Wait Until Dark: Audrey Hepburn's Non-Hitchcock Hitchcock Film

Even the film's ad campaign tried to recreate Hitchcock's 
famous campaign from Psycho. Click to enlarge—if you dare.

Wait Until Dark (1967) is the best Hitchcock movie that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t direct. With a cast led by a cool brunette—Suzy Hendrix, played by Audrey Hepburn, who’d been tapped by Hitch to play just that type eight years earlier for his ill-fated No Bail for the Judge—the film is often mistakenly attributed to Hitch. Projecting his own pompousness on the director, critic Rex Reed huffed and puffed that “If Hitchcock could only laugh at himself, this is the movie he’d make.” It’s easy to see why.

Opening on an extreme close-up of a china doll’s silk jacket, slit open and stuffed with heroin (and possibly other, more dangerous contraband), the film leads with a distinctly North by Northwest-like MacGuffin. The toy also invokes the doll-like heroine of the film (was that a deliberate pun by the writers?), its black, blank eyes the perfect corollary to Suzy’s sightlessness and its stuffed innards neatly paralleling her unwitting role as the eventual possessor of this hot item.

Freudians, start your engines.

Immersing herself in the role, Audrey Hepburn attended the Lighthouse School for the Blind and even learned to read Braille.  But  it was the director who insisted that she conceal her famous brown peepers behind impassive grey contact lenses.

The plot is simple: Suzy, recently blinded in a car accident, is left home alone while her husband, Sam (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) is lured away by a hoax perpetrated by a thug who's traced the contraband-laden doll to their apartment. The bad guys then take turns playing head games with her to induce her to find the doll and give it to them.

As was Hitch’s approach at times, most of the action takes place on a single set—in this case, a Greenwich Village apartment, just down the street from Brandon and Phillip’s penthouse in Rope and L. B. Jefferies’ bachelor pad in Rear Window, the latter of which shares a passing resemblance to the interior in this film.

There’s the nearly wordless five-minute expository sequence at the beginning of the film that sets the plot in motion—a technique that reaches as far back as Hitch’s silent films The Lodger and Blackmail, but which, for my money, anticipates the opening sequence of his final film, Family Plot.

Hitch hardly invented the film staple of the beautiful woman in danger. But it’s safe to say that he explored its psychological possibilities more deeply than anyone. In Wait Until Dark, Suzy, learning to adjust to her disability, becomes increasingly isolated as danger closes in on her. Her blindness is a metaphor for seeing, in all its shades of meaning, that Hitch himself explored in such films as Young and Innocent, Psycho and The Birds.

Mr. Roat's cadaverous posture and cavernous spectacles remind me of Dan Fawcett's final disposition in The Birds. 

Even the stylized, expressionistic lighting reminds me of Hitchcock—or at least the Germans’ influence on his work; at one point the apartment seems to be lit by a single refrigerator bulb, to chilling effect. (Rim shot!) As such, it's an interesting counterpoint to the Wendices’ apartment in Dial M for Murder, which at times is lit only by the dying embers in the fireplace.

Hitchcockian? Indubitably. On the other hand, almost everything I’ve described up to this point can also be attributed to Frederick Knott, who wrote both the play upon which this film was based and Dial M for Murder (the original Broadway play and Hitch’s 1954 screen adaptation). As such, Wait Until Dark makes for an interesting study on the recently contested topic of Hitch’s authorship. To a degree, this movie feels like a Hitchcock film. And though there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that there were overt attempts to imitate him, Knott’s attachment to the project gives us insight into what sorts of organic contributions he made as well. The way I see it, Knott, along with director Terence Young (Dr. No and also check out what I have to say about his other Bond film, From Russia with Love) learned a lot from Hitch, and were quite happy to borrow some of his techniques—to Hitch’s occasional consternation. Hitch, on the other hand, had good taste in writers and was equally happy to exploit their talents and, at times, perhaps take credit for them.

Many of the elements that we love about Dial M surface in this film. Take, for example, the villain Mr. Roat’s brilliance and attention to detail. Like the earlier film’s Tony Wendice, Roat (Alan Arkin) thinks everything through, obsessively wiping his fingerprints from the apartment and making sure to ash his cigarettes in a jar that he carries with him. Supremely in charge and self-possessed, he knew his co-conspirators would try to kill him, even before they knew. Like Wendice, Roat uses both the carrot of cash incentives and the stick of blackmail to compel the two con artists, “Sgt.” Carlino and Mike Tallman (Jack Weston and Richard Crenna), to work for him.

