My audio commentary for Wait Until Dark (1967)

Here’s a first for me: an audio commentary of the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark, an underrated gem and a top five personal favorite of mine.

If you’ve never seen the film, don’t bother with this commentary until you do. It’s a great little cat-and-mouse thriller in the Hitchcock mold: Audrey Hepburn plays a recently blinded housewife who finds herself targeted by a trio of criminals out to find a stash of heroin that accidentally ended up in her possession. The story is packed with twists and turns, and the suspense slowly builds to a boiling point. The final twenty minutes are truly nail-biting, with Hepburn fending off the most dangerous of the thugs (played to perfection by a young Alan Arkin) in a battle to the death.

It’s a unique movie in the Hepburn canon, one of the few thrillers she ever did (think of it as the suspenseful but romantic Charade‘s more sinister cousin). She walks the fine line between vulnerability and tough-minded resourcefulness, and the result is one of the best performances of her entire career. She finds the perfect onscreen nemesis in Alan Arkin, whose master criminal is every bit as intelligent as she is. And then there’s the fine direction, the great script, Henry Mancini’s queasy yet gorgeous score– but you can hear me gush about all that in the track.

In the commentary, I cover the following:

  • How Wait Until Dark started out as a stage play by Frederick “Dial M for Murder” Knott, but the screen rights were purchased by Warner Bros. at Mel Ferrer’s request well before the show even opened on Broadway
  • How Wait Until Dark was adapted for the screen without resorting to obvious “opening up” tactics to make it more cinematic (courtesy of screenwriters Robert and Jane-Howard Carrington and director Terence Young)
  • The numerous differences between the play and the film
  • Frederick Knott’s style as a thriller playwright and the running themes/motifs between his three plays (Dial M for Murder, Write Me a Murder, and Wait Until Dark)
  • Wait Until Dark‘s long stage history, including the ill-fated 1998 Broadway revival and Jeffrey Hatcher’s noirish 2013 adaptation
  • The almost-constant conflicts between Team Hepburn (which includes producer Mel Ferrer and director Terence Young) and the studio over everything from Hepburn’s wardrobe to where the interiors would be shot
  • How Alan Arkin’s characterization choices (based on his actual interactions with criminals and drug addicts in early 60s Chicago) initially baffled the film’s crew and the movie critics (though apparently charmed a decent number of teenage girls who sent the alarmed actor love letters)
  • Hepburn’s extensive research of blindness and her friendship with a visually impaired college student
  • Richard Crenna being underrated as hell
  • My (mostly nuanced, I think) thoughts on the irritating husband character
  • And much more!
A very giallo-esque Italian poster for the film. Source: Cinematerial

Making my own commentary has long been a dream of mine, but for years, I felt I wasn’t good enough and putting my voice on something terrified me. However, over time I’ve become less self-conscious and decided, hey, why not? Other people have recorded fan commentaries (I was particularly inspired by the Batman and James Bond commentaries on the This Damn Fool Idealistic Crusade channel on YouTube and Chris Meadows’ 2006 fan commentary of The Castle of Cagliostro)—why shouldn’t I give it a try? Even if it isn’t Criterion-worthy, creating something is better than just dreaming in vain forever.

To be frank, this commentary project is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. It involves more than just talking—I had to make sure my vocal delivery was audible and figure out where to talk about what subject within the movie itself. I also had to make sure I was able to comment on scene-specific details amidst more general information about the film’s production. I confess I wasn’t able to share all the research I did either– 108 minutes goes by fast!

I admit I feel a bit vulnerable in posting this. I’m comfortable enough cranking out a written review, but expressing anything with my voice makes me feel exposed in a way that a normal essay does not. (I have to wonder if silent film actors making the transition to talkies experienced much the same dread in being heard for the first time?) I tried my best not to sound “academic” or dry. I think I succeeded there and maintained a casual (if very geeky) tone throughout (especially with my many jokes about Alan Arkin’s delightful wigs), but you can still detect a bit of my nervousness now and then.

A page from an original Japanese film program for Wait Until Dark. On the left side, you can bask in the glory of Arkin’s many wigs, ranging from oily beatnik to dapper old coot about town.

