From Darkness, Light: Blindness and Home Invasion in WAIT UNTIL DARK

wait-until-dark

A version of this article originally appeared in issue 21 of Diabolique Magazine, May/June 2014.

1967 was something of a watershed year for Hollywood, during which cultural and critical cache began to noticeably shift from the conservative mores of the studio system and the Hays Production Code toward an increasingly broadminded, progressive, and youthful sensibility.  It was the year of the Summer of Love and revolution was in the air, tense and redolent with unease over civil rights, women’s liberation, and Vietnam.  The sociopolitical climate was getting hot, but it hadn’t yet reached a full boil; this was the year of Monterey Pop, not yet that of Woodstock, and the underground was just beginning to breach.  Motion pictures were no exception, and both the box office and the 40th Academy Awards reflected this upheaval.

In his book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, Mark Harris looks specifically at the five Best Picture nominees from that year — Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Doctor Doolittle, and winner In the Heat of the Night — as emblematic of the cultural shift underway.  Young filmmakers inspired by the Italian neo-realists and the French New Wave were bringing their unique sensibilities to the screen and established writers and directors were addressing the divide between theirs and the ascendant generation. Bonnie and Clyde, with its iconic youth in revolt, created an entirely new cinematic language for violence.  The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night all addressed the attempt to reconcile the generational divide, the former while breaking taboos about sex and the latter two confronting race relations head-on.  Doctor Doolittle, despite poor reviews and lackluster box office, stood sheepishly among them (pun intended), an anachronistic exemplar of a bygone era.

Nestled among the other nominees that year, however, was a moderately successful thriller which in its own way embodied this cultural crossroads: Wait Until Dark, Warner Brothers’ big screen adaptation of Frederick Knott’s Broadway play of the same name.  For her role as Susy Hendrix, the film’s blind protagonist, Audrey Hepburn received her fifth and final Oscar nomination.  Though it was the only nomination for the sixteenth highest grossing film of 1967, it is significant that a thriller received any Academy recognition at all.  Taking place almost exclusively within the confines of the Greenwich Village apartment Susy shares with her photographer husband Sam (Efram Zimbalist Jr.), Wait Until Dark is a masterpiece of suspense which effectively makes an asset of the geographic limitations of its stage origins, ratcheting tension and claustrophobia in equal measure.

Playwright Frederick Knott was no stranger to domestic intrusions, having previously authored Dial M for Murder, a hit on both the London and Broadway stage in 1952.  Two years later, Alfred Hitchcock directed a film of the Tony award-winning play, the first of his three collaborations with Grace Kelly.  Also confined to little more than a single apartment set, Dial M for Murder, like Wait Until Dark, establishes the home as a place of vulnerability; but whereas the earlier scenario was about the dangers of exposing one’s domesticity to external influence, the latter work is a distinctly post-Kennedy affair which seems to imply we are all susceptible to uninvited, unseen menace while hinting at deeper gender and generational politics.

In the film, Susy finds herself at the mercy of a trio of criminals when her husband agrees to take possession of a doll belonging to Lisa (Samantha Jones), a woman whom he has only just met on a flight from Montreal.  Upon disembarking, Lisa notices a villainous looking man by the name of Roat (Alan Arkin) following her; she panics and begs Sam to take the doll, telling him that it is a gift for a relative and she will pick it up from him in a few days.  Sam reluctantly agrees, unaware that the doll is in fact stuffed with bags of heroin.  When Roat is unable to locate the doll in Sam and Susy’s apartment, he kills Lisa and enlists the help of Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston), a pair of con men who used to grift with Lisa.  Together, they wage psychological warfare upon Susy, assuming the roles of an old army friend of Sam and a detective investigating Lisa’s murder, in an effort to retrieve the doll.  Roat assumes two identities, that of Lisa’s cuckolded husband and said husband’s father, weaving a web of lies and contradictions to imply that Sam murdered Lisa after the two had an affair.  With Sam away on a spurious business trip organized by Roat, Susy has only Gloria (Julie Herrod), a young girl who lives in the upstairs apartment, to help her piece together what is really going on.

