Everyone else is making the comparison to Don’t Breathe; I might as well state the obvious and throw my lot in.
Fresh off of kick-starting the Bond franchise with Dr. No and ultimately sharing custody of the epitome of ‘60s cool with Guy Hamilton, the other important Bond director of the era, director Terrence Young uses Wait Until Dark to curdle his ‘60s action-thriller rave-ups into a creepy, unmooring phase-out. Retreating from pop-art-etched culture-chic to acid-laced domestic nightmare, Wait Until Dark is British invasion as slimy invasion of domesticity. Young discovered America in this, his first film across the pond, and let’s just say it’s hardly a kind appraisal.
Released at the supposed apex of American economic possibility and right at the onset of American unrest exploding into wild-fire discontent and disruption, Wait Until Dark is a bile-etching of ‘60s era culture as an accident always ready to happen. Adapted from a stage-play written by Frederick Knott (as a script, Wait Until Dark is provisional at best), the two-hander version of the tale is that recently married and recently blinded Suzy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) and cold-blooded lizard Harry (Alan Arkin), the latter a criminal searching for a doll that is a dungeon for heroin (no kidding?). Like a nesting doll, the heroin in the doll is further ensnared in the lair-like basement apartment of Mrs. Hendrix by virtue of circumstance and plot machination that isn’t especially enlightening for a reviewer.
So we’re not on entirely stable ground here. That screenplay isn’t air-tight, and the early melodrama of Hepburn’s identity crisis is over-deliberate and over-explained in a way that gives off the stage-play stench even more than the single-set location. But the desperate, gritty aesthetic, holding mid-‘60s chic to late ‘60s grotty obstreperousness (eventually to sour even further into the likes of The French Connection), is to die for. So, if the issues aren’t invisible, then they’re at least contained or mitigated. The opening 20 minutes, before Hepburn appears, is an acid cauldron of the highest order, a post-atom-age noir where the hooligans come out to play and the safe-grounding of a protagonist is nowhere to be seen. The early-middle-passage of the film is the sketchy bit, but the film rights its course and autocorrects toward the seedy strut where Harry and his accomplices saunter into the dungeon of Suzy’s basement apartment and blight the place with Young’s blinkered, deliciously under-present lighting. If the filmmaking outpaces the dialogue, the look rehabilitates anything wishy-washy about the themes, tightly coiling the texture of the film even when the dialogue rattles when it should purr.
Early moments seed the masculinity of the threat, like when Suzy’s husband asserts himself upon her post-accident unease by insinuating that she needs to be the perfect blind lady. Throughout, in fact, Wait Until Dark conscripts male egos who assume they can flatten Mrs. Hendrix. All the while, her ostensible passiveness shakes itself off to blossom and meta-morph into a force of clandestine ultra-competence. Hepburn’s steely, determined performance incarnates an understanding that her decision to play games with her captors in disguise rather than to simply give up the doll is emblematic of her desire to assert an agency against the men by playing their own game, flowering into an empowered figure after losing her sight cut her off at the knees. Hepburn’s undaunted performance invokes her need to prove to herself that she can outdo her oppressors, and although “feminist parable” is a stretch, at least it isn’t a gung-ho action picture about a woman avenger whose virility is encased by her need to be violent and masculine like one of the boys.
Plus, as I am not the first to notice, Hepburn is divine, physically more than vocally, with the instability of her world measured and calibrated in her pointedly stiff countenance, as though she’s feeling out the world for the first time. Frankly, though, Arkin might be even better, his impish, sibilating tone like a dialectic between a malevolent purr and a disaffected hiss and his rictus grin perpetually unmoving. Rejecting the adrenal charge of most villains, he discovers an epicenter not in passionate villainy but in unfrustrated monotony and apathy. He’s a dispassionate rich-boy menace for whom murder isn’t so much an act of merriment as a thing to while away his malaise, batting around hip verbal iconography like he’s coining words by the second without any meaningful connection to the world around him. Of course, that’s when he isn’t busy with his day job hectoring the world, finding a personality in his dark-tinted-sunglasses-indoors disaffected-dude style, like he’s a blight on the world that doesn’t actually see it or connect to it but always stalks behind it (the irony of his mental blindness, visualized in the glasses, and Hepburn’s technical blindness, is apparent early on). Not only a ghoul but a specter, he radiates supercilious negative energy, embodying alternative beat culture as a shadow on the world, not a hippie fantasia or a force for rebellion but an aimless, Westchester-born beacon of disfigured, smarmy anti-socialism.
A nifty two-hander lies within, but it’s easy to miss Young’s grounding wires, his casual manipulation of the lighting to mimic Hepburn’s blindness, the fissures in the sound manipulation that treat certain sounds like hisses and others like empty voids, and the cluttered mise-en-scene that amuses with cluttered domesticity and capitalist bric-a-brac as modern material edifices that quite literally block Hepburn from moving around in the world. Henry Mancini’s score, or at least his opening theme, is also a shard of glass, two discordant pianos for a discordant world. The basement apartment is a find as well, coming from someone who’s done the basement apartment thing. This prison doesn’t tower over the city like a virile agent but rots in the underbelly with only glimpses of trampling feet outside. Plus, the famous conclusion which finds the good cheer of the ‘60s now lost in the dark, or something jazzy like that, is all Young and his behind-the-screen collaborators, even if the stars bring a queasy tactility to their roles.
The little wrinkles are dynamite too, especially the early bit where someone wields a tripod at someone’s throat like he’s Peeping Tom himself, where beacons of cinema (cheekily) are mutable weaponry for a world at each other’s throat. Early on, a kid, up against a voice of gravel in a slate-grey peacoat, can only retort “I don’t know nothing, I’m a drop out” to fight back against the Man. But, I mean, it’s not a social treatise by nature, nor does it need to be (somewhere, some overly-eager and non-judicious freshman film student is making a big to-do about the fact that the main character is named Hendrix in 1967, like that matters). It’s not a conscious commentary per-se, although it is an expression of a tormented world by its very nature as a tormented film released in a world on the verge of disillusionment. In this world, condolences are lies, ruses to ingratiate yourself into someone’s company. Male goodwill is a shiv, an offer of protection turns the knife deeper, paternalism is in jeopardy. It’s not a masterpiece, and the going gets rough when the voices rouse themselves to take over when it is the visual bodies that are apter. The film’s worth is easy to overstate, then, but it’s also easy to understate what it achieves without overstatement, without the need to thematize or bat for the Grand Statement about society. This is a grubby little ice-pick of a film, but when it’s “on”, excuse the French, it’s blinding.