Wait Until Dark (1967)

On a flight from Montreal to New York, Lisa (Samantha Jones) smuggles a doll that plays a catchy little tune and holds in its stuffed cloth body a very valuable cache of heroin…

…and this doll, which the unscrupulous Lisa has decided to use for her own benefit by hoodwinking her accomplice, becomes the key element in a taut, often scary thriller. A thriller in which Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman who finds herself trapped in her home—alone with a killer. Wait Until Dark is a brilliant film, all twists and turns and catch-you-by-the-throat suspense. Not a whodunit or even a whydunit, but a humdinger of a film that takes a simple tale—a crook trying to retrieve stolen goods—and makes it into something hauntingly unforgettable. I should know; I saw it as a teenager and haven’t forgotten it since.

Anyway, back to where we were: Lisa and that all-important doll. On disembarking, Lisa notices that someone (a very menacing someone) has come to receive her. So, while she’s heading out, Lisa manages to palm off the doll onto an unsuspecting fellow traveller (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr). He goes out of the airport with the doll, while Lisa is met by the man who’s come to receive her.

The scene now switches suddenly to a quiet street in New York, where two ex-con men, Carlino (Jack Weston) and Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) have been summoned to a flat by their old accomplice, Lisa. Carlino, Talman and Lisa used to play a game of unfaithful wife-outraged husband-detective to fool wealthy men who liked to play around—until Carlino and Talman got caught and sent to prison. Now they’re out, and Lisa’s asked to meet them. When they get to the address she’s given, they find a typewritten note on the door:

So, of course, being old friends of Lisa’s, they go in and make themselves at home. Carlino fixes himself a sandwich, and Talman pokes about a bit. While he’s looking about the house, he comes across a wedding photo of two strangers, on the dressing table—and it dawns on him that this isn’t Lisa’s home. Talman and Carlino don’t want to risk being caught breaking into someone’s house; but before they can leave, a visitor (Alan Arkin) arrives.

This man, clad in black leather and wearing a sinister pair of round-lensed sunglasses, seats himself carefully in a chair, smokes a cigarette (which he stubs out in a small jar he retrieves from the bag he’s carrying) and proceeds to recount to Carlino and Talman the stories of their own sordid pasts. He says his name’s Harry Roat, and he tells them why they’ve been summoned to this particular apartment: Lisa had handed over a doll to Sam Hendrix, the photographer who lives in this house and who had been on the Montreal-New York flight.

Lisa, explains Roat, had phoned Sam asking for the doll, but Sam said he hadn’t been able to find it in his luggage. Sam has obviously realised the doll’s worth more than it looks; he’s hiding it somewhere. Roat says Lisa is willing to pay Carlino and Talman $2,000 each to find it.
But Talman, who’s much sharper than Carlino, smells a rat and guesses there’s more to this than Roat’s telling them. Especially since there’s a locked wardrobe in the house—why would the Hendrixes lock a wardrobe and leave the front door unlocked? Roat’s hiding something.
Suddenly, it’s Carlino and Talman against Roat: he pulls a knife, they pick up whatever they can find: and Roat, backed into a corner, surrenders the wardrobe key to Talman.
And guess what Talman finds there? Lisa.

Talman and Carlino may be thugs, but they’re not murderers, and they decide they’re better off leaving Roat to clean up this mess on his own.
Unfortunately for Carlino and Talman, Roat has something even nastier up his sleeve. Remember how much at home Talman and Carlino had made themselves when they first entered? So much at home that they’ve left the flat awash with their fingerprints. And they’re ex-convicts too, on file. Whom will the police look for when Lisa’s corpse is found at the Hendrixes?

And in the midst of all this, someone else arrives. It’s Sam’s wife, Susy (Audrey Hepburn). Blinded a year ago in an accident, Susy’s going to blind school, still trying to adjust to a life in which the only colour is brown.
Susy gets the feeling that someone is around—she can smell cigarette smoke, and trips over a chair that isn’t where it should have been—but she comforts herself with the reassurance that Gloria (Julie Herrod), the young girl who lives upstairs, has been around, sneaking Sam’s cigarettes.

But Susy will discover, in less than 24 hours, that Gloria wasn’t to blame. Because, within a few hours, the body of a young woman will have been discovered near the block of flats. And Sam, summoned to a photo shoot in faraway Asbury Park, will have to go off for the entire day, leaving Susy alone at home.

Because Talman and Carlino, perhaps a little more scrupulous than the evil Harry Roat but caught in his trap anyway, will try to find that doll in the Hendrixes’ apartment. Talman will act the friend—an old buddy of Sam’s from way back when they were in the Marines together.

He will be there when Roat, disguised as an old man, crashes into the house, tearing things apart and more or less accusing Sam of having had an affair with the woman—a Mrs Harry Roat—who’d been found murdered nearby. And Talman will be there to phone the police. He’ll even be there to stand up to the domineering ‘cop’ (Carlino) who comes to ‘investigate’. It will be Talman, dependable and friendly Mike Talman, whom Susy will turn to, to help find that doll everybody seems to be looking for so desperately.