In adapting Knott’s play, screenwriters Robert and Jane-Howard Carrington did very little to open it up beyond the apartment.  It is perhaps this forced restriction — as well as the insistence of Hepburn and her husband Mel Ferrer, who produced the film — that convinced the budget-conscious Jack Warner to hire Terence Young over his first choice for director, Sir Carol Reed.  Young, a veteran of the Second World War, had found success in the 1940s as a screenwriter and in the 1950s as a director of war pictures, many of which produced by Irving Allen and Albert R. Broccoli’s Warwick Pictures.  This association with Broccoli led to Young helming three of the first four James Bond films: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball.  Despite going over budget, Young’s Bond pictures were all enormously successful, each one among the top ten highest grossing films of its respective year.

Though Wait Until Dark bears an unmistakable Hitchcock influence in its visual construction, the stamp of Young’s action and adventure pedigree is evident in a number of ways.  Discounting the visceral, protracted final showdown between Susy and Roat, almost all of the film’s taut 108 minutes are spent in direct service of the plot, unlike Hitchcock’s films which often feature poetic or purely cinematic sequences designed to contribute primarily to the meta-narrative.  As such, the characterizations and subtext are not quite as rich as those of a typical Hitchcock thriller.  Young’s sensibilities also skew more towards pulp, particularly apparent in Arkin’s broad performance, which is sometimes criticized for not possessing the subtlety of Robert Duvall’s portrayal in the original Broadway production.

What Young unequivocally adds to the picture, however, is a visual dynamism uncommon in a film of so few locations.  Through camera movement, blocking, and creative use of lighting, Young keeps the apartment set fresh without sacrificing geographic legibility.  Young’s style is lean and efficient.  By following Talman and Carlino as they initially stake out the apartment, Young acquaints the audience with its general layout; by lingering upon Susy tidying and carefully arranging it, he trains the viewer to notice details and disruptions.  Our familiarity with the apartment makes its subsequent overturning disorienting, priming us for the breathtaking final act.

As Pamela Wojcik observes in her book The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture 1945-1975, “The apartment plot offers a vision of home — centered on values of community, visibility, contact, density, friendship, mobility, impermanence and porousness — in sharp contrast to more traditional views of home as private, stable, and family based…. [T]he apartment plot blurs distinctions between public and private, work and home, masculine and feminine, inside and outside.”  Wait Until Dark would not work in a free-standing single family home for a number of reasons, but chief among them is that much of the film’s strength comes from the levels of remove Hepburn’s Susy feels from her surroundings, a perpetual unmooring which is underscored by the apartment and her relationship to it.

Lacking sight, Susy must feel her way around her apartment.  The displacement of even the most trivial item can become a hazard.  As the film progresses and the apartment is thrown into increasing disarray, Susy unravels in tandem with it; her helplessness grows exponentially with her home’s clutter.  Even prior to the violent intrusions of Roat and company, Susy’s composure is shaken by Gloria’s mean-spirited clowning, silently skulking from one corner of the apartment to another, disorienting Susy with her ping-ponging calls.  Gloria is a memento to Susy of her inability to fend for herself.  Susy loses her patience with Sam when he insists that Gloria help with the groceries, and again with Gloria when she arrives to do so.  Gloria’s own short-temperedness, exacerbated by absentee parents and the vagaries of pubescence, further emphasizes the precariousness of Susy’s grasp on her surroundings and consequently her identity.  When Susy must ultimately rely upon Gloria for her literal survival, it is a concession of defeat.

Susy, significantly, was not born blind, but rather lost her sight in a car accident prior to the events of the film.  As such, she has spent the intervening year or so trying to reconstruct her life and her identity around her new limitations, a process which includes her marriage to Sam.  We are told the two met shortly after her accident, he coming to her aid as she attempted to cross a busy city street.  Sam is thus a key component of Susy’s practical as well as emotional scaffolding, their relationship having been founded upon ministration.  He has not only aided in Susy’s convalescence, but has additionally helped her to create a stable and grounded domestic life that fosters autonomy even as it reinforces their basic codependence.

