All it takes is one great sequence to make a movie a classic, and Wait Until Dark has a doozy. Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman at the center of a cruel con game, as beatnik thug Alan Arkin and his criminal buddies Richard Crenna and Jack Weston sneak into her apartment under false pretenses to retrieve a doll stuffed with heroin, previously stashed there by a dead associate of theirs. At the climax, the principals stumble around in pitch blackness trying to kill each other, and veteran James Bond director Terence Young communicates the action through sound and shadow. The gimmick comes directly from Frederick Knott's stage play, which found a variety of other ways to accent Hepburn's frustration at being unable to know for sure whether anybody else is in her room. The play had to rely on little tingles throughout, since otherwise there's no real action in the piece until the big blackout scuffle. The film also doesn't open up much, staying largely in Hepburn's apartment while adding only a few external touches of icy urban atmosphere (common to '60s thrillers like this one and Rosemary's Baby), and dressing up the transitions with an alternately tense and delicate Henry Mancini score. But though Wait Until Dark plays as stagy onscreen as it was in the theater, Young explores the tight space dynamically enough to stave off visual tedium, and Knott's classic dramatic construction builds suspense just by arranging the players into varied offensive and defensive formations. In addition to Hepburn and her pursuers, there's Hepburn's absent husband Efrem Zimbalist Jr., whose past heroism in saving her life has made her overly dependent, and there's preteen upstairs neighbor Julie Herrod, who helps Hepburn run errands but is too capricious to be relied upon. When Arkin and his gang show up at the apartment and start playing on Hepburn's fears by making up stories about her husband's possible involvement in an affair or even murder, the drama comes from watching her face as she tries to spot the holes in their story in time to avoid being killed. Hepburn's blend of pluckiness and self-pity and Arkin's cool cunning give Wait Until Dark emotional weight, but their final tussle is what most fans of the film remember. No wonder: Nothing compares with being made to feel totally helpless, plunged into darkness, unable to interpret the noises, and unsure if the lights will ever come on again.
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