How long will the game last? Will Susy, all by herself, and blind—be able to see through the elaborate story Talman and Carlino and Roat have cooked up for her? Will she realise, after all, that the suspicion of Sam’s involvement in the so-called Mrs Roat’s death is a mere tissue of lies? Will she be able to hold out until dark, when the darkness may just give her a fighting chance?

What I liked about this film:

The story. It’s a very well-scripted film, the suspense superb and every little detail adding up to the story. Everything fits in—from the fact that Gloria’s father left her and her now-never-there mother to fend for themselves; to Susy’s sudden realisation that it’s winter now and darkness falls early, so nobody should need to fiddle with the blinds so late in the day… to the fact that Susy and Sam have known each other only a year, not enough time to get to know too much.

Susy. Audrey Hepburn’s acting is excellent (it won her an Oscar nomination), but more than that, it’s also the characterisation of Susy that impressed me. This young woman’s battling sudden trauma (she’s still coming to terms with being blinded); now, she’s faced with the suspicion that her husband may have not just cheated on her but may also be a murderer; and her only help may be a pre-teen from a dysfunctional family—yet, through all that happens in the course of a terrifying evening, she manages to keep her head. And in a believable way too: she does come close to panic at times, but always, her intelligence sees her through. A very spunky, sharp woman (even Talman ends up admitting: “What a woman”), and fabulously portrayed by Ms Hepburn.

Alan Arkin is chillingly superb as Roat. He’s evil through and through—you can hear it in his drawling, accented voice; you can see it in that expressionless face (the sunglasses add to the effect); and you can feel it in the merciless way in which he goes about getting what he wants, playing a cat-and-mouse game with Talman, Carlino, and Susy. He should’ve got an Oscar for this. (Alan Arkin himself said he wasn’t surprised he didn’t even get a nomination: you don’t get Oscar nominations for being nasty to Audrey Hepburn!)

What I didn’t like:

There are a couple of weak points in the plot. Not jarring enough to ruin the film, but they’re there.

Nevertheless, a film in a class by itself. If you’re at all keen on thrillers, don’t miss this one. And if you scare easily, don’t watch this if you’re home alone.

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26 thoughts on “Wait Until Dark (1967)

  1. you don’t get Oscar nominations for being nasty to Audrey Hepburn!” lol!!! I am very glad about that.

    I LOVE this film. Its the first Hepburn film that I ever saw, and I knew I had to find all her other films, after this. Of course, I have still only seen a handful of her films (all the famous ones, though!), but this is by far her best performance ever. I’ve seen this a couple of times (the first time on DD years ago), and even though I know perfectly well how it ends, each time I get sucked into the suspense and bite my knuckles right to the end. :-) And the last time I saw this, I had no idea who Efrem Zimbalist Jr was (Mr Remington Steele’s “mentor” :-D)! So, its obviously been too long since I saw it last – time for a rewatch.

  2. I have always loved this one-. Audrey Hepburn is one of my favourites; I can watch the party scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s over and over, but this one is so tense that I don’t know if I could sit through it again.
    Totally, absolutely, recommendable.

    I do think she deserved the Oscar more than K Hepburn, who I also like very much, but I guess “Guess who’s coming for dinner” was such a political/social statement at the time and then Tracy had died just after. It is also notable that the other big film of the year, In the Heat of the Night, also starred Sidney Poiter and also had racism as its theme.

  3. bollyviewer: You know, I’d completely forgotten that Efrem Zimbalist Jr was in this – in any case, when I’d seen it way back then in the days of Doordarshan (before Remington Steele!) I didn’t even know who Mr Zimbalist was! But oh, what a film. Even though I know how it ends and all, I still am on the edge of my seat watching this. Awesome – and I don’t use that word lightly.
    BTW: That bit about not getting Oscar nominations for being nasty to Audrey Hepburn isn’t mine; it’s what Alan Arkin said. Well rooted in reality, huh? ;-)

    bollywoodeewana: Oh, do watch! It’s really very good.

    bawa: I haven’t actually seen too many of Audrey Hepburn’s films, though like bollyviewer, I have seen the famous ones – in my case, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, My Fair Lady, Paris – When it Sizzles, Charade and How to Steal a Million among them. I haven’t seen Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but I guess I’d be biased anyway – I like Audrey more than Katherine!
    Hmmm. I haven’t even seen In the Heat of the Night. In fact, I haven’t seen too many films that tackled racism – The Defiant Ones (with Poitier), Pinky and the excellent The Crimson Kimono, but not many more. How many film makers did have the courage to make anti-racist films during the 40’s-60’s?

    harvey: Goosebumps is right! Just thinking about it makes my hair stand on end.

    sunheriyaadein: I hope you get to watch it soon! Highly recommended. :-)

  4. Alan Arkin is SO VERY CREEPY in this. It scared the beejesus out of me when I saw it as a teenager. And he is generally such a great comic actor—really amazing performance from him :)

  5. Yes, he was so very scary – I’ve been hating him ever since I saw this! Am now trying to lay my hands on The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which, according to reviews, has Arkin in a very different (and waaaay more sympathetic) role.

