Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Watching Oscar: Wait Until Dark

Film: Wait Until Dark
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

Wait Until Dark puts me in a difficult position. I like to include a summary of at least the basics of a film’s plot when I discuss it. I do this for a variety of reasons. One reason is that aspects of story are some of the things that really interest me when it comes to film. It’s also a really convenient way for me to talk about the elements of the film that I like and dislike within context. Saying that a particular scene is a problem is difficult when there is no context for that scene for the reader. It also helps readers determine whether or not a film is worth seeing regardless of my opinion. At least that’s what I tell myself.

With Wait Until Dark, though, I don’t want to do that. This is a film that benefits greatly from as cold a viewing as possible. Know too much going in, and all of the wonderfully intricate twists and turns will be spoiled, and this is not a film to be spoiled. This is a story to see play out as it happens with no direct knowledge of what will happen next. With a number of films these days, it’s easy to forget that there’s some great suspense tales that really work all the way through. We give up a lot when we reward filmmakers for not making us work at the movies we watch. Wait Until Dark makes us stay with the story and work at what everything means. It rewards us with one of the truly great film climaxes ever produced.

I’ll even go further. There are parts of the first act here that I don’t want to spoil. Instead, I’m going to be very cursory here and let you discover the rest on your own, and you really should discover the rest on your own.

A woman (Samantha Jones) takes possession of a doll stuffed with heroin. She arrives in the United States, but sees someone who scares her. Rather than confront that person, she makes a quick friend of Sam Hendrix (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) and leaves the doll with him in the hopes of retrieving it later. Sam knows nothing of the doll’s contents. Sam’s wife Susy (Audrey Hepburn) was recently blinded in an accident and is learning to operate without sight. Now, three men connected to the woman with the doll want the doll (and the heroin) back. These three are Mike Talman (Richard Crenna), who is comfortable playing confidence games; Carlino (Jack Weston), most at home pretending to be a cop; and Roat (Alan Arkin), the evil mastermind behind the whole plan. Rounding out the cast is young Gloria (Julie Herrod), a neighbor who helps out Susy with things like shopping and cleaning up the apartment.

That’s all you’re getting. If you want to know all of the different ways these many pieces fit together, you need to watch the film. You should really watch the film.

Wait Until Dark is great for a variety of reasons. The primary one is that these are all smart characters. We expect at the very least that Roat as the leader of the three bad guys will have at least a criminal cunning and that would be enough. But it’s far better that both Carlino and particularly Mike are equally smart. Even better, Susy is smart, too. She may be smarter than all of them. It’s a great switch from what we might expect. Women in film are often depicted as helpless, and with the added problem of Susy being blind, it would seem to be a natural place to go. That’s not the case here; Susy, despite her blindness, is fairly badass. She defends herself far better than I could in that situation.

If you need more, there’s plenty more to enjoy about Wait Until Dark. This is a really smart plot. We get everything we need to follow the story in the first act. What follows is pretty complicated and has a lot of steps, but it’s not difficult to keep track. What’s better is how nicely it all holds together. It’s great to watch everything slowly reveal itself and come together. It’s just as fun to see how Susy plays with these plans and how quickly the criminals adapt to the curve balls she throws at them.

Both of these elements, as important as they are, pale next to the most important aspect of the film: Wait Until Dark is tense as hell. We’re never sure of Susy’s safety. In fact, we’re sure that she is constantly in danger and that the danger is constantly increasing. It doesn’t break for a second; it just builds and builds until it finally has to break, which it does in the last minute or two and not before. It’s the sign of a well-written screenplay that the tension builds so slowly and consistently through the entire film without respite. And it’s a tension that is completely believable.

If you haven’t seen this film, do yourself a favor and go watch it. Wait Until Dark is a masterpiece of the genre, something that Hitchcock would’ve been proud to attach his name to. Beyond just being filled with tension and a few great jump scares, it’s also a damn fine film with one of the great performances in the career of Alan Arkin. If you haven’t seen it, don’t read anything more about it. Just watch it and see what a director with a solid sense of aiming for one particular audience mood can do.

Why to watch Wait Until Dark One of the tightest, greatest thrillers ever made.
Why not to watch: Potential heart attacks.


  1. I saw this maybe 5 years ago or so? I really liked it, too. I first heard of it on a Top 100 Scariest Moments in Film countdown. The moment where the guy leaps out at her in the dark at the climax was on the list. That's the original reason I wanted to see it, but it also means that moment was spoiled for me.

    1. Yeah, but the build up to that is pretty damn good.

      Incidentally, that Top 100 Scariest Moments is one of the three horror lists I'm completing.

  2. Good review. I really enjoyed this one, too. I watched it because it was on the AFI lists. I agree that one of the things that makes this great is the smart characters. I was expecting some of the things Susy did, but the criminals being able to react to them (and it not resulting in something like Home Alone) made it even better. I have always maintained that one of the things that made Die Hard so good was how smart Alan Rickman's bad guy was.

    It's a testament to Wait Until Dark that one of the things that has become a huge cliche in films actually caught me by surprise here at the end of it. I've since read that this might have been the first use of that thing that has now become a cliche.

    1. If it's not the first, it's one of the first, or at least the first great instance of that.

      I agree completely on Die Hard. That movie would be so much less if we didn't think that Hans Gruber legitimately had a chance to walk away successful with his plans. Dumb villains aren't interesting. It also helps that he's a smart ass and fun to watch. His whole scheme relies on his being smarter than everyone expects him to be.

      Mike Talman is a great villain because he's somewhat sympathetic and he's able to improvise. Roat is great because he's a step ahead of everyone--even Talman--as he demonstrates in the first act.

  3. Is it weird that I remember watching this in 7th grade reading class? I have no idea why I watched this in school, but I did. Sadly, I haven't seen it since, but I've meant to. Even as a typical 7th grader, I could somehow recognize that this film was a good one.

    1. There's not much violence and no gore or language in this, but it's pretty intense for kids of that age. You must've gone to a very progressive school!

      It's worth seeing again. I think it'll be something I put into regular rotation.