Blind Woman’s Bluff

You always remember a movie that made you jump out of your seat the first time you saw it.

By the time Wait Until Dark came out in 1967, the theater in my hometown had shut down.  But there was an active AV club in the high school who got a copy of the film a year later and showed it one Saturday night in the school’s gymnatorium.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know the scene I referred to in the first sentence.  Thanks to Turner Classic Movies and its 31 Days of Oscar, I got to watch the picture again.

The movie is based on a play by Frederick Knott.  He wasn’t a prolific playwright, writing only three plays, but along with Wait Until Dark he wrote Dial M For Murder.  The play was originally produced on Broadway with Arthur Penn directing and starring Lee Remick as the blind protagonist Susy Hendrix, a role for which won a Tony award.  (Honor Blackman of Goldfinger fame starred in London’s West End production.)

When Warner Brothers purchased the film rights, Remick wasn’t considered to reprise her role.  The studio was looking for a star vehicle for Audrey Hepburn and felt Wait Until Dark would be perfect.  To help close the deal, they let Mel Ferrer, Hepburn’s then husband, produce the film.

The movie opens with Lisa (Samantha Jones) in a Montreal apartment, waiting while a man stuffs packets of heroin into a child’s doll.  She takes a flight to New York City, and meets photographer Sam Hendrix (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) on the plane.  At JFK, she catches sight of Roat (Alan Arkin) waiting for her.  Wanting to hide the heroin from him, she gives the doll to Sam for safekeeping, making up a story about wanting to surprise her daughter.

Lisa had worked extortion cons with Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston).  Roat meets them in the Hendrixes’ Manhattan apartment, offering them a job to help him recover the doll.  In searching the apartment, Talman discovers Lisa’s body, stuffed into a closet.  While the men are there, Susy Hendrix (Hepburn) comes home.  The scene of her casually moving about the apartment while the men remain completely silent is a beautiful moment of tension.  She talks to her husband on the phone; he’s delayed waiting for a client, a ruse set up by Roat.  Susy goes back out and the men finish their plans.  They dump Lisa’s body nearby where it’s discovered early the next day.  Roat has planted identification to give her name as Mrs. Roat, with the same first name of the woman who had the appointment with Sam the day before.

Roat’s also made a fake appointment for Sam in Asbury Park.  After Sam leaves to take the late afternoon bus, the men put their plot in motion.  Talman pretends to be an old Marine buddy of Sam’s, while Carlino plays a threatening police detective.  Roat plays both the dead woman’s husband and her father-in-law.  They want to convince Susy that the doll is evidence that her husband knew the murder victim, and the only way to keep Sam from being a suspect is to get rid of the doll.

But they haven’t counted on Susy’s sharp hearing and intelligence.  Susy has one ally: Gloria (Julie Herrod), the daughter of an upstairs neighbor.  In the end it comes down to Susy using the darkness she lives in as a weapon against her attackers.

This was the final good role that Hepburn did in a film, and it brought her the last of her five Best Actress Oscar nominations.  After an active career that lasted 16 years, she spent her last 26 years concentrating on being a wife and working for on behalf of UNICEF.  Over those years, she appeared in four films: Richard Lester’s odd Robin and Marian, the Sidney Sheldon potboiler Bloodline, and the Peter Bogdanovich comedy They All Laughed.  That last movie is mostly known now for the supporting role played by Dorothy Stratton, the former Playboy playmate who was brutally murdered by her husband before the film’s release.  After that it was eight years before Hepburn’s final appearance as a heavenly guide for Richard Dreyfuss in Steven Spielberg’s Always.  She was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 1993 Oscars, but sadly it was presented posthumously.  She died from cancer after the award was announced but before the ceremony took place.

Richard Crenna was cast against type as Talman, to good effect.  He’d made his name in television comedies, most notably Our Miss Brooks and The Real McCoys.  He continued to work regularly in television, though he did some good work in films, notably the husband in Body Heat and Col. Trautman in the first three Rambo pictures.  Jack Weston had a long career as a supporting actor in television, films, and on stage – his first TV credit was on Captain Video in 1949.  Most moviegoers these days remember one of his last roles, as Max Kellerman, the owner of the Catskill vacation resort in Dirty Dancing.  Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was in the middle of his run on the series The F.B.I. when he did Wait Until Dark.  He continued to perform mostly in television, in recent years as a voice actor on animated series such as Batman and Spiderman.

If Samantha Jones looked exactly like a model from the 1960’s, that was intentional.  She was a popular model at that time, before the age of the supermodel.  Wait Until Dark was her first foray into movies, and by far her most successful.  After a couple forgettable films and an appearance on McMillan and Wife, she gave up on acting.  According to IMDb, she married and now lives in Iowa.  Today the most famous “Samantha Jones” is Kim Cattrall’s character on Sex and the City.  Julie Herrod, who played Gloria, never did another movie.

You may have only seen Alan Arkin in one of his recent movies like Little Miss Sunshine, Marley and Me, or Sunshine Cleaning, where he played a likeable grandfather figure.  Of you may remember his comedic turns in the original The In-Laws or The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming.  But his portrayal of Roat is one of the creepiest psychopaths ever captured on film, ranking up with Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter.  The final 20 minutes of the film are as intense as anything that has ever been captured on film.

The movie is helped by a classic Henry Mancini score that adds to the tension, particularly with its true note then slightly diminished base line and and whistled melody.  To hear the theme, please click here.

It was directed by Terrence Young, who was known primarily for directing three of the first four James Bond movies: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball.  The one award he won for his directing was a Razzie for the awful Inchon in 1981.  Young does an excellent job communicating a sense of claustrophobic terror.  The set design, with the basement apartment, allows Young to use some interesting camera angles.

The amount of heroin involved is ridiculously small, as is the price Talman and Carlino demand for their help.  Other than that the movie holds up very well even after 44 years.  If you haven’t seen it and you can get your hands on a DVD, or if TCM plays it again, it’s well worth two hours of your time.

 

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