By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: They want the doll.
Horror writer Stephan King, in his non-fiction book ‘Dance Macabre’, lists Wait Until Dark as the scariest movie ever made and Alan Arkin as one of the scariest film villains. Of course that is a statement that could be wildly debated, but as a thriller it is very well structured with a original storyline, a fantastic heroine, and a terrific climatic sequence that still rates as one of the best.
The film is based on the hit Broadway play by Frederick Knott and follows that script very closely. It centers on a recently blinded woman named Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) who accidently acquires a doll filled with heroin and then becomes terrorized by the three drug dealers (Alan Arkin, Jack Weston, Richard Crenna) when they come to retrieve it. Trapped in her small apartment by the three men with her phone line cut off, she decides her only possible recourse is to smash all the light bulbs and then, in the pitch blackness, use her handicap to her advantage and try to escape.
Normally stage plays transferred to film don’t usually work too well namely because all the action takes place in one setting, which eventually creates visual boredom, but here this becomes an asset. As the story progresses the viewer begins to feel claustrophobic and as entrapped as Susy as well as successfully tapping into the fear of isolation. The lighting is also impressive. It may not be something one consciously thinks about, but good lighting can really help accentuate a film’s mood and style, which it does here. I enjoyed the interesting color schemes and the contrasts between light and shadows that becomes more apparent as it goes along.
Of course the element that really makes this film special is the fantastic performance of Hepburn, which I consider to be her best. She was nominated for the Academy Award and she should have won it. She displays just the right level of emotions, which creates empathy from the viewer almost immediately. Her reactions as well as the fear and panic that she shows are very convincing. Arkin, as the villain, tends to get a little too flashy and hammy. I felt Hepburn easily out performed him and everyone else. The film just would not have been as good had anyone else played the part. This also marks her career pinnacle as she went on a nine year sabbatical after this and when she did finally return, the films she did weren’t all too great.
I also like Julie Herrod as the child named Gloria who lives upstairs and becomes a very crucial link to the story. So many movies portray children as either total brats, or overly wide-eyed innocents solely put on this planet to say cute and amusing things on cue. Here the balance is just right and so believable she will remind you of kids that you know in real life as it certainly did with me. She is sneaky and precocious at certain times, but also genuinely helpful and concerned at others, just like adults are. The line she says to the Hepburn character just before she runs out to find help is a gem.
The climatic sequence still ranks as one of the best. The clever ways that this petite, handicapped woman manages to outwit the brutal thugs are classic. The viewer also gets the satisfaction of seeing the character grow and find an inner strength that she didn’t even know she had. It also features a very well staged scare/shock that sent viewers jumping out of their seats when it was first released and still does today as evidenced by the other people who watched the film with me and all screamed out loud when it happened.
As with any film released 40 years ago, there are some dated qualities that do hurt it. Some of the ‘tough guy’ talk between the thugs seems a bit stilted. The film was released a year before the ratings system took effect, so there is no cursing, but a little bit of it would have helped make it more authentic. It would have also been a little more gritty had the bad guys actually carried guns instead of the brass knuckles and silly looking knives. Air travelers of today will also be shocked at just how easily it was for people to get through airports in the old days.
However, even with these few weaknesses I still feel this film is a pretty solid, compact thriller that can be used as a blueprint for all other thrillers to follow. There is also the excellent music score by Henry Mancini that is really creepy although the song played over the closing credits should have been avoided.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: October 26, 1967
Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes
Rated NR (Not Rated)
Director: Terence Young
Studio: Warner Brothers
Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video