Still, it’s good to do things that scare you. I’d been in a creative rut for a while and having to learn new skills to work on this commentary rejuvenated me. I hope it’s a fun listen.

You’re welcome to play the track along with the film or to just listen to it like a podcast. Whatever suits you—I tend to have commentaries playing while I’m cooking or doing housework.

Below, I’ve also posted a list of the main sources I used when researching the film, as well as the sources for the interviews I directly quote in the track.

One last thing: I made two errors in the commentary, both luckily minor. First, I claim My Fair Lady was the biggest film of 1964, but that was actually Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews really got her revenge, didn’t she?). Second, during the scene where Jack Weston is interrogating Hepburn for the first time, I say something like, “When Carlino patted Mike on the shoulder a few moments ago”—only for the aforementioned pat to occur about a minute after I said that. That was meant to come out as “When Carlino pats Mike on the shoulder in a few moments” but my brain shorted out and I got the tense wrong, and just never picked up on it until yesterday. So if you’re watching along with the film, don’t think you’re off-sync—I’m just being an idiot.

Sources:

“A Look in the Dark,” the making-of featurette included on DVD and Bluray versions of the movie

“All for Knott” by Joan E. Vadeboncouer for Syracuse Herald American (NY)

Audrey: Her Real Story by Alexander Walker

Audrey: The Life of Audrey Hepburn by Charles Higham

Audrey Hepburn by Barry Paris

Audrey Hepburn: A Biography by Warren Harris

Blood on the Stage, 1950-1975: Mileston Plays of Crime, Mystery, and Detection by Amnon Kabatchnik

The Carrington screenplay can be read on this website: https://cinephiliabeyond.org/wait-dark-terence-youngs-terrifyingly-effective-suspense-thriller-brilliant-audrey-hepburn-alan-arkin/

Clown Prince of Hollywood: The Antic Life and Times of Jack L. Warner by Bob Thomas

Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn by Donald Spoto

Everybody’s Talkin’: The Top Films of 1965-1969 by Barry Monush

Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock

Lee Remick: A bio-bibliography by Barry Rivadue

Liner notes by Lukas Kendall for Film Score Monthly release of the Wait Until Dark soundtrack

“Look What They’ve Done to Her Script” by Donnell Stoneman for News & Record

The making of feature films: a guide by Ivan Butler (Terence Young is one of the directors interviewed)

Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott

Sources of direct quotes:

Arkin’s comments on fan mail – Saturday Review (September 9, 1969: Vol 52, Issue 36)

Arkin’s comments on how he came up with his characterization – The Actor Speaks: Twenty-four actors talk about process and technique by Janet Sonenberg

Hepburn’s comments on having to commit onscreen murder – “Star Must Walk to Work” by Florabel Muir

Crenna’s comments on Hepburn’s professionalism – Audrey Hepburn: a biography by Warren Harris

An update (and an apology)

Image source: Movie Poster DB

I try to post at least twice a month on this blog, but June has been doing a number on me. My weekends have been consistently busy and my post for this month was devolving into a cranky, unfocused rant… and I don’t want to turn this blog into a receptacle for grouchiness. There’s enough of that already, both online and off. I like to keep this place positive, so for this month I’m going to have to sit out.

I do have at least three posts in line for next month, so that should make up for the deficiency this June. There will be the usual short of the month, as well as a birthday tribute to William Wyler and a contribution to the Singin’ in the Rain blogathon hosted by The Classic Movie Muse.

I’m also hoping to put out my first audio commentary up before autumn rolls around. I’ve wanted to record some for a long time now– like ever since the earliest days of my movie geekdom. Listening to the great James Bond commentaries from YouTuber Damn Fool Idealistic Crusade inspired me to finally get off my butt and do one of my own instead of just thinking about it but never actually doing it out of fear of making a fool of myself. For this first one, I’ve picked Wait Until Dark, a 1967 Audrey Hepburn suspense-thriller and one of my favorite films ever. Hopefully, it will be the first of many because there’s nothing I love more than researching and discussing the movies I’m passionate about. And who knows? That might eventually evolve into my making video essays, another long-time wish of mine… but one step at a time.

