It was a stroke of genius casting Audrey Hepburn in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967); a psychological thriller, far more engaging for its winsome ingénue than its trio of would-be brutes, intermittently succumbing to lugubrious apoplexy between bungling their relatively straight-forward interception and recovery of a certain porcelain-faced doll into which several packets of heroin have been stitched. By happenstance, the doll is misdirected to the basement apartment of a blind woman who, quite simply, refuses to surrender to the plotters and is smarter than all three of these embryonic assassins put together. Wait Until Dark is, of course, based of Frederick Knott’s Broadway play, itself problematically structured around the long-suffering Suzy Hendrix (Hepburn); newly blinded and thus still learning how to cope with her condition. Suzy’s husband, Sam (Erfem Zimbalist Jr.) is empathetic to a point, yet determined his usually independent-minded and free-spirited wife re-gain the courage to be self-reliant. Brit-born Knott, who only wrote three plays in his lifetime, two made into memorable movies (this, and the other being, Hitchcock’s adaptation of Dial M for Murder 1954) always regarded Wait Until Dark as his chef-d'oeuvre. Despite enough holes in the plot to put a block of fine-aged Swiss to shame, Wait Until Dark clung together spectacularly on the stage with Lee Remick in a Tony-nominated lead on Broadway in 1966, and Honor Blackman (my favorite Bond girl, Pussy Galore), reprising it for London’s West End. Yet, as fine as each lady is (at least, elsewhere in their respective movie careers), in viewing this picture today, it is virtually impossible to consider anyone except Audrey Hepburn as the terrorized victim; her frozen stares (the result of Hepburn’s fine-tuning an approach to convey blindness by attending a school for the visually impaired, and learning Braille to augment her reflections), utterly convincing of the affliction, while still managing to emanate appropriate pathos and tension in tandem as propriety, the script, and this venomous game of cat and mouse perpetuated by Roat (Alan Arkin), by far the most lethal and psychotic of the cohorts, permits.
Wait Until Dark hails from a long and oft distinguished traditional of ‘women in peril’ to have made and popularized martyrs out of some of the biggest glamour queens in show biz; Barbara Stanwyck (Sorry, Wrong Number 1948), Joan Crawford (Sudden Fear, 1952), and, Doris Day (Midnight Lace 1960) among them. Wait Until Dark is, in fact, the final jewel in Audrey’s crown; her farewell to the movies for almost a decade to focus more astutely on aspects in her life that mattered more; the rearing of son, Sean (the offspring of her marriage to actor, Mel Ferrer – who produced Wait Until Dark and whom Hepburn would divorce a year after the picture’s release) and charitable work for which, arguably, Audrey is as fondly remembered today. “I suppose people could blame me for ending Audrey Hepburn's career,” Sean has admitted, “She knew her potential. If she had kept working, the parts were there for her, and her success professionally would have continued at a high level for years. But she wanted to be with her family. She wanted a private life. And she couldn't bear the thought that she might fail as a mother. It was too important to her.” With the exception of Marilyn Monroe and perhaps Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn’s iconography remains the most resilient and readily resurrected by today’s spate of leading ladies in Hollywood (desperate to cash in on her inimitable loveliness, alas reconstituted as mere affectation without actually being gracious themselves) and wannabe daydreaming teenage girls who perennially submit to the worship of her recurrently salubrious and never dating sophistication. Wait Until Dark strips away the superficiality of Hepburn’s trademarked stardom; the clothes, as example, are off the rack Parisian cast offs (Hepburn spends most of the picture in cozily frumpish outfits); not the uber-chichi, head-turning runway apparel of Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy for whom it can justly be said each had become the other’s muse by the late 1960's.