As mentioned, the theme of blindness—literal and metaphoric—is explored here as in Hitch’s films. Declares Suzy, “I’m going to be the world’s champion blind person.” That statement presages, perhaps even invites, in a sense, a series of harrowing events from which she does indeed emerge victorious. Ironically, Suzy is married to an L. B. Jefferies-like photographer with a military background; in this case, he’s a Korean War vet. Though sighted, he fails to see the danger she’s in until it’s almost too late. Meanwhile, the sociopathic killer, Roat, hides behind thick, black blind-man’s spectacles through which he sees all too much. The symbolism is there, though not explored as fully, nor with as much subtlety, as Hitch would have demonstrated, and this is where the imitators show their hands. In copying the Master’s painterly style, theirs is a bit too paint-by-numbers.

Hitch’s sets have a numinous quality, in which ordinary objects acquire unusually great significance. On a Hitchcock set, each framing and re-framing takes on added dimension as the background illuminates or counterposes the action and dialogue in the foreground. A close examination of his single-set films shows that he divided these confined spaces into specific architectural regions. For instance, in Dial M, the living room is a homey place, where very human interactions take place, while the study, with its heavy curtains, is consistently played for theatricality: this is where the Lesgate’s murder occurs. But in Wait Until Dark, those sorts of opportunities are generally missed.

Likewise, the plot is full of implausibles that even Hitch would have found too glaring. (Why does Suzy leave one of the lights on in her apartment? Why doesn't she send Gloria to get the police?) And the basic Gaslight-esque premise is too fantastic to be taken seriously. You have to suspend your disbelief and accept the movie on its own terms, as a good yarn.

That’s not to dismiss the film. I think it’s wonderful. You’d be hard pressed to find a better—and more terrifying—climax in a movie outside of Hitchcock’s films. (See a charming stop-action recreation of the scene here.) Contrary to Roger Ebert’s dismissal of Alan Arkin’s Roak as “not particularly convincing in an exaggerated performance,” I love this bad guy. Roat heebs me out more than almost any other screen villain I can think of. He is driven by forces we are not allowed to fully wrap our hands around. Part of the reason I think the doll contains more than mere illicit drugs is Suzy’s observation, “It’s different about Mr. Roat, isn’t it? It’s that he wants to do evil things.” Later, as Roat disembowels the doll, he tosses the heroin packets aside and stashes some of its other contents in his pocket. What are they? Diamonds? Anthrax? Roofies? Reportedly, George C. Scott and Rod Steiger both turned the role down because the character was too despicable for their taste. Apparently, the idea of terrorizing Audrey Hepburn was too much—though she herself welcomed the challenge. Their loss. Our gain.

In a tip of the hat to feminist film critics, Wait Until Dark corrects what some may see as a flaw in Dial M for Murder. In the earlier film, although Margot (Grace Kelly) stands up to her attacker and kills him with a pair of scissors, she is afterward powerless as murder accusations begin flying her way. She is completely at the mercy of her adversaries and owing only to the inspector’s persistence is she rescued from the gallows. Suzy, on the other hand, marshals her meager resources to boldly and cunningly defeat her attacker. In his book Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals, John Lyden sees both films as "an expression of 'female rage' against male aggression, as the woman refuses to be made a victim and is able to fight back effectively in the end."

Maybe that’s why, years earlier, brunette Givenchy model Audrey Hepburn had wanted to make a movie with Hitchcock. For his part, by that time, Hitchcock’s palette extended far beyond the cool blondes his Hollywood myth suggests. Thus, in 1959, Hitch developed a detailed treatment of Henry Cecil’s No Bail for the Judge and offered the lead role to Hepburn, who read it and eagerly accepted. Publicly, Hitch kept his cards closer to his chest, while still revealing where his intentions lay. Regarding the film and, obliquely, Hepburn, he said, “I’m quite prepared to try a cool brunette if I ever come across one.”

The 1959 movie was not to be. According to Diana Maychick’s Audrey Hepburn: An Intimate Portrait, the very day after she requested contracts to formally sign on to the project, Hepburn, who had been in the third trimester of her pregnancy, miscarried her baby. This devastating loss plunged her into a depression and she backed out of the arrangements, consigning the film to the What Could Have Been category of the actor’s, the director’s and their fans’ lives.