I guess this is just a long-winded way of saying, I haven’t jumped ship on this blog like I did back in 2015. For the 4.5 people who probably read this website, be at ease.

PS I did not forget about creating a site index page. Hoping to get that done ASAP.

Favorite posts of 2021

It’s been my wish to up my blogging game this past year. Instead of standard reviews, I’ve been trying to incorporate more research into my posts and actually offer something beyond “movie good, watch it.” On the whole, I think I was successful and I’m pleased with what I put onto this site over the last several months. In the new year, I plan on redoing the site contents, so if you want to see what else I have posted on here without scrolling endlessly you’ll be all set. Within the next two months, I have two blogathon posts in the making: a piece on Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete and a look at an early John Williams’ score.

In the meantime, here are the posts from 2021 I am proudest of– they represent my best work on this website to date.

HB Warner, a retrospective of his career and a reflection on Mr. Gower

This was written for the Classic Movie Muse’s It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon. I’ve always loved Mr. Gower as a character, an alcoholic and melancholy figure in the rather idyllic setting of Bedford Falls, but I knew little of the actor who brought him to life beyond the fact that he played Jesus in the silent King of Kings. It was great to appreciate the man’s ample stage and film experience. Though forgotten today, Warner enjoyed a long career as both a star and character actor. Even if you’ve never heard of him, he’s probably been in one of your classic film favorites.

Carol Dempster birthday tribute

Controversy, thy name is Carol Dempster, DW Griffith’s one-time girlfriend and leading lady. While I would not consider myself a Dempster fan, I have always found her fascinating, going back to when I first read Richard Schickel’s DW Griffith biography when I was still in high school. Dempster was a teenage dancer when first discovered by Griffith, who tried to make a proper star of her in the 1920s. That never happened for a variety of reasons, but Dempster’s contemporary reputation was not the critical wash-out certain historians say. Inspired by a viewing of Isn’t Life Wonderful (in which Dempster gives a powerful performance) and fan magazine clippings which showed some movie fans did appreciate Dempster, I wanted to learn more about the woman.

The greatest hits of 1921

For Silentology’s Silent Movie Day blogathon, I wrote about the highest-grossing movies of 1921. It was interesting to see what drew audiences to the theater in those days– in a sense, there was more variety than now, when it seems like superhero pictures and endless franchise installments dominate the end-of-year top tens. However, audiences of yesterday also enjoyed their spectacle, particularly since 1921 audiences had also experienced a major pandemic and other assorted troubles they wanted to escape.

“If you thought you knew what terror was,” or that time Tarantino was a Broadway star

This was easily my favorite post of 2021, an examination of the critically reviled 1998 revival of Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark starring Quentin Tarantino of all people. While trying to find production information about the more famous (and better received) 1967 film version, I fell into a research rabbit hole with the revival once I came across old interviews with the actors, director, and producers, conducted months before the show became something no one wanted to discuss on the record, so cataclysmic was its failure. There have been online pieces looking back at this short-lived production, but few go beyond Tarantino’s allegedly wooden performance. I wanted to know what the revival was like, why this play (considered an old chestnut by sophisticated critics) was revived on Broadway to begin with, and how the creative team attempted to modernize it. The answers were all fascinating to me, making me think about the challenges of trying to revive yesteryear’s hits and the double-edged issue of using star power to draw an audience that might not have come otherwise.

“If you thought you knew what terror was,” or that time Tarantino was a Broadway star

Poster advertisement for the ill-fated 1998 Wait Until Dark. Image source: Pinterest.

The inevitable reaction to learning Quentin Tarantino once graced the Broadway stage is a hearty, “The hell?,” probably followed by a potpourri of more colorful expletives if you’re feeling especially Tarantinoesque. But it’s true: for a few months in 1998, Tarantino was the star attraction of a revival of Wait Until Dark, a 1960s home invasion thriller penned by Frederick Knott of Dial M for Murder fame.