Wait Until Dark is undeniably Hepburn’s movie, despite the fact she does not appear in it for the first 21 minutes. Even so, the entire plot is built around her character’s increasingly nerve-jangling isolation and burgeoning resourcefulness against a trio of would-be assassins come to call one dark and stormy night. Yet, Alan Arkin manages a minor coup; to distinguish himself in relief from his cohorts with a decidedly delicious bit of ‘out of the box’ acting. Interestingly, producers had a hell of a time trying to cast this part; firstly, because none of the actors approached wanted to be known professionally for having brutalized the beloved Audrey Hepburn; even in play-acting jest. Alan Arkin would later quip how easy it was for him to get the part. And from our first introduction to Harry Roat, Arkin establishes a rare, unsettling quality along the lines of Shakespeare’s classically derived declaration – “he that smiles may smile and be a villain”. There is a slithery decadence to his nasally annunciations as he tempts and taunts con artist, Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and his disgraced cop/cohort, Sergeant Carlino (Jack Weston) into accepting his terms and conditions in the doll’s recovery; a wicked sense of the theatrical after he dons several disguises (rather pointless, considering Suzy is blind) to cajole, then intimidate her into divulging the doll’s secret hiding place. As a pledge of good faith, or rather to prove he means business, Harry Roat lets Mike and Carlino discover the body of their New York contact, Lisa (Samantha Jones), left to hang in Suzy’s apartment closet. Arkin’s breed of villainy is not immediately apparent; not until he quietly encourages Mike and Carlino to put their weapons on the table while refusing to relinquish rights to ‘Geraldine’ – a stylish, jade-handled switchblade whom Roat suggests will serve as mediator in their negotiations.
Throughout most of Wait Until Dark Arkin gives every indication Roat is an exacting sadist; a real monster to be reckoned with and never to be crossed. Yet Arkin resists the obviousness built into the part. There is something decidedly tantalizing about him; magnetism not usually ascribed the villain. Only during the picture’s last act does Arkin’s perverse ne’er-do-well revert to the precepts – nee clichés – of pure and undiluted screen evil; leaping from the darkened recesses of the room and spewing menace as Suzy retaliates by dousing him in gasoline, threatening to ignite the spark that will send his wickedness up like a tinderbox. The oft overlooked performance in the picture belongs to pint-sized 10 year old child actress, Julie Harrod as Suzy’s upstairs neighbor and uber-smart moppet, Gloria. After some initial jealousies, the girls establish a bond; Gloria becoming devoted to Suzy and, in fact, taking possession of the doll while Suzy prepares for a little cloak and dagger with her arch nemeses. Harrod, who quit acting after only one other appearance, and went on to champion environmentalist causes in San Francisco, herein plays the seemingly unloved and abandoned ‘homely’ girl nobody except a blind woman would want to be friends. It’s the camaraderie between Suzy and Gloria that generally raises the stakes and the tension in Wait Until Dark’s third act; Gloria, innocuously maneuvering in and out of the brownstone right under Roat’s nose.
We tip our hats to Robert and Jane-Howard Carrington for their screenplay, a vast improvement on Frederick Knott’s rather weighty one-act premise, superbly divided into three herein. Wait Until Dark opens with a prologue in Montreal. Succinctly, we are introduced to Lisa (Samantha Jones), a drug courier nervously waiting for her handler, Louie (Jean Del Val) to finish stitching heroin packets into the slit back skirts of a child’s antique doll. Under the credits we follow Lisa on her flight from Canada to New York City, sensing something gone terribly awry as Lisa spies a mysterious man waiting for her at the airport. By coincidence, she befriends fellow passenger, Sam Hendrix (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) whom she implores to look after the doll until such time as they are reunited in the near future. Given the curiosity of their ‘cute meet’, Sam willingly – and almost unquestioningly – agrees to keep the doll safe. He might have first inquired what an adult woman is doing, protectively coddling this Victorian antique in the first place. No sooner has Lisa handed over the merchandise then she is manhandled and taken into custody by the mystery man. We follow Sam back to his brownstone on the lower east side; our first introduction to Suzy – the champion blind lady, still acclimatizing herself to the permanent loss of sight caused earlier that year by a horrific auto accident. A photographer by trade, Sam is called away on assignment, leaving Suzy to fend for herself.
The next afternoon, Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston), Lisa’s contacts in the Big Apple, arrive at the Hendrix apartment, mistakenly assuming it to be Lisa’s. Picking the lock and letting themselves in the pair can find no trace of the heroin doll; their frantic search ambushed by the arrival of the sinister, Harry Roat Jr. (Alan Arkin). Roat enjoys toying with them. Clearly, he has the upper hand. Casually, Roat encourages Mike and Carlino to continue conducting their search while suggesting the doll is not among these belongings. Roat lays out a scenario; an exchange, actually – offering to cut Mike and Carlino in on a percentage from the sale of the heroin. To prove he means business – Roat directs the men’s search to the bedroom closet where Mike makes the grisly discovery of Lisa’s remains zipped into a semi-translucent carry-on bag hanging on the door. After a few taut moments, Mike and Carlino strike a truce with Roat. But the particulars of their arrangement are cut short when Suzy returns to the apartment unexpectedly. Although her sixth sense immediately kicks in, hinting she is not alone, Suzy is too trusting to comprehend she has just stumbled into a den of cutthroats. After Suzy has gone, Roat blackmails Mike and Carlino into disposing of Lisa’s body under the cover of night.