Though Hitch never forgave her, it seems that Hepburn, who constantly sought to move beyond the confectionary roles of her youth, tried for the rest of her career to take on the heft of a Hitchcock movie—even if it didn’t involve Hitch himself. In 1963, she made Charade with Cary Grant—another Hitchcock movie not directed by Hitchcock—and in 1967 she threw herself into the role of Suzy Hendrix, in a final attempt to star in a Hitchcock picture. But not quite.


Anonymous said…
Very interesting essay. With all due respect, I wish to point out an error. Alan Arkin was NOT nominated for this film – although he should have been. Here is a bit of interesting trivia from imdb.com:

In an interview, Alan Arkin talked about the Oscar nominations he received for his early major film roles (The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter). When asked if he was surprised that he was overlooked for "Wait Until Dark", his second movie, he replied: "You don't get nominated for being mean to Audrey Hepburn!"
Joel Gunz said…
Uh oh! Thank you for the correction! I'll go back and fix that ASAP.


Joel Gunz said…
Uh oh! Thanks for the correction. I'll go back and fix this ASAP.


DorianTB said…
Joel, your WAIT UNTIL DARK "Best Hitchcock Movies (That Hitchcock Never Made)" post was well worth the ...WAIT! :-) I very much enjoyed your intelligent post, with its juxtaposition of deserving Oscar nominee Audrey Hepburn as sightless Suzy, and the symbolism of the blank doll eyes. I'd never initially thought of the Hitchcockian characters in Frederick Knott's WAIT UNTIL DARK and genuine Hitchcock characters from REAR WINDOW and ROPE as living in the same area of Greenwich Village, but it really makes sense; now THERE'S a party I'd like to see, as long as I can flee at a moment's notice if the situation gets too dangerous! :-) You made excellent points about the metaphorical aspects, too.

I remember reading elsewhere that another reason Audrey Hepburn eventually nixed NO BAIL FOR THE JUDGE was that supposedly she was skittish about a rape scene Hitchcock had planned; I think I read about it in either HITCHCOCK AND ME or WRITING WITH HITCHCOCK.

Sure, some of WAIT UNTIL DARK's scarier effects may have stretched credulity a bit, but I for one didn't stop to think about plot holes until well after the movie scared the bejeezus outta me! :-) Bravo on a superb post, Joel; you've done our "Not-Hitchcock" Blogathon proud!
stevenderosa said…
Great post, Joel!

Dorian, I've written a fair share on No Bail for the Judge (WWH page on NO BAIL) and have done extensive research on it, but never came down on the side of those who suggest the project was cancelled because Hepburn bailed due to skittishness over a rape scene.

Actually, a careful examination of the flurry of cables in the weeks prior to and after Hepburn pulling out reveal that the project was merely to be postponed for a year, so that production would have begun in spring 1960. Hitchcock very much wanted to make this film. The delay actually might have worked out better for Hitchcock since he was really wanted to film the Derby Day sequence which ends the treatment. The delays to start filming in 1959 caused him to miss filming the actual Derby so he and Sam Taylor devised a different ending for the script.

Of course, by the spring of 1960 Hitchcock was getting ready for the release of that other little project he'd filmed in the interim—Psycho—which Hitchcock ended up taking up so much time promoting that by the time he might have been ready to pick up where he left off on No Bail for Paramount, Lew Wasserman and company were already working on the director's move to Universal, which I believe sealed the film's fate much more than his potential leading lady.
readerman said…
A terrific post. This film was so good upon first viewing. One of the great "got ya'" moments.
Joel Gunz said…
Hey Readerman - Yes, one of the great GOTCHA moments in cinema. When the film was first screened for the studio head (Jack Warner?), he jumped out of his seat at the specified time - and then flashed the director o thumbs up.
Joel Gunz said…
Steven -

Thanks for your weigh-in. I think you're rthge key player these days in setting that record straight, Spoto be damned!
mas nico said…
nice blog..keep posting dude
Blakeney said…
So wish that Alan Arkin would take on a current bad guy role, as he was excellent. His initial hipsterness is almost comical, until you see the quiet evil lurking underneath. You are so right about that GOTCHA moment - it still scares me, thought I've seen it many times.

Never realized the similarities between Wait Until Dark and many Hitchcock movies. Thank you for a really insightful review.
Unknown said…
I agree. Thanks for the post! I just watched Wait Until Dark last night, for the umpteenth time. Still love it & it still raises the hair on my neck!
Unknown said…
I agree. Thanks for the post! Ialso never saw so many similarities to The Birds & Dial M! And I've seen them all many times. I just watched Wait Until Dark last night, for the umpteenth time. Still love it & it still raises the hair on my neck! Thx for a great, enlightening blog!