    Apparently, the Harry Roat role was also offered to George C Scott, among others. But nobody wanted to play such an outright villain (I’m wondering if a younger Robert Mitchum might have agreed? He played some equally creepy characters in films like Cape Fear and The Night of the Hunter).

  6. “Alan Arkin was nominated for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter a year later…”

    He was? Good, then I’m looking forward to seeing it – as soon as I can get hold of it. His acting was so good even in Wait Until Dark that I’m sure he’d have done justice to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter too.

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  8. Have you seen “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming”? Alan Arkin is HILARIOUS in that…the whole film is just one long stomach ache waiting to happen (from laughing)…

  9. OK, OK, I need to get the DVD now. I haven’t seen this film. :(

    And just figured out you are the author of one of my favourite books. But then, I am slow. :)

  10. memsaab: I’ve just looked up The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming on imdb. It sounds fabulous!! Am off to try and see where I can get it cheapest – I don’t think it’ll be available in India, at least… but Amazon zindabad.

    Banno: Wait Until Dark is one of those must-sees; highly recommended! (and fortunately not too difficult to get hold of – I’m quite sure I’ve seen it in Music World or Planet M or someplace).
    You liked The Englishman’s Cameo? Thank you *blush* – you’ve just made my day! (I’m actually smiling as I type this).

  11. Ok, have added Russians etc to my list.
    Re-watched another hilarious one the other day, French: Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe. Love the music concert scene :))

    And last night sat through half of a Cary Grant/Howard Hawks/Billy Wilder-story-screenplay from 1937, called Topper, which spawned a series and comes highly rated in movie books.
    Now how can that go wrong? but it did, horribly. Some things do become dated, and dangerous drunken driving is one of them. I just didn’t feel any sympathy for the 2 leads, and I usually love Cary Grant fan!

  12. Thank you for warning me off Topper. I’m one of those who will watch anything with Cary Grant in it, and so have ended up watching (and hating) some of the stuff he’s starred in.

    Will look out for Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe; I hope I can get it with English subs. By the way, on the topic of The Russians… and the entire us-versus them, capitalist-vs-communist theme, there’s a funny film called One, Two, Three about an American girl who marries an Eastern German revolutionary while on a trip to Berlin – James Cagney and Horst Buccholz. Loads of fun.

  13. Hadn’t heard of One, Two…before: will keep it in mind. For tall blond man I had a choice of subtitles in Eng or Spanish, so they do exist.

  14. I saw this lovely film last night, very well scripted as you’ve said and very enjoyable, but its a film i’d watch just once. I wonder how she managed to break all those bulbs so fast despite her blindness, i remember jumping out of seat (literally) in horror at the scene where Alan Arkin leaps at her after she had stabbed him, overall a fun watch, thanks for bringing it to my attention

  15. Hey, I’m glad you liked it – and that scene where Alan Arkin leaps out at her nearly made me scream! But yes, there are bits and pieces that are a little far-fetched (for instance, why does she light matches when she’s facing him, after having broken all those bulbs? The matches only help him see her better, they don’t do a thing for her). Still, a good film, I think.

  16. What a fantastic movie this is. I remember seeing this in 1987. Had been assigned on a project to Hubli. Nothing to do in the evenings, so my colleagues, three of them, and I decided to just watch whatever movie was playing in town. It was a 9-12 show of this movie. In those days I was not much of a Hollywood movie guy (I used to struggle to understand the dialogues, I think :-) ) but this movie just hit me ! It was creepy, scary – and I fell totally in love with it. When we returned to our hotel, we continued to discuss about the movie for another 2-3 hours though it was a weekday and we had to work the next day !

    Reading the review brought back memories. Thanks, Madhu.

  17. And thank you, raja! Yes, Wait Until Dark is one of those films that can completely bowl you over. I saw this when I was a kid, and it’s haunted me ever since, until I decided I absolutely had to get hold of it and watch it again. The entire premise – of a blind woman on her own against a ruthless killer – is so gripping, and the suspense of how she goes about protecting herself. Magnificent.

  18. This was a great movie, even saw a Marathi Theatre adaptation of the play it was based upon. Naturally, the Audrey Hepburn version was better, but the play was pretty decent.
    Alan Arkin’s role as the villain Roat has to rank very high in an all time list.

    • Alan Arkin is really a fabulous actor, isn’t he? He’s so absolutely creepy in this film, and so delightfully funny in The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming. And so intense, so kind and good yet plagued by his own inner demons in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. What a very fine and very underrated actor. He needs to be much better known.

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