Although one critic described its plot as having “more holes than a kitchen colander” when it was released in 1967, Wait Until Dark remains a hugely enjoyable psychological thriller more than 50 years later. Director Terence Young focused on shocks and suspense rather than story and characters, and the result reportedly had terrified audiences jumping out of their seats. The film has aged well; its expert pacing and fearful setting make it extremely scary.
Wait Until Dark began life as a stage play by Frederick Knott, who also wrote Dial M for Murder, which was the basis of Alfred Hitchcock’s plodding 1954 film adaptation.
In spite of a few scenes of New York street life in the 1960s, like Dial M for Murder, Wait Until Dark remains play-like in execution, as all the action is confined to a single flat. The stage-like set works to the film’s advantage as it emphasises the isolation and claustrophobia of the blind lead character.
Stripped of much of her glamour, Audrey Hepburn plays Susy, a blind woman trying to come to terms with her disability with the help of her photographer husband, Sam. When Sam is handed a doll by a stranger at John F Kennedy International Airport, he brings it home and forgets about it. Unbeknown to Susy and Sam, the doll is part of a drug-smuggling operation, and three hoods – including Alan Arkin as a sadistic psychopath – show up when Sam is away to try and get it back.
Rather than use threats, the criminals construct an elaborate ruse to discover the doll’s whereabouts. As their antics become increasingly dangerous, the resourceful Susy engineers a clever plan to turn the tables on the crooks.
Although psychology is downplayed for thrills, the film trades on a primal fear of danger lurking in the darkness that is accentuated by Susy’s blindness. The final 15 minutes, in which Susy gives herself an advantage over her adversaries by plunging the flat into darkness, are genuinely frightening. Cinema owners at the time noticed the audience’s horrified reaction, and would gradually turn the soft house lights down to zero, so that they were watching in total darkness – a gimmick that was surprisingly effective.
Part of the reason for Wait Until Dark’s success was the fact that slick A-list psychological horrors were a rarity in the United States in the 60s. Aside from Hitchcock classics – and the occasional oddity such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) – such films had been confined to the drive-ins. Shanghai-born Young brought the action skills he had honed directing big Bond films such as Dr. No (1962) to the work, and the superficial sheen of Wait Until Dark still proves appealing.
Wait Until Dark will be screened on August 28 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre Louis Koo Cinema, 2 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, as part of the Summer International Film Festival.