For those aware of this pop culture anomaly but who did not see it live, it is an event shrouded in a thick fog of mystery. Press photos show Tarantino dressed in grunge fashion and snarling beneath unkempt hair. Ads for the show promised audiences a night of unmitigated terror. If the critics are to be believed, what they got instead was unintentional hilarity.

Let me just sample a few of the revival’s notoriously bad reviews for you—or rather, Tarantino’s bad reviews:

New York Amsterdam News: “Tarantino as the cold-blooded, mean killer was hilarious. He couldn’t scare a fly. In fact, when he spoke dramatic, threatening lines, the audience responded with laughter.”

New York Daily News: “As a movie director Tarantino may be the new Alfred Hitchcock, but as a stage actor he is the new Ed Wood. He has the vocal modulation of a railway station announcer, the expressive power of a fence post and the charisma of a week-old head of lettuce.”

The New York Times: “Mr. Tarantino seems menacing to nothing except possibly [the] script. Whether raising his voice in deranged fury or softly promising to commit unspeakable tortures, he registers at best as merely petulant, like a suburban teenager who has been denied the use of his father’s Lexus for the night.”

Totally unrelated image of Rick Dalton putting the burn on someone. Image source: Slash Film.

But for me, there’s more interest in this revival than mere celebrity schadenfreude. The more you research it, the more questions begin to emerge. Like in the first place, why was a 32-year-old thriller revived on Broadway in an era where stage thrillers were unfashionable? Did Tarantino seek out the producers or did the producers seek out Tarantino? Was Tarantino put to poor advantage by dated material or was a classic play sabotaged by Tarantino’s presence? And what was so bad about the experience that none of the cast and crew want to discuss it even years later?

Origins

Lee Remick was the terrorized lead during Wait Until Dark‘s original Broadway run. Image source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The history of the 1998 Wait Until Dark starts with a revival of another Frederick Knott play. A new production of Dial M for Murder starring Roddy McDowall and Nancy Allen toured the United States during the 1995-1996 season. While critics were concerned those rascally boomers and Gen X-ers would find the show too talk-heavy and quaint (one review mentions an audience member standing up during intermission to shout, “Who cares?!”), it was enough of a modest success for the octogenarian Knott to ask the show’s producer Robert Young if he would help him bring another work of his back to the Broadway stage after 32 years: Wait Until Dark.

Knott’s second-biggest hit, Wait Until Dark is about a drug deal gone wrong. After a plane ride from Canada, Greenwich Village photographer Sam Hendrix is handed a child’s doll by a mysterious woman named Lisa. She claims she will pick it up from him at a later time. Turns out the doll is packed with heroin and Lisa is a drug mule hoping to wheedle her partners-in-crime out of the profits. Unfortunately, Sam claims to have mislaid the doll in his apartment when she asks for it back. Now three criminals connected to Lisa have targeted the Hendrix domicile, intent on procuring the heroin.

The leader, a suave psychopath who calls himself Harry Roat Jr., devises an elaborate plan to get the drugs back without violence: luring the husband away with a phony assignment, the men will pull a con on Sam’s blind wife Susy to terrorize her to giving them the doll without knowing its true contents. Little do they know that Susy has no idea where the doll is either—or that her other senses are sharp enough to sniff out their games. By the time the jig is up, it becomes clear the conflict will end in violence, famously climaxing with Susy fending off the homicidal Roat by smashing all the light sources in the apartment. Their showdown, one of the most celebrated sequences in thriller history, literally left audiences screaming in the aisles.

A press photo for the 1967 film adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin. Image source: Cinephilia and Beyond.

Running for 373 performances, Wait Until Dark was the sleeper hit of 1966 with Lee Remick and Robert Duvall heading the show, and it would be even more successful on the West End with Honor Blackman, where it ran for almost two years. A film version starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin swiftly followed in 1967, raking in over five times its budget. While the critics complained about plot holes and the middle section being convoluted, ticket sales revealed the property was critic-proof.

