Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: put three people in a dark house with a murderous blind villain who uses his physical disadvantage as a weapon against his victims, and you have Don't Breathe. Flip that around to have a blind protagonist trying to outwit the killers, and you find our present subject.

Absent anything else we might have to say about the 1967 film Wait Until Dark, adapted from Frederick Knott's 1966 play - and that is a considerable amount, given that it's one of the greatest movie thrillers of its generation - my first question is this: what on earth goes through Audrey Hepburn's mind when she's asked to appear in this movie? You have here a woman whose screen persona is completely built around her classy Continental elegance, whose personal life was marked by serious-minded humanitarianism, and you drop her into a horror-thriller about a heroin dealer antagonising a blind woman - it all seems so incomprehensible that Hepburn's seventeenth starring role should be such a grubby, grotty turn from all of the princesses and doe-eyed gamines and society women preceding it, even granting that she'd started acting in more genre-ish films in the '60s (though as crime thrillers go, Charade and How to Steal a Million are pretty fizzy and lighthearted romantic capers - and I love them both very much, let's be clear about that). But hey, it works - there's a lot that's inherently great in Wait Until Dark, but there's a lot that's specifically great because of Hepburn's performance, which I think shows off perhaps the best technique of her entire career (though as far character-building, I'd put it behind The Nun's Story). It's a weird capstone to her career - she made four more filmed appearance stretched across the remaining 26 years of her life - but a damned impressive one.

But let us set aside Hepburn for the moment. The film is already firing on all cylinders long before she appears (a quarter of the way into the 108-minute film); it's started putting in a claim to being a top-shelf thriller before it has more than the hint of a plot or any character who will still be alive past the 20-minute mark. There is something already immaculate and dreadful about the way the very opening scene is cut, starting on close-ups too narrow to be particularly useful in explaining what the hell we're looking at, and slowly spiraling back with a steady, slightly over-quick rhythm that becomes increasingly chest-tightening in its refusal to let us find our feet. Meanwhile, the two characters we see, Lisa (Samantha Jones) and old Louis (Jean Del Val) engaging in clipped dialogue that does a great deal to place the film within an attitude before it clarifies that they're doctoring a fancy doll to smuggle heroin from Canada into the United States. And that attitude is kind of my favorite thing about the first half of Wait Until Dark: it's a film dominated by criminal hipsters, using a kind of free-standing slang and chilly smugness that feel a little bit like some nihilistic fantasia on beatniks. Lisa is our first embodiment of this nasty-minded sensibility, and even in her brief appearance, she sets the film off on an evocative note that lingers and echoes.

And even then, the film still isn't done introducing itself in a thoroughly rattling way. After the dirty naturalism of the opening sequence, the film kicks off its credit sequence, blocky sans-serif fonts that somehow make the images even uglier - it's enormously dated (I'm pretty sure that just looking at the film's main title card, it would be possible to accurately date its release to within nine months), but I think in a good way; that moment of urban squalor crime in the late '60s and early '70s is like nothing else, and even though Wait Until Dark spends most of its running time as a single-set stage adaptation - one that never feels like filmed theater, to its credit - opening the way it does positions it within a more harshly contemporary tradition than you'd expect from a 1960s movie derived from a Tony-nominated play. Even better - and arguably, even more '60s - is the brilliant musical cue accompanying the credits, one of the best achievements in the career of Henry Mancini. It is, by Mancini standards, experimental in nature: carried primarily on two pianos tuned just slightly apart, so that the sound of the music hits our ear in a way that feels terribly wrong in ways that can't be readily described (supposedly, one of the pianists even complained of feeling ill), and matches well with the melody's steady refusal to resolve in any way; it's a grim-sounding piece that sets up the film's tone well, even if much of Mancini's score in the middle falls short of this wonderful sonic assault. There are some tepidly twinkling moments in the score when Hepburn and a little girl (Julie Herrod) interact; thankfully, the final half-hour gets fully back on track.

So anyway, with the table all set, the film can properly begin. It's at heart an early variation on a home-invasion thriller, with a little bit of a crime caper element to the first half, as we attend more to the criminals than to their prey: Lisa handed off her doll to an unsuspecting dope named Sam Hendrix (Efram Zimbalist, Jr.), who brought it back to his brownstone, and then lost it. So Lisa's accomplice, whose name might very well be Harry Roat (Alan Arkin), scrounges up a pair of low-rent con-men with ties to Lisa, ex-cop Carlino (Jack Weston) and Mike Talman (Richard Crenna), to help find it in the Hendrixes' apartment. They don't. They do find Lisa's body hanging in a garment bag, right where Roat wanted them to, after leaving finger prints over every available surface. With two pliable patsies in his back pocket, Roat can then turn to the main game of the film, launching an elaborate con against Sam's new wife Susy (Hepburn), who met him about a year ago, right after losing her sight in a car accident.