Even the apartment itself, though they moved into it together following their wedding, bears Sam’s mark much more than Susy’s.  Its walls are covered exclusively with Sam’s photographs, mostly those which he took himself but also some personal photos from his past.  His equipment is scattered throughout the apartment and a blackboard filled with appointments lists only his obligations.  A large section of the parlor is dedicated to a makeshift darkroom.  Since her accident, Susy has been building her life around Sam, and her home, as a mirror of her self, reflects this.  Even when Susy laments to Gloria that she is unable to do “important things like cook a soufflé, or pick a neck tie, or choose the wallpaper for the bedroom,” her notion of what is important reveals a woman who largely identifies less as an individual than as part of a domestic unit.

This subtextual reaffirmation of the traditional male-centric paradigm is bolstered by  the film’s depiction of Lisa, played by then-popular fashion model Samantha Jones as young, impatient, impetuous, and sexualized — overall, ill-equipped to succeed outside of the established patriarchy.  The entire plot hinges upon her botched drug deal, an inaugural solo venture for which she was clearly not prepared.  Given the political climate into which the film was released, it is difficult to not read this as an indictment of the misguided youth of the growing counterculture, if not a critique of the women’s liberation movement.  At the very least, it functions as foreshadowing that Sam’s attempts to help Susy become the “world’s champion blind person,” though well-meaning, are not in her best interest.

It is telling beyond the obvious reasons, then, that Susy’s equilibrium is disrupted when Sam leaves.  Their apartment will forever remain foreign to her insofar as it is a porous, impermanent space susceptible to rearrangement and intrusion.  Without Sam, its illusory order crumbles and becomes a prison, an impression exemplified by the prominent shot of Susy wailing against the vertical bars of the stair rail when she realizes that the telephone line — her only connection to the world outside which is not compromised by her blindness — has been cut.

The effect of displacement is compounded by the fact that neither Susy nor even Sam are the first people we see in the apartment; rather, Carlino and Talman are the first characters depicted entering the apartment, having done so under the false pretense that it is Lisa’s.  When Roat shows up shortly thereafter, eyes hidden behind black, round sunglasses, his familiarity with both the space and the circumstance gives him the upper hand; when his ruse toward Carlino and Talman is exposed, it is to advocate a further ruse to be perpetrated upon Susy, one which will require the cooperative masquerading of Carlino and Talman as well.  Fittingly, the only time we see Roat without his glasses — that is, until Susy throws Sam’s photographic chemicals into his eyes during the film’s climax — is when he tells Carlino and Talman that it is their job to “lie, cheat, and playact,” while wiping the lenses clean with one of Susy’s undergarments.  Deception — and, later, pain — is ironically the only true and transparent aspect of his character.

Carlino and Talman are understandably hesitant to assist Roat, a man whom they have never before met, and do so only after learning that Roat has murdered Lisa, their estranged former partner in crime.  Prior to that, they take arms with whatever is near: in this case, a tripod and a camera.  Thus, tools of sight become weapons, and indeed, it is only at the end of the film, after Roat is robbed of the advantage of vision — first by the photographic chemicals and then by complete darkness — that Susy is able to gain the upper hand.  Up until this point, Susy has been reliant upon Gloria and her sense of sight to stay one step above total disorientation.  Gloria’s glasses — a matter of contention for the awkward adolescent, and a mediating component which make Susy’s visual references twice removed — are pointedly referenced several times throughout the film by various characters, including Roat who infers they are a liability when he warns Carlino and Talman to watch out for her.

