Column: Slicing Score: Wait Until Dark (1967)

By Maria Mitchell

Wait Until Dark (1967). Composer: Henry Mancini.

Blindness in Wait Until Dark was a handicap that the main character had to adapt to after having known sight. A soundtrack that accompanies blindness should epitomize blindness. The soundtrack to this film is one in which suspense creates a sound that is not only dark but kinetic and frightening, because it implies incessant motion without direction, guidance, or order. It sounds like chaos. It sounds dark restlessness and implies blindness well. Henry Mancini had written music for numerous films before Wait Until Dark and sometimes wrote songs included on the soundtracks to summate the themes of the film and its music. The song Wait Until Dark isn’t heard until the end credits, and this is fitting because its mellow romanticism would not have complimented the suspense of the film score.  It would have deadened the dread.

The short story “Dread”, by Clive Barker details one man’s need to observe dread in others in order to cure himself of his own fear. A film like Wait Until Dark, and most suspense and horror films, executes much the same service for its audience. It creates a panorama of something that most people wish would never happen to them. The score is what makes this panorama complete by heightening the sense of something near you that you cannot see.

Except for the warm reception of Audrey Hepburn’s performance, Wait Until Dark was not a critical success when first released and the complete soundtrack was not released until well after the film’s debut. Most of Mancini’s admirers of the day appeared not to mind, since this music wasn’t much like most of the music that Mancini built his career upon. He and Hepburn had collaborated on four films. Breakfast at Tiffany’s soundtrack was wildly popular and was the soundtrack that crystallized a big section of his career in the public’s collective consciousness. While the similarities between the two soundtracks are scant, they are present. Dark’s music is frightening, but under the suspenseful atmosphere is the impression of subdued-but-persistent bravery that can be heard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The characters Hepburn plays in both films have a similar handicap that is expressed in completely different circumstances: They both cannot see what it is they need to see. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not a suspense film, but it deals with a kind of blindness: A woman does not see herself and does not identify with herself. She feels this way about the people and animals connected with her, and she opts not to name her pet, preferring to call him just “Cat”.

Mancini had knowledge of both characters and was able to transpose much of the vulnerability of Tiffany’s score to Dark. It is that vulnerability that makes its sound more menacing. Music creating a feeling isn’t anything new in film music. Most film music opts to be dramatic. Sometimes, the dramatic nature of a score is more flat than scary but not in the case of Dark. Virtually the only thing not frightening about it is the aforementioned end title song, which sounds like it was tacked on mostly to make the soundtrack have a shot at appealing to a wider audience. This was a move that did not work. Tacking a pop song onto a suspenseful film soundtrack is a risky move. It didn’t do The Omen too many favors. It negates much of the fear. While I’m not suggesting anyone should skip the song, I am suggesting that, in order to experience the unvarnished, imaginary fear of Wait Until Dark’s score, it is best to save the relaxing finale to brighten a day rife with actual fear.

Wait Until Darks soundtrack is available through Amazon.com.