” with Boyd and Sean Connery), don’t push the material beyond the boundaries of traditional Western fair, leaving Crenna to handle the gravitas and Collinson to retain viewers through visual flair and some tough action setpieces. Eurowestern fans may find “Noon” fairly staid, though there is a host of familiar “bad hombres” (to quote POTUS 45) dotted throughout the supporting cast, including Aldo Sambrell, Angel de Pozo, Julian Ugarte, Fernando Hilbeck and Howard Ross (Renato Rossini), most of whom end up on the wrong end of Crenna’s guns. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray includes trailers for other Italian-made Westerns, from their library, including “Navajo Joe” (which highlights its great Ennio Morricone score) and “Barquero.”

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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