Wait Until Dark (1967) ****½
“El Santo!” you say, “Have you lost your mind?! What in the name of Marduk is a review of an Audrey Hepburn movie doing here?!?!” Okay, I know how this looks, but I swear it’s not what you think. You wouldn’t think anything of it if you found Kiss the Girls or Seven or The Silence of the Lambs reviewed here, would you? Okay then. If you were to trace the genealogies of those movies back far enough, I’m quite certain you’d run across Wait Until Dark sooner or later; like them, it’s pretty much a horror movie aimed at people who would ordinarily consider themselves above such things, made at a time when the horror genre (at least in the eyes of film critics and other like-minded opinionated snobs) was nearing the bottom of a years-long intellectual nosedive. This was, after all, the era of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Al Adamson. But, as with Seven or The Silence of the Lambs, it doesn’t take an elitist film snob to enjoy Wait Until Dark. All you need is some brain power and an appreciation for subtlety.
The movie begins in Canada, with a girl named Lisa (Samantha Jones) having a stuffed doll modified to accommodate what looks to be an enormous amount of heroin. She then gets on a plane for America, and upon landing, asks a man-- apparently a random stranger-- to hold the doll for her. She then runs off and disappears in the company of a decidedly creepy-looking man with short, black hair and round-lensed sunglasses.
We then encounter a pair of small-time crooks named Talman (Richard Crenna, from Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell and Death Ship) and Carlino (Jack Weston). These two men clearly know Lisa from somewhere, because they have come to a basement apartment in what I suppose is New York to meet with her. Lisa is nowhere to be found, though, and Talman rapidly comes to the conclusion that they are being set up. Smart man, Talman. Just then, that creepy guy from the airport appears at the door. It turns out that he is another acquaintance of Lisa’s and that his name is Roat (Alan Arkin, another name that you’re not likely to see in these pages again-- but you never know, do you? In light of the fact that Wait Until Dark’s producer, Mel Ferrer, would show up twelve years later as the villain in The Great Alligator/Il Fiume del Grande Caimano, it would be premature to rule anything out, wouldn’t you say?). During a nice, tense little standoff that Quentin Tarantino has ripped off every single time he’s made a movie, Roat explains the situation. The apartment is neither his nor Lisa’s-- it belongs to that guy in the airport to whom Lisa gave the doll, a photographer named Sam Hendrix (Efrem Zimbalist, from Terror Out of the Sky). Earlier that day, Roat and Lisa snuck in (after Roat pulled some strings to make sure the place would be empty) to look for the doll, and discovered that it was not there. Roat believes that this is because Sam discovered the doll’s contents, and decided to keep it for himself. This is where Talman and Carlino come in. It happens that their specialty is confidence jobs. Roat wants them to talk their way into the apartment and get Sam’s wife to reveal the location of the doll, a service for which each of them will be paid $2000. An added incentive to cooperate comes to light when Talman stumbles upon Lisa hanging in a garment bag in the closet; it clearly doesn’t pay to displease Roat.
That’s when Hendrix’s wife, Susy (Hepburn), comes home, much to the surprise of all three criminals. The situation isn’t as big a disaster for them as it might have been, though, because Susy is conveniently blind. We will later learn that she lost her sight in an auto accident a couple of years before. While she thus has not fully learned to cope with her blindness, her brain has clearly begun adjusting, as she already exhibits some of the compensating heightened senses for which the blind are known. Susy stays only long enough to make a phone call to her husband at work in order to arrange a dinner date, and it’s a good thing for her, too-- just imagine what Roat would have done if she had found Lisa’s body in her closet!
Most of Wait Until Dark concerns itself with the amazingly elaborate scheme by which Talman, Roat, and Carlino attempt to learn the doll’s location from Susy. There is simply no way to explain the details in the amount of space that I want to devote to this review, but suffice it to say that it involves Talman posing as a long-separated friend of Sam’s, Carlino posing as a police detective (not exactly a stretch for the ex-cop), and Roat posing as both a man who believes his wife is cheating on him with Sam and the cuckolded man’s enraged, senile father, with a supporting role for the deceased Lisa as Roat’s “wife.” To say much more wouldn’t be fair to this extremely sophisticated and original film, but I don’t see how I can finish this review without at least mentioning its much-discussed climax. The final confrontation between Susy and the criminals is justly famous both for the ingenious use to which it puts Susy’s blindness and for the way that Roat eventually finds to circumvent her remarkable plan for turning the tables on him. Also worthy of note is how strong, intelligent, and resourceful a character Susy proves to be, without ever compromising the vulnerability that is essential to maintaining the film’s tension. To anyone who has ever been disgusted by the passivity and ineffectuality of most horror movie heroines, but who finds the Ripley of Alien3 or the Barbara of the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead a bit hard to swallow, I unhesitatingly recommend Wait Until Dark.