Filmmakers have always been fascinated with characters who must confront disability. A character who is not possessed of the faculties that most people take for granted is after all a character whose everyday life is inherently dramatic. In a world designed for the ambulatory, the hearing, the sighted, those who lack those capabilities must learn resourcefulness and adaptability. Such characters are already well positioned as protagonists even before the dramatist begins to weave a plot around them.
Most especially, Hollywood has always gravitated toward stories about blindness. More often than not, if the plot requires a non-fatal tragedy to be visited on the main character, the screenwriter will strike them blind. Not surprisingly, this often leads to a kind of generic treatment of blindness as a generalized symbol for being given a raw deal by fate, rather than a mature consideration of what it means to be sightless. To their credit, the producers of "At First Sight" have at least make a token effort to avoid such a cavalier treatment of their subject. For a broad cross section of earlier Hollywood treatments of blindness, look for these titles on video.
"City Lights" (1931). Filmmakers have often used blind characters as the love interest of those who are socially marginalized by their appearance. The idea is that the blind character, who is not distracted by outward appearance, can "see" the person for who they really are. Here, Charlie Chaplin plays a tramp, a hobo who exists on the fringes of society. He meets and falls in love with a blind flower girl, who takes him for a gentleman.
"On Dangerous Ground" (1952). Another common use of blind characters is in the role of a spiritually evolved figure who makes everyone else seem handicapped by comparison. No one has used this conceit more successfully than director Nicholas Ray and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides in this remarkable film. It begins as a gritty police drama. Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a bitter, hardnosed cop whose violent treatment of suspects keeps him in hot water with his superiors. While chasing down a teenaged suspect, Wilson encounters the boy's blind sister, Mary Malden (Ida Lupino). Mary is able to appeal to Wilson's long-dormant better nature, allowing the film to modulate into a bittersweet love story.
"23 Paces To Baker Street" (1956). Occasionally a filmmaker will put a blind character in the role of a traditional action hero, typically a detective. Edward Arnold's film portrayals of blind detective Duncan McClain remain unavailable on video, but you can get this interesting little thriller featuring Van Johnson as a blind amateur sleuth. Johnson plays Phillip Hannon, a playwright who happens to overhear an ominous conversation in a London pub. Convinced that he has heard a nefarious plot in the making, Hannon attempts to enlist the aid of the police. Scotland Yard, however, is unimpressed by his story, as is just about everyone else he tries to tell it to. Ultimately, he makes the decision to take action on his own to track down the bad guys.
"Wait Until Dark" (1967). It is only natural, I suppose, that blind characters also find their way into movies in the role of victims. In this adaptation of Frederick Knott's Broadway hit, Audrey Hepburn stars as a blind woman who is terrorized by three dope smugglers. Having planted a stash of heroin on the woman's husband inside an antique doll, the menacing trio must gain entry into her apartment to retrieve their contraband. The resulting cat and mouse game makes for some intensely suspenseful scenes.
"Butterflies Are Free" (1972). We mustn't forget, of course, the traditional love story in which one character is sighted and the other blind, a tradition recapitulated with variation in "At First Sight." Like all such films, this one demands a high tolerance for sentiment, but that goes without saying. Edward Albert plays a young blind man who falls for an eccentric young woman played by Goldie Hawn. Together they teach his overprotective mother that he needs his independence.Despite the wide range of contexts in which the movies have presented blindness, one thing remains consistent. If a character is blind, some element of the story will turn on that fact. A character may occasionally appear onscreen in a wheelchair without further comment, but blindness always has plot significance. In this supremely visual medium, maybe that's not so hard to understand.