My mother recommended I check out this ’60s thriller Wait Until Dark. She said that when she saw it in the theater, they had an ambulance parked in the lobby in case anyone had a heart attack or something. I wish they still pulled gimmicks like that – spice up things, y’know? I didn’t have to be resuscitated while watching the film, but hot damn is there some thick suspense in this one. It’s directed by Terence Young, who did a buncha Bond films, and it’s based on a play, which makes sense being that it takes place in essentially one room in a tiny apartment. Everything from the set up to the climax is pulled off really well, in particular Mr. Alan Arkin’s absolutely terrifying role. Smash the light bulbs and let’s dig in.
Audrey Hepburn stars as Susy Hendrix, a recently blind woman who’s learning how to be self sufficient. She’s pretty damn good at it too – she can already read braille, recognize people by the sound of their walk, defrost the icebox, etc. She’s married to Sam, a photographer whose hustle takes him around the globe. They have a pretty nice relationship. He supports her independence and she adores him for his kindness. On a recent trip to Canada, he met a woman on a plane who gives him a doll (for some reason). Unbeknownst to Sam, the doll is filled with heroin.
Now the people who were supposed to receive the shipment of smack have traced the doll back to Sam’s apartment. He heads out for a gig at Asbury Park, leaving Susy alone to be harassed by a trio of scumbags. There’s Mike, the one who cons her into thinking he’s a friend of Sam. There’s Carlino, a crooked, opportunistic cop. And then there’s Roat, played with menace to spare by Arkin.
I’ve seen Arkin in plenty of films (Freebie and the Bean is one of my all-time favorites), but never in anything like this. He’s slimy, smooth-talking, and carries this really badass switchblade that has some kind of Indian god idol as the handle. He even has a cute name for the blade, “Belinda.”
In the first scene with the boys, they’re rummaging through Sam’s apartment, looking for the doll. Then Susy comes home and they freak out a bit and hide. They don’t know she’s blind, so they’re really sweating it out in their horrible hiding places (behind the front door, classic!). Once she starts walking around, right in front of them, it clicks that she can’t see. These moments are really great. She’s like inches from Carlino at one point, he’s dripping sweat, and she’s just humming to herself. Good stuff. She also calls Sam and says how she’s going to “tap” her way to a cafe and read Peter Rabbit in braille. She’s REALLY blind, we get it. Then when she goes in the closet and fails to notice the dead woman hanging in a dress bag, well, that really drives home that she’s blind.
There’s a great, subtle moment when Susy is putting a scarf on, and a tail of the scarf brushes back the dead woman’s hair. That’s some hold-your-breath type of shit right there. Why is there a dead woman in the closet? Just watch the movie, it all connects.
So the crooks think that the doll is stashed in the apartment’s safe. In order to get Susy to open it, they perform this elaborate con where each guy plays a character. Roat even does some costume changes (which I thought was weird since Susy can’t see him anyway, why go through the trouble of putting on a fake mustache and powdered wig?). Mike actually chums up with her, pretending to be an old war buddy of Sam. Carlino acts like he’s investigating the murder of a woman and Roat plays an angry father, concerned son, and something in between.
Why go through the elaborate con when these goons could’ve just tied her to a chair and threatened violence against her in order to get the safe combination? I dunno. It seems a bit extraneous to me. Maybe Roat is just a struggling actor at heart? Either way, Susy begins piecing together that these three strangers aren’t who they claim to be. Her adolescent upstairs neighbor Gloria – who runs errands for her – helps her put the pieces together.
But in the end it’s Susy’s strength and cleverness that helps her take on the three drug smuggling jerks. As far as thrillers go, this is some top notch work. The climax is terribly suspenseful and Hepburn reflects the desperation and vulnerability of a blind woman in peril. As helpless as we may think she is though, she pulls off a brazenly shrewd stunt to even the odds against Roat and his hoods. And there are a couple nice touches that harken back to lines of dialogue that seemed inconsequential earlier in the film. Pay attention, kids.
Wait Until Dark is available on DVD via Netflix. Check it out, just be sure to turn all the lights off before you press play. Thanks for the recommendation, ma.