Though I will never get over the trauma of my first viewing of Wait Until Dark (1967), I have returned to it several times over the years. Even once you know its secrets, it retains its stomach churning power to chill. It is also a showcase for some of the best performances of its stars, Audrey Hepburn, Richard Crenna, Jack Weston and the utterly terrifying Alan Arkin. The horrors are intensified by Henry Mancini's most twisted soundtrack, full of off-kilter, discordant piano and the menacing grumble of cellos. Now the film is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.
Audrey Hepburn is Susy, recently blinded in an accident, and struggling to adjust to her new reality. She is married to Sam (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) a photographer who is on his way home from a business trip as the film begins. A model-gorgeous blonde in a fur coat flirts with him on the plane. When they disembark, she gives him a doll and asks him to hold onto it for her. As he walks away in confusion, she is grabbed by a shady-looking man in sunglasses and led out of the airport.
Sam makes no mention of the doll when he returns to Susy. Instead he gently scolds her about her lack of initiative in adjusting to blindness. He means well, but comes off as a bit patronizing and insensitive, especially when he must leave her almost right away to return to his studio.
Left alone, Susy is subject to the mild tortures of Gloria, the slightly bratty, but essentially good-hearted girl who lives upstairs. Already unsettled by their interaction, she is subjected to further anxiety when a pair of criminals (the excellent Richard Crenna and Jack Weston) play a charade with her in order to find the doll, which it turns out is stuffed with heroin.
The men play on Susy's fears, but only to get the job done. They don't care about her, but they don't wish to cause her unnecessary trouble either. That all changes when their associate Groat (Alan Arkin) enters the picture. He is even more interested in getting what they came for, but if he takes pleasure in any chaos he can cause along the way.
Essentially a one set movie, Wait Until Dark keeps these characters in close quarters, the tension between them growing with disturbing intensity. That escalation in emotion is made more wrenching by Mancini's music, which has got to be one of the most horrifying scores ever made for a film. By making his piano-dominated backing discordant and uneven, he emphasizes the dysfunction of these villains and the instability of Susy's situation.
After years of essentially cheerful musicals and comedies, with enough drama to show her chops, Hepburn made an unusual excursion into a truly dark story. As uncomfortable as it can be to see sweet Audrey being terrorized, its wonderful to behold the intensity she was capable of when given the chance. As Susy she is vulnerable, insecure and still adjusting to blindness, but she possesses the determination and resourcefulness of a survivor. She makes you want to help her while proving that she can manage just fine on her own.
According to Arkin, no one had yet attempted to portray a psychopath with the ferocity he did in Wait Until Dark. As the studio era came to a limping end, Roat's sadism and cruelty were an alarming change and a sign of things to come. This was new territory, and the slow burn build of Arkin's performance was puzzling even to the film's crew. When he eventually unleashed his fury, it is possible it was as alarming for his co-workers as it was for audiences.
Arkin's Groat is not all business; he's a gleeful sadist. He'll do the job he's set out to do with ferocious commitment, but indulge in some perversions along the way. Seeming to take delight in the smooth evil of his own voice, he finds sensuality in the process of his torture, sniffing the lingerie in Susy's dresser drawer and approaching his questioning of her like a deviant seduction.
While Crenna and Weston always remain determined career criminals, Arkin and Hepburn descend into an animalistic battle for survival. As she becomes increasingly more frightened, Susy's voice tightens into guttural moans of terror, which seem to arouse Roat, until he realizes she's already survived too much to simply submit.
Just writing about this film makes me feel tense, but I know I will continue to revisit it, because it is worth the torture to see these performances and the perfectly executed suspense.
I've always seen this as an essentially grey-toned film, but the Blu-ray print makes the colors pop a little more, lending it a richness I haven't experienced in previous viewings. Special features include the featurette Look in the Dark, where Arkin admits that he felt horrible pretending to terrorize someone as kind as Audrey Hepburn. There's also a pair of theatrical trailers which tease the intense thrills of the film.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.