The 1967 classic Wait Until Dark was yet another film that I sought out as a kid in the 1980s because of its tense third act being mentioned favorably in Stephen King’s nonfiction magnum opus Danse Macabre. I remembered really loving the movie back then, so I was very excited to revisit it, since I hadn’t seen it for decades. And I’m happy to report that the film absolutely holds up, and in my opinion stands as one of the best, most effective thrillers of all time.
Like the 2006 film Bug that I just discussed a few days ago, Wait Until Dark was an adaptation of a successful stage play that took place almost entirely in one location (and no, I didn’t intentionally review two based-on-a-play movies in the same week on purpose, unless my subconscious is smarter than I am, which at this point is a distinct possibility). The stage production in question this time around was written by Frederick Knott, who also earned accolades for his 1952 play Dial M for Murder (which of course was turned into a classic 1954 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock).
The film adaptation of Wait Until Dark was helmed by none other than Terence Young, who was best known for directing three James Bond films: 1962’s Dr. No, 1963’s From Russia With Love, and 1965’s Thunderball. Although Lee Remick had starred in the stage version, producer Mel Ferrer had specifically obtained the rights to Knott’s play as a vehicle for his then-wife Audrey Hepburn to show off her acting chops; the hell of it was, Ferrer and Hepburn were in the process of divorcing while the film was being shot, and the personal stress combined with the demanding role caused Hepburn to lose fifteen pounds off her already delicate frame. But hot damn, if she didn’t rise to the challenge and give us one of the best performances of her career, one that earned her a fifth Oscar nomination. Although the process of making Wait Until Dark was difficult for her, her struggles may have contributed greatly to the success of the film, lending verisimilitude and a sympathetic vulnerability to her role as a terrorized woman in a tiny apartment.
At the very beginning of the film, we meet a woman named Lisa (played by Samantha Jones), who is picking up an antique doll which has a shitload of heroin sewn into the stuffing. Incidentally, though Lisa is referred to in the stage play, she never appears as an actual character, so this whole opening sequence is a film-only addition.
Anyway, we soon surmise that Lisa is a drug mule, smuggling the heroin into New York City from Montreal. Upon touching down in the States, though, she becomes visibly nervous when she sees an intimidating-looking man watching her, and decides she’s gonna ditch the drugs. She pawns the doll off on a stranger she met on the plane—a photographer named Sam Hendrix, played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr.—giving him some cock-and-bull story about the doll being a present for her niece, and how she’ll come by later and pick the doll up from his place. Lisa then gets roughly whisked away by the intimidating man, who didn’t see the whole doll exchange.
Some time later, the intimidating man—criminal mastermind Harry Roat, played by a fantastic Alan Arkin—summons two of his associates to a small, cellar-level apartment in Greenwich Village. These two associates are Mike (played by Richard Crenna) and Carlino (played by Jack Weston). Roat tells the two con men that this is Lisa’s place, and that the drug doll is somewhere in the apartment; he needs their help, he says, to find out where.
Soon enough, though, Mike and Carlino realize that this isn’t Lisa’s place at all, and what’s worse, they find Lisa dead in a locked closet. It’s only then that they figure out Roat has essentially blackmailed them into helping him: they’ve touched everything in the apartment in the search for the doll, so if Lisa is found dead in there, the cops will be coming after them. So not only have they been forced into helping Roat dump the body, but they also get roped into a scheme that Roat has cooked up to find out where the doll is. Since he’s searched this entire apartment, he reasons, then the doll must be in the safe in the flat’s living room, which he can’t get open, so he’s devised a complicated charade in order to get into the safe.
See, it turns out that this apartment actually belongs to the photographer Sam Hendrix, the completely uninvolved party who happened to be the unwitting recipient of the heroin-stuffed doll. Sam, furthermore, is married to a woman named Susy, played by the aforementioned Audrey Hepburn. Susy was in a car accident a year ago and lost her sight; she’s still trying to adapt to her recent disability, and though she’s determined, she still has some challenges in navigating the world. She has some help with tasks like grocery shopping and such from the bratty pre-teen upstairs, Gloria (played by Julie Herrod), but her relatively new husband is encouraging her to be as self-reliant as possible, and she’s also going to blind school to teach her how to adjust.
So the main meat of the story involves these three criminals—Mike, Carlino, and Roat—and their treacherous plan to take advantage of Susy’s sightlessness in order to get her to open the safe. They concoct a phony, faraway photo shoot so Sam will be out of the picture, then they put their elaborate ruse into action. Mike takes on the “good guy” role, pretending to be an old buddy of Sam’s from the Marines, and acting as the confidant and protector as the plan unfolds. Carlino pretends to be a cop investigating the mysterious death of a woman found dumped not far away (which of course is Lisa, who was in actuality killed by Roat), and implying to Susy that her husband was having an affair with her and might have bumped her off. Roat plays multiple roles, pretending to be Lisa’s jealous husband, among others. Because Susy can’t see them or see what’s going on around her, she is to an extent forced to take things they say at face value, though as the story goes on, her resourcefulness helps her to realize the danger that she’s actually in, and helps her to fight back against the attackers that had underestimated her.
Wait Until Dark benefits immensely from its tight narrative, its claustrophobic atmosphere, its terrific acting performances, the great Henry Mancini score, and the instant affinity we feel with the sweet, vulnerable Susy. Watching these three hoods taking advantage of her disability and her kind nature for their own evil ends is maddening and nail-biting, and you can’t help but root for Susy when she realizes what’s going on and uses her considerable wits and intelligence to give them some pushback.
Even though this isn’t a straight horror movie per se, the final twenty minutes or so is a master class in scary suspense-building, and one of the most terrifying sequences ever put to film. It’s come down to the final battle between Susy and Roat, and Susy, knowing she’s outmatched, brilliantly levels the playing field by knocking out every single light in the apartment, so that Roat will be as blind as she is. In the theatrical run of Wait Until Dark, so the story goes, theater owners were instructed to turn off all the lights in the auditorium during the sequence, which in the film is completely black with only sounds and dialogue, so that the audience would be experiencing the same terror as Susy. It’s a genius gimmick, and works like gangbusters even now. Although Susy ultimately forgot one single light that in all fairness most of us would have forgotten too, she’s able to win the day just through her sheer ingenuity and determination.
If you’re into thrillers at all and somehow have not seen Wait Until Dark, please do yourself a favor and get on it; it’s a stellar example of the genre, and has not dated at all. It has such a great sense of unease and potential menace through its entire runtime, and Audrey Hepburn’s sympathetic protagonist gets you invested immediately. Alan Arkin is also amazing as the coolly malevolent Roat, and the two actors’ matching of wits during the final confrontation is a white-knuckle delight. This one’s a classic for a reason, and it’s an easy recommend.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.