Killtoberfest 4 – #20: Wait Until Dark

In All, Movies by Kyu

Mike: “Damn it, you act as if you’re in kindergarten! This is the big bad world, full of mean people, where nasty things happen!”
Susy: “Now you tell me.”

Wait Until Dark is essentially a perfect thriller. It presents us with an extremely sympathetic protagonist, Audrey Hepburn’s Susy Hendrix, and then sets three ruthless men against her. Over the course of one long day in her basement apartment, the men will lie, cajole, trick, or force Susy into giving up a meaningless Macguffin, a child’s doll, which she may not even have. The script (based on a play), camera, and seasoned actors collaborate to methodically lay out one scheme or counter-play after another–until the time for schemes and games is over. Until dark.

After horror got badly sidetracked into mostly goofy, mostly terrible sci-fi monster flicks in the ’50s, the 1960s represented a new flowering for the genre. The decade saw experienced filmmakers like Hitchcock, Polanski and Michael Powell experimenting with the form, while others took the opportunity presented by end of the Hays Production Code to push the envelope in terms of violence and other content. Foreign horror flourished, especially in Italy and Japan, and many of the horror films of this period possess a lurid exoticism. The decade prior to the anarchic populism of the ’70s was characterized by artful, socially conscious horror movies that had not yet abandoned the strengths of the Hollywood studio style. The result was a number of oddball classics, from Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby to The Haunting and The Masque of the Red Death, from Psycho and Peeping Tom to Night of the Living Dead and Blood and Black LaceWait Until Dark fits squarely within that tradition.

Director Terence Young spent the first half of the 60s directing early James Bond movies, and his foray into horror comes off a little like a much darker, grimier spy movie. Nearly everyone in the film is deceitful at some point or another, even the little girl, Gloria (Julie Herrod), and Alan Arkin’s Harry Roat, Jr (from Scarsdale) actually puts on makeup and disguises when playing his parts. These seem entirely for his own benefit, as the woman he and his reluctant fellow thugs are trying to manipulate is blind. This is both literal and figurative; she’s blind to the lies, blind even to the idea that she could be this badly used by men who sound friendly. If she means to survive, she’ll have to open her eyes–or close theirs.

“They should make heroin look like something else. Candy bars, maybe.” That’s Lisa (Samantha Jones) watching an old man carefully sew a load of the drug into a child’s doll. It’s part of a scheme to get the drugs through customs, a scheme that goes awry as soon as Lisa sees a man watching her at the airport through a pair of dark, round sunglasses:


We don’t know it yet, but that’s the man who calls himself Harry Roat, Jr (from Scarsdale). He’s been tipped off by the old man who sewed up the doll. Smiling at Lisa from a distance, Roat seems like an eerie harbinger of the lesson of this and many other horror films: nobody can truly be trusted. Lisa pay a high price for learning this lesson, but before that, she tries to move the doll for safekeeping by handing it off to innocent photographer Sam Hendrix (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.).

Sam is a strong, decent person who has been married less than a year to Susy, Hepburn’s character. Sam only knew Susy after the accident that blinded her, and now supports her efforts to learn Braille and regain her ability to navigate the world as well as she did when she could see. His expectations for her are probably fair, but also frustrating for Susy to try and meet:

Susy: “Do I have to be the world champion blind lady?”
Sam: “Yes!”

It’s significant that Susy is still learning how to be blind. If she was born blind, this would be a very different movie; here, every minor act of perception or navigation feels like a real victory for her. In a certain sense, her troubles over the course of the long day are symbolically equivalent to the accident and her struggle to recover from it. Bad things can happen to even the nicest, most decent, least deserving among us, and unfair as it is, the only real way to move on from that is to toughen up.

“Nice” and “decent” are two words that very much describe Susy Hendrix. She just wants to be good, to be good wife her husband can be proud of, and to deal with the anger she feels over her situation. At one point, a spat with Gloria leads to a very sweet exchange:

Gloria: “You shouldn’t have called me names. I don’t call you names.”
Susy: “You’re right, I shouldn’t say things like that. It was wrong of me.”
Gloria: “It’s okay.”
Susy: “It isn’t okay. People shouldn’t say things like that to each other. They’re mean things, and people shouldn’t say mean things. Just, I get terribly frightened sometimes. I’m not a very good blind lady, Gloria, and I’m still not used to all this… dark brown.”