Regardless of this previous success, bringing the show back to Broadway was risky. Stage thrillers were common enough between the 1920s and the 1950s with hits like The Bat and Night Must Fall, but their presence began to wane in the 1960s and 1970s. Ira Levin’s satirical Deathtrap was the genre’s last hurrah, both homaging and deconstructing the old thriller masters like Knott. However, even if thrillers were not common on 1990s Broadway, regional theaters were another matter. To this day, Wait Until Dark is a staple of community theater with its single set, cat-and-mouse games, and famous showdown in absolute darkness. The 1967 film is a classic in its own right, benefiting from marvelous performances and tight direction. With all that in mind, why shouldn’t a Broadway revival have had a decent shot at success?

Gathering the cast and crew

The main cast clockwise from the top: Quentin Tarantino, Marisa Tomei, Stephen Lang, and Juan Carlos Hernandez. Image source: Playbill.

Considering Knott had not written a play since the 1960s, I was surprised to find he was so involved in the revival, to the point where he modified his own script. There is no copy of this revised script available anywhere, so I had to comb through reviews to find out what he changed. The most significant addition is a brand-new prologue in which Lisa (a character kept off-stage in the original play) desperately searches the half-lit apartment for the doll. The scene ends with the lights going out and the audience hearing her scream before being murdered by Roat. Despite this added scene, the running time was shorter than the original by about 20-30 minutes, in part because the intermission was snipped. Other changes were made to modernize the story, such as Susy buzzing people into the street door. Finally, the setting was changed from Greenwich Village in the 1960s to the Lower East Side in the present day.

Leonard Foglia was hired as director. He’d recent success with Master Class and a pre-existing attachment to Wait Until Dark, which had been his senior thesis when getting a theater degree. Feeling that earlier production was lousy, Foglia wished to redeem himself with the revival. His direction would incorporate cinematic touches, such as scene transitions that emulated jump cuts with clicking noises and flashing lights.

Marisa Tomei was cast in the lead and received the best critical notices of the entire cast. Image source: Playbill.

Of course, there was no getting a 32-year-old show produced without celebrity wattage to draw audiences. Dial M benefitted from Roddy McDowall and Nancy Allen’s combined presence, so Wait Until Dark would have to procure similar star power, a feat easier said than done. In an interview with Indianapolis Monthly magazine, Young and fellow producer Allen Lichtenstein bemoaned the difficulty of getting movie stars to commit to weeks-spanning Broadway runs. While most celebs liked the idea of having a Broadway show on their resume, few were willing to pass up more lucrative movie deals in exchange.

Though Jennifer Jason Leigh was originally cast as Susy Hendrix in late 1997, she backed out by the new year, leaving it open for Marisa Tomei, then most known for her award-winning turn in My Cousin Vinny. No doubt for the producers, she represented the best of both worlds, bringing both movie star allure and a decent amount of stage experience with her. The two subordinate criminals were played by Stephen Lang and Juan Carlos Hernandez. Long before committing himself to Avatar‘s proposed 999 sequels and playing a (very, very different) blind character himself in Don’t Breathe, Lang racked up stage credits throughout the 80s and 90s, even playing Hamlet in 1992. Hernandez brought plenty of stage experience as well, though Wait Until Dark proved to be his only Broadway engagement. Rounding out the main cast was Imani Parks as Susy’s bratty kid neighbor Gloria, her previous stage experience including a revival of Show Boat and The Lion King musical.

Of course, the most memorable casting choice was for the chief villain… though memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Enter Tarantino

Tarantino’s biggest acting role before Broadway: the homicidal rapist Ritchie Gecko in From Dusk Till Dawn. Image source: The Spool.

If one director encompasses the attitude of the 1990s, I can think of no one more appropriate than Tarantino. The one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction made Tarantino the new Orson Welles. Adored and despised, Tarantino represented the zeitgeist: irreverent, brutal, and ironic. His sharp features and six-foot-one height made him imposing on sight, perfect for a heavy. With all that in mind, casting a young celebrity du jour famous for his violent movies as your knife-wielding, bloodthirsty villain makes perfect sense if you’re the one managing the money.

For his part, Tarantino was excited to take the role. Not content with just writing and directing, he wanted to be a triple threat by adding acting to his accomplishments. He’d done small parts in his own movies and even played a raping, killing nutjob opposite George Clooney in 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn, but he craved more. Proud of his work in From Dusk Till Dawn and feeling his thespian skills went unappreciated, the chance to play an even bigger part on Broadway proved too great a temptation to resist. It was a wish come true… perhaps come true while he had a monkey’s paw in his pocket.