The next day, Roat sets into motion his plan to case the apartment, sending Sam on a dead end photographic assignment in Asbury Park in New Jersey. As he will be gone for quite some time, Roat now launches into his intricate plan to get Suzy to confess to the whereabouts of the doll. Mike poses as an old friend of Sam’s, ingratiating himself to Suzy. Implicitly, Suzy comes to trust Mike and he begins to harbor a modicum of sympathy for her, particularly after he coaxes Suzy to admit Sam brought the doll back to the apartment from the airport. She explains how a woman later telephoned to make inquiries about the doll but that when both she and Sam began to look through his luggage for it, the doll had already mysteriously vanished into thin air. Mike believes Suzy’s story. Now, Carlino applies less subtle pressure to get Suzy to divulge the whereabouts of the doll. He asks if Suzy has heard about the murder of a woman and the discovery of her body in a nearby abandoned field. Carlino then connects the dots, suggesting the doll as a vital clue in the case; Sam’s last chance to be cleared of the suspicion of murder. Finally, Roat stages an elaborate hoax, donning several disguises and pretending, first to be an old man, and later, his as erratic son. Roat puts the fear of God into Suzy who wastes no time telephoning Carlino to report the incident.
Mike returns to find Suzy terrorized and alone. Presumably as a comfort, he gives her the number for the phone booth across the street, claiming it as his own; then, falsely forewarns a police car is already stationed outside, waiting to nab Sam upon his return home. Alas, daylight has begun to glimmer for Suzy. She now suspects Carlino and Roat are in cahoots. In the meantime, Gloria – a lonely girl living upstairs in the brownstone – and Suzy’s only real contact with the outside world, confesses to having stolen the doll earlier from Sam’s luggage. Remorsefully, she returns it to the apartment. Grateful, Suzy asks if the police cruiser Mike told her about is still stationed outside. Gloria explains no police car was ever outside the apartment, thus elevating Suzy’s paranoia. The girls work out a code, Gloria to quietly observe the phone booth across the street and send a signal to Suzy if it is in use. After Carlino makes yet another impromptu visit to the apartment, Gloria sends a signal; then, another after Suzy has telephoned Mike to inform him of her recovery of the doll. Realizing too late Mike is also in on the con, Suzy hides the doll. Thus, when Mike hurriedly arrives to collect it, quietly trailed by Roat and Carlino, Suzy lies about it being at Sam’s studio. To ensure Suzy cannot contact anyone else while they are gone to investigate her claim, Roat severs the telephone wire. Roat and Mike leave for Sam’s studio, leaving Carlino to stand guard outside the building. Now, Suzy hurries Gloria to the bus station to forewarn Sam, due home this evening.
When Suzy discovers the cut telephone wires she prepares for a showdown, breaking all the light bulbs in the apartment and thus plunging everyone into the discomfort of her own blindness. She pours some of Sam’s photographic chemicals into a large bowl. When Mike returns he suddenly realizes Suzy has unearthed the truth. He demands to know the whereabouts of the doll. But Suzy refuses to cooperate. Having spent more time with her than the others, Mike has come to admire her fortitude and craftiness. In a last ditch effort to win Suzy’s confidence, Mike admits they are all working together as she suspected. He implies her only hope of surviving is to give him the doll. Besides, he has already taken steps to do away with Roat; Carlino waiting in the abandoned parking lot across the street to finish him off. Alas, both men have underestimated Roat, who easily kills Carlino by running him over, before doubling back on foot to knife Mike in the back just as he is about to momentarily leave Suzy’s apartment. Intent on acquiring the doll, Roat chains the door shut and pours gasoline on the floor, setting a piece of newspaper on fire. Suzy feigns surrender until Roat has extinguished the open flame. Now, she douses him in the bowl of photographic chemicals at arm’s length and desperately unplugs the one remaining light in the room. Roat lights a match to see what has become of Suzy, but is visibly shaken when Suzy, having discovered his canister of gasoline, begins indiscriminately splashing its contents everywhere.