It’s hard to describe Hepburn’s image at this point in her career. Wait Until Dark was one of her last major roles; her first, as the enchanting princess-among-the-proles in Roman Holiday, earned her an Academy Award. In the mere 14 years between them, Hepburn played a number of high profile roles and became a icon of the cinema–as beautiful (or more) than Monroe, but more real, more approachable. One reviewer called her “a refreshingly individual creature.” In my experience with her films, Audrey seems to embody a human person who just happens to really, truly be both stunningly beautiful and morally wholesome. (The best analogue today is perhaps Chris Evans.) In Wait Until Dark as well as Two for the Road (a deconstructionist romance), both released in ’67, Hepburn played off of her screen presence by inhabiting characters whose innate goodness is degraded by the vicissitudes of life.

If Wait Until Dark uses Hepburn’s Susy as an enormously good and kind person for us to be afraid for, it uses its three villains as enormously dishonest and cruel people for us to be afraid of. The first scene of the film proper (and the first scene of the play, one suspects), takes place in Susy’s house while she and Sam are out. Arkin’s Roat arranges to meet with Lisa’s former partners, recently released from prison: disgraced police sergeant Carlino (Jack Weston) and Mike Talman (Richard Crenna). The pair worked a con with Lisa before they went away, pretending to be her husband and a police detective discovering Lisa in bed with the mark–experience that has prepared these men for, as Roat puts it, “performing little dramas for select audiences.” Roat has a job for them: participate in helping him acquire the missing doll from Susy, and they’ll be paid handsomely for their trouble. Refuse, and they’ll be caught for Lisa’s murder–after all, Roat has no known connection to her, and Lisa’s former partners have left fingerprints all over the place. (“Highly recommended,” Roat condescends to them, holding up a pair of plastic gloves. “Disposable. You buy them in enormous rolls from Hammacher Schlemmer.”)

It’s a long, sustained sequence, taking up about 20 minutes of the film. What makes it fascinating is that the men are intelligent, logical, calculating, and totally immoral. Watching Roat ensnare them is like seeing three snakes in the same room, all waiting cautiously for their chance to strike. When Roat makes a tiny mistake in his story (pretending he’s working for Lisa), Mike picks up on it, and the three men are immediately pointing weapons at each other–but as soon as Roat sees that he’s beaten, he owns up and they go on talking like they weren’t on the verge of murder just a moment ago. This sequence establishes everything we need to know for the story, from these criminals’ goal to their personalities and methods, as well as the layout and some possibilities of the apartment–and, in a very tense development, Susy’s level of perception. She interrupts them while they’re plotting, and the men arrange themselves against the walls and corners of the apartment, not daring to breathe. Danger is all around her, it’s right there in her house, and she doesn’t know it. That dramatic irony is the mountain we hope she will surmount.

Weston and Crenna both got their start in 1950s television, back when television was a lot more like theater. They acquit themselves well here, especially Weston, who brings a history of detective and Western roles to bear in crafting his hard-boiled ex-cop. His dialogue has a callous, rat-a-tat-tat quality to it that he tries to use to press Susy into breaking:

Carlino: “You know what I think? You can’t find that doll.”
Susy: “No, no, it’s not that at all, I couldn’t find the garbage bags.”
Carlino: “No, the doll. The doll your husband brought back from Canada with him, the doll he gave Mrs. Roat.”
“My husband did not know Mrs. Roat!”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Hendrix, that’s just not true!

It’s clear that Carlino enjoys his work a great deal. This is less true for Mike, who’s set up as the “good cop,” purporting to be an old army buddy of Sam’s who drops by unannounced. “Hey, here’s one of me!” Mike says jovially, pretending to recognize himself in one of Sam’s photographs (which of course Susy cannot see). He chuckles. “I sure have put on a few pounds since those days.” Having established himself as a friendly figure, Mike spends the rest of the movie acting as a kind of Greek chorus, making sure Susy takes the right lessons from the dramas that play out before her. Even when Susy discovers an oddity in their scheme, or perceives more than they’d like (as when she notices how everyone keeps messing with the blinds–a way to signal their progress to the others in the van across the street), she doesn’t think that the kind, sweet man who’s been helping her all day could be part of the deception. There are scarier moments in the movie, but the most purely horrifying for her is when she realizes Mike’s been lying to her the whole time. After he drops his mask and tells her there are bad people in the world, Susy’s clipped “Now you tell me,” bears a world of betrayal and hurt.