Tarantino’s limited stage experience (and by limited experience, I mean he did some community theater in his teens) does not seem to have worried anyone. He was a big name, he was willing to put other projects on hold to commit to the production, and he was not required to carry the show since Roat only appears sporadically between the first scene and the climactic showdown. Tomei and Lang were the ones with the lion’s share of the script, so Tarantino could rest easy and just look threatening when his time came to stalk on-stage. Hopes were certainly high, as the show made three million dollars in advance ticket sales alone.

The show

An animated Quentin Tarantino blackmails Stephen Lang. Image source: Playbill Vault .

The revival’s first night before an audience was at the Wilbur Theater in Boston on March 5, 1998. Tickets were a hot item with many eager to see Tarantino and Tomei in the flesh. After 11 previews, the show finally opened on April 5 at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theater, where it played for the remainder of its run.

Critical reaction was almost universally negative, as everyone knows. Consistently, Tomei and the set design tended to receive the most praise: Tomei was sympathetic and convincing, and the rotating set was meticulously designed to go down a bit into the audience, involving them more in the action. Parks merited a few good notices and Hernandez was deemed competent, but no one else proved so lucky. Lang was dismissed as a bore. Foglia’s direction was accused of being too rushed, disrupting the slow simmering of suspense.

Being the most high-profile member of the cast, Tarantino naturally received the most vitriol. Tarantino was deeply hurt by the reviews, his legendary confidence sustaining blow after blow with each nasty word put down in black and white as he mentioned in an interview with Variety: “I tried not to take it personally, but it was personal. It was not about the play—it was about me, and at a certain point I started getting too thin a skin about the constant criticism. It started getting to me. It’s fucked up when people make fun of you.”

Tarantino did get one thing wrong there: in some of the critical notices, there was quite a lot of complaining about the play. Barring only Tarantino, Knott’s writing received the most scorn. While Wait Until Dark was criticized as contrived when it first premiered, the passage of time added another adjective to the critics’ arsenal: dated. Try as he did to modernize the story, Knott’s changes were apparently uneven: Carolyn Clay of The Boston Phoenix mentioned that the telephone lacked an answering machine, for instance. Characterized as slow and musty, many critics argued the show was past its expiration date. The New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley’s words about the play best reflect the general sentiment: “today [the play] comes across as a tediously contrived wind-up toy that yells ‘Boo!’ just before it runs down.”

The Brooks Atkinson Theatre during the revival’s run. Image source: Pinterest.

Audience reaction was more mixed. The 2018 Adam White article on the revival samples both positive and negative comments from normal theatergoers. One spectator called the production “weird and excruciating,” while another was spellbound by the sound design and Tomei’s performance. Going through this Broadway forum thread on the topic is much the same. Some claimed the play was the scariest experience they ever had in the theater, vividly recalling thousands of audience members screaming in unison during the play’s famous jump scare, while others claimed there was laughter throughout and that the revival came off as a slapdash effort.

Bad reviews or not, the show did maintain good attendance for a time, buoyed by Tarantino’s presence. Unfortunately, other issues plagued the run, such as Tarantino getting arrested after hitting a photographer. There were rumors that Michael Richards of Seinfeld fame might take over Tarantino’s role come June, either because Tarantino wasn’t interested in continuing the show or because the producers thought that Tarantino was just that awful depending upon the source. This recasting never happened because the show did not last long enough. It closed after 97 performances and was swiftly forgotten as though it were a bad dream.

Aftermath—What went wrong?

It’s easy to blame everything on Tarantino, but many poor decisions were made in trying to revive this play for a 1990s audience. Obviously, I cannot say for sure whether or not the revival was bad as I was too busy playing with Rugrats toys back in 1998. No recording of the production exists either, so all I have to go on are the reviews and recollections of theater goers. Even so, I still have my theory as to why this revival failed. My hypothesis comes down to two factors.

