A few years after he appeared in the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark, Alan Arkin was asked if he was surprised that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his dazzling portrayal of a very spooky drug dealer.
“Are you kidding?” he said. “You don’t get nominated for being mean to Audrey Hepburn.”
Wait Until Dark, which plays at the Sebastiani Theatre July 17 as part of its Vintage Film Series, is one of those intricately plotted, nail-bitingly suspenseful woman-in-peril pictures, but with a difference: not only is the heroine played by the eternally lovable Audrey, her peril is magnified by her inability to see.
It was originally a Broadway play starring Lee Remick and Robert Duvall and directed by Arthur Penn, who’d made The Miracle Worker and knew something about the subject of blindness. The playwright, Frederick Knott, had had an enormous success a decade earlier with Dial M for Murder, another suspense thriller set entirely in an increasingly menacing apartment flat.
The plot: A doll stuffed with heroin is smuggled into New York and palmed off on an unsuspecting photographer, Sam, who brings it back to the Greenwich Village digs he shares with his recently blinded wife, Susy. Three desperate people are eager to get their hands on it: the smuggler’s two pals, and a mysterious, self-assured psychopath named Roat. With Sam out of town, the trio come up with an intricate ruse that will allow them to search the apartment without arousung Susy’s suspicions.
Hepburn prepared for the shoot by training at New York’s Lighthouse for the Blind, eyes covered with black shields while she got around using sound and touch and learning enough braille to get by. To compound the illusion of blindness, she wore contact lenses to dull her famously expressive eyes. Her performance is impeccable and generates real empathy, not only because of her slender, wan presence but because she’s never a victim — this “world champion blind lady” is self-assured, funny, resolute and smart as a whip.
The movie was directed by Terence Young, who made 39 fair-to-middling movies and two classics: From Russia With Love and this one. His command of the film’s environment and the palpable suspense he generates is estimable; maybe he just needed good material. Aiding and abetting is composer Henry Mancini, who created an eerie score with sitar, harpsichord and two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart — the effect is superbly unsettling.
The film opened in the watershed year of 1967, when movies like Bonnie & Clyde, Point Blank, The Dirty Dozen and In Cold Blood were pushing the limits of onscreen brutality. Although the violence in Wait Until Dark isn’t overt, the threat of it is almost unbearably palpable, especially in the film’s final 12 minutes, a sequence that made Stephen King call the film “the scariest movie of all time.” The effect was intensified during the film’s initial run, when theater lights were extinguished one by one until patrons were alone in the dark with Alan Arkin, “the greatest evocation of screen villainy ever” (King again). Enjoy the show!