Deception suffuses the film and defines the back and forth game between the characters. As the viewer, we possess most of the information at any given moment, and so can appreciate the skill with which everyone attempts to hide their true position from everyone else, while also trying to ferret out the other side’s secrets. The scheme Roat has invented to get the doll is clever in the way that it works even if Susy only half believes it. The missing Lisa (identified as Mrs. Roat) is purported to be connected via the doll to Sam, and Arkin’s character poses successively as both Mr. Roat and Mr. Roat’s father, who accuse Sam of being responsible for the woman’s death. Carlino hammers Susy on the piling up of suspicions against her husband, while Mike points out repeatedly that the doll is the only actual evidence implicating Sam. If Susy believes Sam to be innocent, she’ll reveal the doll’s whereabouts so that Mike can help her protect Sam; but even if she’s tempted to believe Sam is responsible, she’ll still be inclined to prevent the police from discovering this. It’s a smart play, and the only reason it doesn’t work is that Susy turns out to be an excellent blind lady. From realizing that Roats Jr and Sr wear the exact same shoes by the sound of them to setting up a clever system of signals with Gloria (who acts as her eyes to surveill the street), Susy manages to just barely take round one.

But round two will be played on Roat’s terms. Over the course of the long day, his reluctant partners come to believe that Roat is a species beyond them–no mere criminal, but a sadistic sociopath who manipulates people because he enjoys it. They resolve to get him before he can get them:

Susy: “It’s different with Mr. Roat, isn’t it? I think it’s more than the doll with him. It’s that he wants to do evil things.”
Mike: “You don’t have to worry about Roat.”

Alan Arkin was a virtual unknown before this role, and his Harry Roat, Jr (from Scarsdale) is one of the all-time great movie villains. His little dark, round sunglasses stay on for almost the entire film, even indoors, even as the sun goes down, and so they become his eyes: large and black, peering soullessly out of a smirking skull, silently mocking Susy’s blindness. In a dark leather jacket and close cropped hair, Roat is articulate, self-possessed, and utterly chilling. He might as well be the devil himself, tempting Carlino and Mike into devious games until he grows bored with their antics and annihilates them. Manipulative and coolly violent, Roat is a ’60s psycho out of the mod period, right down to the slang (“Things went trippingly for our three heroes…”), as if he’s some awful, defective outgrowth of the counterculture. Here he’s so counter to Susy’s nice, ordinary American culture that he might as well be from the moon. There’s an alien quality to Roat, something inhuman; a lack of soul to go with the lack of name. He represents the true antithesis of Susy’s wholesomeness. He’s the dark behind her eyes. There’s something so crazy and so scary about the charming way he expresses himself to her:

Roat: “Did you know they wanted to kill me? I did. I knew even before they did. They were awful amateurs, and that’s why you saw through them.”

Susy: “I saw through you, too.”

Roat: “No, not all the way, Suzy. Even now, not all the way. The lovely thing was the way I let them set it all up. All that silliness of meeting in the parking lot, the whole thing, they had comic book minds. So, I let them do it their way, right up to the very end. And then, topsy-turvy. Me topsy and them turvy.”

The main scheme of the movie, as I said, played on Susy’s strength of character; the sadistic Roat (“from Scarsdale”–literally, a place of scars) plays instead on her greatest weakness, a deathly fear of fire which stems from the accident that blinded her. Today we’d call it PTSD. Roat’s unspoken plan for Susy is absolutely horrifying, and the last 15 minutes of the film are consequently some of the most tense, riveting material ever filmed. All of the talk and all of the lies are swept away, and now it’s down to survival, plain and simple. Roat cheerfully admits that he’s sent Sam on a wild goose chase, so no cavalry is coming. Left alone, betrayed by Mike, Susy must face Roat’s evil all alone, finally and fully proving her ability to take care of herself. Her decision to level the playing field by smashing all the lights in the place is brilliant on both her part and the film’s; after her year of experience, she’s better at the surviving in the dark than he is. The move turns her traumatic past and present disability into her greatest strength, and that may be the crucial advantage she needs.

When this film was first released, theaters actually turned off their house lights for the last 15 minutes of the movie, the ones we tend not to notice are on even when the feature is playing, in order to make the environment as dark as they possibly could. To me that sounds less like a gimmick than the perfect extension of Wait Until Dark‘s strategy and intentions. The movie’s progression over the course of its long day into night comes forward in the cinematography, in the performances, in the writing–and in Henry Mancini’s excellent, clanging score. All of its elements are aligned to tell a clear and compelling story about being forced to confront the truth of the world’s essential darkness. People lie and deceive and hurt other people. They play terrible games with one another over childish stakes. Nobody can truly be trusted… except, perhaps, yourself. But you’ll have to wait to see.

Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because, like people, politicians shouldn’t say lie or say mean things. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.