Why I watch ‘Wait Until Dark’ with the lights out
The sadist in me loves to watch Wait Until Dark with the lights out.
I luxuriate in the cruelty of its conceit. From the moment Susy Hendrix taps her way into her apartment, unaware of the three intruders who watch stoically in the shadows, to the violent, final showdown between her and Alan Arkin’s knife-wielding psychopath, the film is crammed with bleak nods to human wickedness, all of it popping out from within the confines of a boxy kitchen-sink thriller.
Not only do Susy’s tormentors take advantage of her handicap, but I do. I’m often way ahead of Susy and am always able to exploit her. Her panic, for instance, after she detects smoke in the air, when I know it’s just a cigarette butt burning itself out. Or when the scarf she throws around her neck disturbs wisps of hair belonging to a dead girl hanging from her wardrobe door that only I know is there (a mouth-wateringly morbid touch). I’m an accomplice, invited by the filmmaker to participate and revel in the systematic abuse of a well-meaning anorexic woman living with blindness.
I can’t stop watching because the cruelties, both slight (like when Mike sounds out a phone number while dialling a different one) and extreme (like when Roat cuts the phone line) are so engrossing. It’s akin to a cat’s primal desire to injure and kill. I don’t want Audrey to die – the party is over when the bird stops moving – but I can’t help but claw and mark her up a bit, if only to see how much she can withstand. I know why these three guys are here and what they’re doing – I’ve been explicitly told – so the only question is how much cruelty can they impose upon her before she figures it out.
I could pretend that I spend the entire movie shaking my head at the inhumanity of it all, but that’s not how I watch Wait Until Dark. And if you’re like me and re-watch it every year, then you’re waiting for those little moments of pure savagery; the blonde suspended in the wardrobe, the cloth that Roat dangles menacingly over Susy’s face, the matches and gasoline, the panic attack Susy has after discovering the phone line’s been cut and she’s boxed herself in.
And, of course, there’s the knife attack; Roat digging his blade into the floor as he closes in on Susy, her futile tugging on the refrigerator’s power cord as Roat staggers to his feet until finally, with a single chilling scream, the room is plunged into darkness.
What really makes the sadism fun is how cute and dopey Audrey Hepburn is as Susy. She starts out as this exceptionally needy person who makes bad jokes and is terrified of being alone. Recently blinded after a car accident, she is still reluctant to do things for herself and even tries to manipulate her husband into breaking an appointment so he can stay in with her. He, on the other hand, is always making her do things for herself. At one point, exasperated, she says, ‘Do I have to be the world’s champion blind lady?’ To which he says, with equal conviction, ‘Yes!’
Even once he arrives to his ransacked house after Susy’s just fought for her life, he still insists that she ‘find her way’ to him. Whilst being an obvious (and clumsy) bid for symbolism, in a film that so keenly celebrates sadism, it’s a moment that works.
Conversely, when Mike (the villain) shows up masquerading as a friend, he’s always offering to do things for Susy. He puts out the fire, gets the phone, checks the blinds, looks for the doll. It figures that, in a film this misanthropic, the bad guys are superficially helpful while the ones who love her won’t lift a finger ‘for her own good’. I guess the message, if a message can be found in a film with such a vicious point of view, is that sometimes you have to be a little cruel in order to be a little kind.