The rest of the film plays out as a series of grabby moments of tension, starting with Susy being confident that somebody might be hanging around in her apartment, but unable to flush them out, and then progressing through to her terrible decision to trust Mike, who has presented himself as an old war buddy of Sam's, and thereby leak all of her suspicions about the untrustworthy cop played by Carlino, or the strange old man and his son played by Roat. I will not spoil it any more: it's all very twisty and mechanically elegant, as screenwriters Robert Carrington & Jane-Howard Carrington lay it out. The film has been coming under fire since 1967 that it doesn't really make a damn bit of sense that Susy continues to play dumb about the doll once she figures out where it's hiding, but that strikes me as uncharitable: by that point, she knows damn well that whatever the men want, it's not any good, and part of the depth that Wait Until Dark affords itself is to sketch out a simple but persuasive image of Susy as a steel-willed badass, which is part of where casting Hepburn pays off so well. It's simultaneously shocking to watch someone whose most iconic roles tend towards the demure and gracious playing someone as tough-fibered as this, but at the same time, there's a degree of moral determination that creeps into Hepburn's performances that make it entirely believable that Susy would be the kind of person to do the right thing out of pure stubbornness, even if she's not sure what in particular is right about it.

It's hard to imagine all of this being much tighter: Terence Young, certainly known best then and now for directing three of the first four James Bond pictures and providing the spy with his sense of worldly materialism, shifts gears with tremendous success to create something with impeccable timing to grate more and and more on the viewer's nerves as it goes along, manipulating camera angles to shape our perspective in ways that let us see just enough to be enormously nervous about Susy's immediate danger, and thus delighted when she proves resourceful enough to surpass each new little wrinkle. Beyond which, he and cinematographer Charles Lang use low-lighting in some exceptionally creative ways to slowly restrict our perspective to complement, Susy's own. And all of this makes the film a great exercise in sustained and rising tension even without reference to the film's famous climax, which of course is what makes everybody from Stephen King on down quiver with terrified joy and has for over 40 years now; it's astonishing just how well the ending holds up, in fact, given that one of its best moments - a really nicely timed jump scare (with a literal jump involved) - is an idiot clichΓ©, and the chief reason it's celebrated is a pure gimmick. Which I will not spoil for those who haven't seen it, other than to recommend watching Wait Until Dark in the darkest room you are able to arrange. But it's outstanding, genre-defining stuff, with amazing horror-movie lighting and a merciless sense of pacing how it doles out the moments that really punch the viewer in the gut.

If that's all there was to it, Wait Until Dark would still have my enthusiastic recommendation, but that's not even the best thing about it: it has, in the form of Hepburn and Arkin, two of the very best performances in the genre's history. Arkin, for his part, plays a strange, campy menace, allowing Roat to be a cringing coward when necessary and generally acting more like a bored asshole than a potential killer, but that's part of what makes him so damn good. He feels wrong, like he doesn't belong in this film or this universe, like a reptile in human skin. Even the most perfunctory, drawn-out expository dialogue snaps to life with Arkin's whiny, upbeat, hissing delivery, and his fixed, deeply unsettling smile. It's one of the great performances of a movie sociopath on the books: amused to be cruel for the sake of it, even scarier in happiness than in anger. And Arkin does it all with the limitation of having his eyes hidden by dark glasses for most of the movie (a neat little unstressed detail: he's wandering about dressed like a parody of a blind person).

Hepburn is even better: the script helps her out, given how nicely it layers in suggestions about the Hendrixes' marriage without stating much of anything outright, and letting Hepburn and Zimbalist play with those suggestions however they see fit. The result is one of the most natural, organic characters she ever played, with the same low-key intimacy that she got to explore in The Nun's Story or fellow 1967 release Two for the Road, and not much else. This extends to her portrayal of Susy's blindness, which is perhaps almost entirely mechanical in its expression - if there's a limit to Hepburn's performance, is that I'm not entirely sure what she thinks about being blind, outside of the annoyed pride with which she delivers such a telling line of dialogue as "I was the best in blind school today", and she never approaches the subject when the screenplay doesn't command her to - but the mechanics are superb. She's about as good as anyone ever has been at staring at nothing without, like, staring at nothing; it really does feel, to a degree it virtually never does when actors are playing characters who can't see, like her eyes simply aren't a sensory organ anymore. And she very carefully weaves in just the right amount of unsteadiness into Susy's movement, even something as simple as reaching out to touch an object: it's not broad pantomime of blindness, and it's not the effortless confidence of someone who has full use of all their faculties and senses other than vision, as in for example A Patch of Blue from just a couple of years earlier. Susy is still learning how to get along, and even if she's most of the way there - enough to be able to tell that two ostensibly different men are wearing the same shoes, for example - it's possible to tell in Hepburn's alert stiffness how the character is still very aware of controlling her body rather than just inhabiting it. It's a performance that perfectly hits the golden spot between vulnerability and resourcefulness - we're always aware that Susy can survive this experience, but it's frequently not clear that she's as aware of it as we are, which is a much more interesting way to present the protagonist of a thriller than just "helpless blind lady with nothing but her wits". I would go so far as to say that Hepburn's blend of weakness and fortitude is the key ingredient to everything else in Wait Until Dark, providing exactly the correct note of nervous ambivalence that makes this such a superlative, viscerally effective thriller.