Wait Until Dark (1967)
“The blinds moving up and down. . .the squeaking shoes. . .and then the knife whistling past her ear. . .”
Wait Until Dark (1967)
Director: Terence Young
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna
Synopsis: A recently blinded woman is terrorized by a trio of thugs while they search for a heroin stuffed doll they believe is in her apartment.
A lot of screen adaptations of stage plays struggle to disguise their source material; they look like nothing more than filmed plays – but although director Terence Young doesn’t really open up the story too much in Wait Until Dark, you barely notice that the bulk of it is confined to just one set. That set is the cosy basement apartment which recently blinded Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn – Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) shares with her new photographer husband, Sam (Efrem Zimbalist Jr – Band of Angels). Returning from an overseas business trip, Sam rather rashly agrees to a young woman’s request to carry a doll through customs for her – which speaks volumes about how times have changed since the 1960s; try doing that sort of thing today and before you can say Osama you’ll find a customs official getting intimate with you while you’re touching your toes in a room without windows. Anyway, Sam takes the doll home with him, having presumably given the woman his address. What he doesn’t realise is that it’s stuffed with parcels of heroin which the young woman was trying to smuggle into the States behind the back of her shady boss, a vicious psychopath called Roat (Alan Arkin – Stand Up Guys, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) whom she spied unexpectedly waiting for her at the airport.
This is bad news for Sam, but even worse for Susy, as she’s home alone when Roat sets in motion an elaborate plan to fool her into handing the doll over to him after a search of the empty flat proves fruitless. He blackmails ex-cons Mike Talman (Richard Crenna – Made in Paris) and Carlino (Jack Weston – The Thomas Crown Affair) into helping him, with Talman pretending to be an old buddy of Sam’s, and Carlino posing as a police detective searching for the doll as part of an investigation into a local murder case. The idea is that, fearing possession of the doll will implicate Sam in a murder she’s sure he didn’t commit, Susy will gladly hand it over to her new friend, Mike. It’s a bit of a long shot if you ask me, but on such an unlikelihood do many movies rely.
Wait Until Dark was quite a hit in its day, thanks largely to a monumental jump-cut late in the movie that is still effective even after having been copied countless thousands of times in the past half a century. It’s a suspenseful movie, clever in some ways, but lazy and annoying in others. It builds tension with an ever-so-slightly off-key score which only gradually insinuates itself into the viewer’s consciousness, and mirrors Susy’s own slowly dawning realisation that something isn’t quite right about her busy day. The way in which the screenplay by Robert Carrington (from the play by Frederick Knott, who also wrote Dial M for Murder), gives Susy the kind of giveaway clues which would fly over the head of a sighted person is ingenious, and although she comes across as a little too trusting of strangers, Susy never really does anything stupid enough to irritate the audience.
There are niggles though, and although they’re inconsequential to the plot they’re strangely annoying. For example, at one point Susy describes how she lost her sight in the fire from a car crash, and yet she bears no burns on her face. And through his desire to see her become as self-sufficient as possible, her husband comes across as something of a knob. Let’s face it, how many men, upon seeing their traumatised and terrified blind wife emerging from behind the fridge after finding two dead bodies in his home, would stand back and expect her to walk to him as part of his ongoing mission to mould her into the world’s champion blind woman? I mean, Jesus, take a day off, fella…
Hepburn is entirely convincing as a blind woman, though, and gives a typically sympathetic performance. She looks so vulnerable that you wish you could climb into the screen to protect her, although she also looks so painfully thin that she could probably evade her tormentors simply by hiding between the floorboards. In any other movie, Hepburn’s would be the memorable role, but she’s topped here by Arkin. With his floppy black hair, eyes hidden behind round dark glasses, and a cigarette lodged in the corner of his mouth, he has the laid-back air of a beatnik, but lacks any kind of charm or warmth. Roat quietly relishes his ability to commit evil deeds without guilt or conscience and this, combined with his relentless determination to get whatever he wants at any cost, is ironically both his biggest strength and the ultimate instrument of his downfall.
(Reviewed 26th August 2015)