1. Tarantino was miscast—or at the very least, he was not experienced enough to do the role justice.

Image source: Playbill.

Now obviously, I cannot judge the performance properly as I did not see it. That being said, given my exposure to Tarantino’s movie roles, I can easily imagine him struggling with Knott’s verbose dialogue (decidedly void of his beloved f-bomb or any curse words for that matter) and substituting loud-mouthed swagger for chilling menace. An actor playing Roat has the challenge of combining genuine threat with humor and reptilian charm. Perhaps Tarantino was not experienced enough to go beyond one of those notes at a time.

Still, I have to take the critics with a grain of salt because there is a common willingness to get nasty in these “professional” reviews, almost as though they just wanted a chance to dump on a famous person they didn’t like. Tarantino was then, as he is now, a controversial figure. Not everyone enjoyed the hyper-violent style of his films or his brash, arrogant manner off-screen. Take this unwarranted comment on Tarantino’s weight from the Entertainment Weekly review: “Tarantino, out of his overcoat, appears to have prepared for this role primarily by hitting the dessert cart. If only his acting were half as substantial.”

Of course, not everyone hated Tarantino’s performance either. Ain’t It Cool News found Tarantino “deliciously evil.” A staff reporter for the MIT newspaper claimed Tarantino and the show as a whole were not as bad as the media had them out to be in what might be the revival’s most positive notice:

“[Tarantino’s] character was quite believable: well suited to Quentin’s pre-existing image, yet different enough so that you knew it wasn’t just him being himself. His best moments were during the blackout scene towards the end, where he and Tomei exchange dialogue in the dark. Their interplay was quite natural, and helped bring the show over the top.”

I’ll conclude this section with a comment from actor David Carradine, who Tarantino asked point blank about his chances on Broadway years after the revival closed. Carradine is reserved but thoughtful on the matter:

“I think your experiment came too soon, and you used too much of your clout to get the part. […] You …understand violent people. What’s inside them. I think, while you were suffering on Broadway, you might have forgotten that that guy you were playing, at least one of him anyway, was such a person. You seemed to be apologizing for him.”

2. Putting “the chief avatar of the desensitized 90s” into an old-fashioned thriller was not the best idea.

I will admit my bias: I like this play and don’t agree with the critics’ harsh assessment of it. When done right, Wait Until Dark is a buffet of dramatic irony. The audience holds the most information, privy to the full truth of the situation whereas the characters only know different bits of the big picture. The fun comes in seeing how the blind woman and the criminals try to deceive one another. The men prey on Susy’s insecurities while Susy eventually preys on their arrogant underestimation of her competence.

That being said, the play is not perfect. The first act is quite slow and the charade plot can be confusing if you aren’t already familiar with the story. And, yes, there is one big plot glitch. These issues perturbed critics in the 1960s—it isn’t a shock that it would only get more ire from sophisticated NYC critics decades later, though ideally presented, it might have proven itself a crowd-pleaser.

A still from the Geffen Playhouse’s 2013 production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s new take on the play. The 2013 rewrite moves the story to WWII but does an admirable job adapting the story for modern tastes by improving the pacing and embracing its old-school charms. Image source: Geffen Playhouse.

And then there’s the problem of trying to update the story to the late 90s. Obviously, when Wait Until Dark debuted, it was presented with a contemporary setting. While it wasn’t uncommon for subsequent productions to keep it in the then-present, even by the 1970s some directors chose to make the play a period piece due to its sheer 60s-ness. The more successful 2003 London revival went all-out with groovy Swinging Sixties atmosphere and the 2013 Jeffrey Hatcher re-adaptation moves the story even farther back to the thick of World War II. Ironically, the Hatcher version does a great job modernizing the story by embracing the old-fashioned elements while also giving the play snappier pacing (and filling in some of the aforementioned plot holes).

The kind of deal audiences expect when Tarantino is involved.

Young joked that had Tarantino written Wait Until Dark, the play would be over in seconds because his Roat would just shove a gun in Susy’s mouth and demand the doll. While this was said in jest, it actually foreshadows a serious problem regarding audience expectations. When putting Quentin Tarantino, master of ultraviolent, postmodern cinema as a drug-dealing psychopath in your play, audiences drawn to the production by his presence alone likely had a certain idea of what to expect… and it wasn’t an old-fashioned mystery-thriller with only two on-stage killings.