Roat discovers the one light in the room Suzy has overlooked, propping the refrigerator door open to guide him to her. Having lost the struggle, Suzy relinquishes the doll to Roat who now leads her to the bedroom, presumably to rape her. Instead, she reveals herself to be in possession of a knife taken from the kitchen, severely injuring Roat. He lunges and begins to claw his way back to her. These final moments prompted Warner’s publicity of the day to issue a gimmicky press release regarding the dimming of all lights in the theater to enhance the ‘terror’ of a blind woman’s eternal blackness. In a theater the effect was appropriately uncanny; a little less so when viewing the movie at home, even in a completely darkened room. What does endure are the relentless and seminal performances given by both Hepburn and Arkin; the former, filled with enough heart-palpitating panic to quicken more than a few pulses; the latter, doggedly teeming with rage, the full breadth of his psychotic venom on display as Roat, grimaced and dying, tries to plunge the knife recovered from his own wound into this screaming blind girl, claustrophobically wedged between her fridge and the wall. We hear a blood-curdling cry as Suzy unplugs the fridge, pitching the rest of us into the murky darkness; followed by an interminable silence. Sam, Gloria and the police predictably arrive too late to have an impact one way or the other; relieved to discover a shell-shocked, though otherwise unharmed Suzy sobbing in the corner with Roat’s body lying nearby.
Wait Until Dark continues to hold up spectacularly well despite some truck-sized loopholes in its plot; chiefly, why Roat should fear no reprisals in applying pressure to two small-time, though nevertheless seasoned cons, yet endures Suzy’s cat and mouse games that drag out the inevitable discovery of the doll. Also, Roat donning not one but two disguises to ‘fool’ Suzy is more than a bit overplayed. Remember, he had no compunction about rather crudely doing away with Lisa. But Suzy is, after all, quite blind and therefore unable to appreciate all of Roat’s theatrical efforts at camouflage. Masterfully, it is the performances that keep these feeble-minded twists afloat. The cast is uniformly solid and apart from Arkin’s brief interludes into absurd mania, his Roat Jr. is as well-oiled, bone-chilling and utterly perverse as any screen villain thus far come to our silver screens. I can still hear his velvety smooth and slightly effete inquiry, “Where’s the doll, Suzy?” – Arkin’s unusual, almost sing-song punctuation reaching all the way to the back of the house with a slithery cynicism that damn well means business. Uncorking Roat’s pressurized craziness in act three is slightly deflating. Arkin is far more effective when he skates on the very thin edge of volatility, generating a queer uncertainty in both his contemporaries and the audience at large. Wait Until Dark was a huge hit for all concerned. Produced by Hepburn’s hubby, Mel Ferrer, as a means to restore the foundations of their crumbling marriage, the picture’s popularity would outlast the couple’s vows by several decades; Hepburn and Ferrer separating before the year and divorcing soon thereafter. Viewed today, Wait Until Dark remains creepily enjoyable for a good night’s scare; a real ‘reel’ midnight movie classic. Let’s be immodest here. No time spent basking in the intangible screen luminosity of the ethereal Audrey Hepburn is ever wasted. She trades in the magic of screen glamour herein for guts; a quality the lady herself possessed in spades in life. It’s a fair trade and just as richly rewarding to behold on the screen.
Thanks to the Warner Archive we no longer have to ‘wait until dark’ to enjoy this minor masterpiece. WAC has gone to the mat again, with a remastered image derived from an interpositive. How does it look? In a word – glorious! One of the most worthwhile aspects of our present ‘digital age’ has been re-experiencing the past we only thought we knew, or perhaps never knew (if we were not old enough to see these flicks theatrically), represented in hi-def with clarity to rival – and occasionally even surpass – what we might have seen in theaters. Wait Until Dark on Blu-ray sports a clarity and crispness surely to be appreciated. Film grain appears indigenous to its source and colors are so subtly nuanced and accurate, watching this disc up-rezed at 4K gave me the illusion of looking through a pane glass window into the Hendrix’s dingy little flat where very bad things are about to occur. Flesh tones are appropriately wan, given its New York in winter, and the sparsely employed bolder colors register as they should. Tonality and contrast are superb. The mono audio has been lovingly preserved in DTS 2.0. Extras are limited to a vintage featurette with Mel Ferrer and Alan Arkin; too brief but welcomed nevertheless and theatrical trailers. Bottom line: Wait Until Dark is a treasure soon to be rediscovered on Blu-ray by film lovers everywhere. Another winner from WAC. Permit us to worship and give thanks…many, many thanks!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)