Wait Until Dark
Screenplay : Robert Carrington and Jane Howard Carrington (based on the play by Frederick Knott)
MPAA Rating : Not Rated
Year of Release : 1967
Stars : Audrey Hepburn (Susy Hendrix), Alan Arkin (Roat), Richard Crenna (Mike Talman), Jack Weston (Carlino), Julie Herrod (Gloria), Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (Sam Hendrix), Samantha Jones (Lisa)
With Marisa Tomei and Quentin Tarantino currently getting mixed reviews in the big-budget Broadway revival of Frederick Knott's 1966 suspense play "Wait Until Dark," this would be a good time to revisit the 1967 film version, which starred Audrey Hepburn (who was nominated for an Oscar), Alan Arkin, and Richard Crenna. Although I have not seen the current stage revival, I've read enough reviews to ascertain that its essential problem is its lack of ability to overcome what has always been the play's fundamental weakness: it is horribly contrived.
The screen version, directed by Terence Young, is also thoroughly contrived, but it is a perfect example of how mood, atmosphere, music, and direction can overcome plot weaknesses. "Wait Until Dark" is far from the greatest suspense movie ever made, but its twisted tale of three con men swindling and eventually terrorizing a blind woman alone in an apartment has just enough momentum to sustain it for the duration of the film.
The story goes something like this: a beautiful drug dealer named Lisa (Samantha Jones) is smuggling heroin in from Canada. The drugs are carefully sewn into the back of a fancy doll. When she's getting off the plane, she sees someone she doesn't want to see, so she hands the doll to a complete stranger and tells him to please hold it for her because it's a present that she doesn't want her daughter to see. (This is the first of many strained plot elements.)
The stranger is Sam Hendrix (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.), and not knowing what the doll contains, he takes it home to his New York apartment, where he lives with his wife, Susy (Audrey Hepburn), a determined woman who was recently blinded in a car wreck and is still learning how to take care of herself while alone. Although she can handle most of her daily chores alone, she still requires some help from Gloria (Julie Herrod), the pre-teen girl who lives upstairs.
Meanwhile, a mysterious criminal named Harry Roat (Alan Arkin) hashes out a plan with two con men, Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston) to get the doll back. When Sam is called away on business and Susy is left alone one night, the three criminals put their plan into action. They know the doll is somewhere in Susy's apartment, but they don't know where (they suspect it is in a safe in the living room).
However, instead of using bullying tactics and violent threats like so most psychotic criminals, Roat and Co. develop a severely and unnecessarily complicated con game to trick Susy into giving up the doll willingly. The con involves Mike posing as an old Army buddy of Sam's, Carlino playing a police detective, and Roat playing several roles, including a deranged old man and another man who suggests that his murdered wife might have been having an affair with Sam, and Sam might be suspected of the murder.
As the film progresses, the audience becomes more and more aware of just how little story there really is. Every plot element is developed for the sole purpose of keeping the limited plot chugging ahead. In all reality, there is no defensible reason for this elaborate and labored con game except to serve the purposes of suspense. Of course, without the con game, there would be no movie. The only problem is that, unlike masterful con movies like "The Sting" (1973) or "House of Games" (1987), the con in "Wait Until Dark" isn't very clever, and it is certainly unnecessary. There are so many more simple and more effective means of getting the doll back, that the criminals end up looking more silly than sinister.
There are three things that save "Wait Until Dark": the fine performances by Hepburn, Arkin, and Crenna; a great, jangy music score by Henry Mancini; and Young's direction. Young -- who directed some of the early Bond films including "Dr. No" (1962) and "From Russia With Love" (1964) -- should be commended especially because he keeps the film flowing, even when you want to stop and question the plot.
The movie's great climax, with Roat stalking Susy in the apartment which she has made pitch black by knocking out all the lights, is a small gem of direction, editing, and especially cinematography by veteran Charles B. Lang. He and Young are constantly wrangling with how to stage a chase sequence in a small apartment with dark lighting from odd places, and they manage to pull it off, making it both chilling and coherent. It's somewhat ironic that the whole con game was devised to avoid using violent tactics to get the doll, but in the end it is only violence that can truly get the job done.
The film makes little effort to overcome its origins as a play. The majority of the action takes place in Susy's apartment, which is one of those specifically stage-designed habitats where all the rooms run horizontal to each other in a straight line, so they can all be seen on stage at the same time. However, this set-up ultimately works in the audience's favor because, by the time the climax is at hand, we have seen the apartment enough that we know where everything is. So when the lights go out and we are left with the two antagonists in pitch blackness, we feel like we're trapped with them.
©1998 James Kendrick