The anonymous writer for the Harvard Crimson put it the best when s/he said:

“…Wait Until Dark is a period piece, a clever, understand brew of Hitchcockian suspense and late-’60s proto feminism. It hearkens back to the good old days, when drug dealers carried knives, not guns, and when West Side Story was still considered gritty.

Suddenly, in walks the chief avatar of the desensitized ’90s and POOF! the spell is broken. On press night, when Tarantino opened a closet door to reveal the body of one of his victims, some people actually laughed. And can you blame them? I mean, this is Quentin Tarantino! They were probably expecting him to kill her on-stage and toss off a twisted one-liner before her body hit the floor. They were probably expecting him to actually shoot heroin, not just talk about it.”

Exactly. If anything, the combination of Knott’s old school style and the hip 90s aesthetics probably just felt like a theatrical version of the “Hello fellow kids” meme.

Lights out

Al Hirschfeld’s caricature of the cast. Image source: Al Hirschfeld Foundation.

The best that can be said of the revival is that it did not permanently hurt anyone’s career. After the show closed, Tarantino began writing the script that would one day be Inglorious Basterds. Lang and Hernandez never returned to Broadway, but Lang’s seen plenty of cinematic success and Hernandez has recently appeared in shows like Tell Hector I Miss Him and Thunderbodies. Tomei and Foglia’s stage careers bounced back, and Parks went on to become a prolific audiobook narrator. About the only sour note is that this revival marked Knott’s last real involvement with the theater, a dismal note on which to end a largely successful playwriting career.

It’s easy for us with the benefit of hindsight to mock this revival’s creative decisions, but as cynical as most get about the motives of producers, you have to remember these people were not out to make a flop. Considering they thought an extended run was a major possibility, I’m going to surmise this revival was not intended to be a hit-and-run exploitation of a celebrity-mad public (at least, not exclusively an exploitation of a celebrity-mad public), but an honest attempt at a solid, crowd-pleasing potboiler. People forget how often great entertainment comes with an element of risk. Still, the unfortunate truth about risks is that they don’t always pay off. This revival is a textbook example.

I’ve got to give Tarantino this, he hasn’t let failure scare him away from future risk-taking. After The Hateful Eight premiered in 2015, Tarantino expressed interest in adapting the film for the Broadway stage and even said that he wanted to try directing plays once he bows out from filmmaking. After researching the Wait Until Dark saga of misery, I hope he does it. It would be nice to see him try again, the critics be damned.

Sources:

https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1995-10-26-1995299013-story.html

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/e-75032/

http://www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/9804/08/seinfeld.email/

https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1998/3/13/tarantino-acting-in-a-play-pin/

Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film by Peter Biskind

https://ew.com/article/1998/04/17/wait-until-dark/

https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/wait-until-dark-9129

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/quentin-tarantino-wait-until-dark-broadway-debut-violence-marisa-tomei-a9062366.html

The Kill Bill Diary by David Carradine

https://legacy.aintitcool.com/node/731

https://www.playbill.com/article/playbill-vaults-today-in-theatre-history-april-5-com-104873

https://www.playbill.com/article/quentin-tarantino-wants-the-hateful-eight-on-broadway-before-the-end-of-2016-com-375132

https://www.playbill.com/news/article/wait-until-dark-opens-to-audience-cheers-in-boston-73845

Quentin Tarantino FAQ: Everything to Know About the Original Reservoir Dog by Dale Sherman

Quentin Tarantino: Interviews, Revised and Updated edited by Gerald Peary

“Tarantino misses his Q” by Jack Kroll for Newsweek

http://tech.mit.edu/V118/N13/dwait.13a.html

https://variety.com/1996/film/reviews/dial-m-for-murder-3-1200444410/

“Wait Loss” by Carolyn Clay for The Boston Phoenix

“Wait Until Dark is No Thriller” by Linda Armstrong for New York Amsterdam News