The most privileged vantage of all, however, is that of the viewer, a fact which Wait Until Dark takes great pleasure in subverting.  By smashing all of the lightbulbs in her apartment, Susy effectively undermines Roat’s advantage of sight.  By allowing much of the scene to play out in total darkness, Young equivalently undermines the audience’s perceived omniscience by obscuring the action of the scene.  Even in a standard mystery film, wherein aspects of the plot are kept obscured from the viewer, one is accustomed to seeing what is occurring onscreen even if there are ellipses in what is depicted or if one isn’t sure of its significance until later.  The audience of Wait Until Dark is thus destabilized on several different fronts: as a viewer invested in the protagonist’s wellbeing, as a sighted person, and as a typical filmgoer.

In an essay entitled “Seeing Blindness on Screen: The Cinematic Gaze of Blind Female Protagonists”, Johnson Cheu explains that this sequence remains so effective because it not only makes us fearful for Susy’s safety, but because it exposes our own subconscious fears about blindness and vulnerability.  “The darkening serves to reify able-bodied fears about blindness,” he writes, “reminding viewers that blindness signifies a disadvantage in relation to sight.”  We can intellectually process that Susy’s blindness puts her at a disadvantage to Roat, but to be cast as a viewer into the non-normative state of simulated blindness provokes a visceral reaction that far surpasses the effects of a more cerebral cinematic experience.  (Roat’s sudden lunge for Susy was one of the first, and remains one of the most effective, jump-scares in the history of horror cinema.)

It was the novelty of this climactic sequence, even more so than the established star power of Audrey Hepburn, that Warner Brothers exploited in their advertisements for the film.  Trailers, which included only about thirty seconds of footage from the film, came with a disclaimer, solemnly intoned over the sound of a heart beating and Henry Mancini’s eerily discordant score, which stated:

During the last eight minutes of this picture the theatre will be darkened to the legal limit to heighten the terror of the breathtaking climax, which takes place in nearly total darkness on the screen.  If there are sections where smoking is permitted those patrons are respectfully requested not to jar the effect by lighting up during this sequence.  And of course, no one will be seated at this time.

The gimmick worked and the film grossed 17 million dollars, over four times its budget.  It was this financial success, as Mark Harris indicates in Pictures at a Revolution, that solidified Wait Until Dark’s lone Oscar nomination.  At that year’s Golden Globe awards, Audrey Hepburn received two nominations: Best Actress in a Drama for Wait Until Dark and Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road.  Though the latter, which also starred Albert Finney, was the more prestigious film, it made only 12 million dollars at the box office and its studio, Twentieth Century Fox, abandoned its Oscar campaign, choosing instead to redouble its efforts in Doctor Doolittle.  Richard Fleischer’s talking animals flop actually made even less money than Two for the Road, but whereas Two for the Road’s modest returns were still three times its budget, Doctor Doolittle made back just over half of the 17 million dollars Fox had spent on it and the studio was eager to recoup.  Since the Academy was unlikely to overlook two strong performances from one of its favorite actresses, Hepburn got the nomination for Wait Until Dark.

Thanks largely to Hitchcock, thrillers and so-called “genre pictures” had been steadily gaining credibility over the past quarter century, but Hepburn’s Academy Award nomination was significant regardless.  Only seven actors had ever been nominated for their performances in Hitchcock films, and of them, only Janet Leigh’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Psycho can truly be considered recognition for a genre picture.  Hepburn’s nomination, as well as the critical and commercial success of Wait Until Dark, can arguably be seen as paving the way for Ruth Gordon’s victory the following year for her supporting role in Rosemary’s Baby as well as for The Exorcist’s ten nominations in 1974, an unprecedented — and, thus far, unmatched — feat for a horror film.

Though much of the historical significance of Wait Until Dark may be lost on a modern audience, as a gripping cinematic experience it holds up incredibly well.  One needn’t be cognizant of gender rights or generational discord to be terrified of being helpless.  At its heart, Wait Until Dark is a film about loss of identity, using the protagonist’s blindness to craft a novel twist on the trope of one’s home as mirror and metaphor.  Its scares stay with us long after the credits because it reminds us of the illusory and impermanent nature of the constructs by which we allow ourselves to be defined.

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