Nowadays, Wait Until Dark is seldom ranked among the best thrillers ever made, even though it absolutely earns a spot on such a list. Directed by Terence Young (who also helmed From Russia with Love, one of my favorite Bond flicks), this lean, mean, well-oiled suspense machine belongs to a rare breed of film, indeed: the “chamber horror.” This sub-genre thrives on minimalism, generating tension by trapping a small group of hostile characters together in a single isolated, claustrophobic location (see: 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Hateful Eight, Don’t Breathe).
In this case, the plot revolves around a trio of conmen attempting to intimidate a newly blind housewife into surrendering a heroin-stuffed doll that has accidentally ended up in her possession. It’s a positively delectable premise, dripping with dramatic irony; because the protagonist lacks sight, the audience (like the villains) often has her at a disadvantage in terms of narrative information—which makes it all the more satisfying when her remaining senses allow her to perceive seemingly minor details (such as a noticeably squeaky shoe) that gradually cause the ruse to unravel, transforming this would-be victim into a dogged survivor.
The true genius of Wait Until Dark, however, lies in how it challenges the viewer’s loyalties. Because the criminals are introduced first—and because two of them are at least somewhat sympathetic—we occasionally find ourselves actually rooting for their scheme to succeed, despite our investment in the heroine’s survival (evoking the iconic corpse disposal scene in Psycho). This moral tug-of-war enriches the conflict; we’re haunted by the nagging awareness that the outcome will inevitably be bittersweet, no matter which side ultimately triumphs.
I could write an entire novel dissecting the delicious subtleties of Wait Until Dark’s cinematic techniques—particularly regarding the fascinating contrast between Audrey Hepburn’s unapologetically “Old Hollywood” style of performance and Alan Arkin’s more naturalistic “New Wave” approach—but I think it’s better to just end he review here. Frankly, the film doesn’t require in-depth analysis; its brilliance speaks for itself.