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During the final moments of Wait Until Dark, the seemingly dead villain jumps out from the shadows and, brandishing a knife, tries to dig the blade into a young, defenceless woman. The twist, however, is that the girl is blind and has been attempting to fend off her attacker all evening and, in a moment of inspiration, decides to smash all of the bulbs in her apartment so that neither can rely on sight. But her best laid plan starts to unravel as she forgets that she has left the refrigerator door wide open and that light is still shining across the room, making her visible to the injured-yet-determined psychopath who is hellbent on killing her. It is this tense sequence that caused the original Broadway production to become an overnight sensation and would ultimately lead movie star Audrey Hepburn to her fifth Academy Award nomination in the subsequent big screen adaptation.
Wait Until Dark was the third thriller to be penned by Frederick Knott, whose first play, Dial M for Murder, had been adapted into an acclaimed 3D movie by legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. While his second effort Write Me a Murder failed to generate much interest, his third and final production became an unexpected hit when it debuted on Broadway. The original production starred Lee Remick (best known for her starring role in The Omen) as Susy Hendrix, a recently blinded young woman who is left alone in her Greenwich Village apartment while her photographer husband is away on business. She is visited by a charming stranger (played by Mitchell Ryan) who claims to be a friend of her husband, while a crooked cop and a dangerous criminal attempt to manipulate her into handing over a doll filled with drugs that they are convinced she is hiding.
In the role of Harry Roat, a psychopath and master of disguise, was Robert Duvall, who is now best known to cinema audiences for his memorable performances in The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Aside from Susy, Roat was the most complex and important character in the play, as he is not only a threat to the story’s blind protagonist but also his own accomplices, as he will literally stop at nothing to obtain the narcotics. Both Remick and Duvall would gain rave reviews for their performances. ‘I remember one rehearsal, Mitch Ryan just stopped in the middle of the line and said to him, ‘You are a fucking genius!’ He just couldn’t believe what Bobby was doing,’ director Arthur Penn told author Nat Segaloff in the 2011 book Arthur Penn: American Director. When Duvall eventually stepped down from the production, the role of Roat went to James Tolkan, who would enjoy modest success during the 1980s as Principal Strickland in the blockbuster Back to the Future.
The play was an immediate success and soon made its way to London, where Honor Blackman took on the role of Susy, while Peter Sallis (Wallace and Gromit) portrayed Roat. As with the New York production, the lights in the theatre would go out during the final few minutes of the play, as Susy breaks all of the bulbs and tries to hide from her pursuer. This was always the key scene of the show; if everyone hit their mark and the audience reacted as the producers anticipated then the evening would be a success. ‘We weren’t allowed to turn off the exit lights over the doors altogether, but we were allowed to turn them down so that there was the absolute minimum amount of light,’ stated Sallis in his autobiography Fading into the Limelight. ‘If we got the scream, we knew we’d got the audience and on the first night in London we did get the scream and we did get the audience, and we got the notices and we were a hit.’
With Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder having become a noted success and the Wait Until Dark play still gaining acclaim on Broadway, it hardly came as a surprise when Warner Bros. announced that they intended on adapting the show into a feature film. The driving force behind this decision was Mel Ferrer, a fledging actor on the stage and screen who, by the mid-1960s, had become more known as the husband of Audrey Hepburn than for his own work. Regardless, Ferrer had already enjoyed success in his own right by the time he first met Hepburn in 1953, when the promising young actress was enjoying her first taste of fame with a starring role in a production of Gigi. The two soon fell in love and shared the stage together in Ondine, and also co-starred in a mediocre adaptation of War and Peace, but while Ferrer’s career was showing signs of struggling, Hepburn was giving Academy Award-nominated performances in Sabrina and The Nun’s Story.
In 1959, Ferrer directed his wife in the disappointing fantasy Green Mansions, in which Anthony Perkins played a loner who finds himself in a mystical forest where a young feral woman (Hepburn) and her crazed father hide from the world. Although she had appeared in musicals, westerns and dramas, it was the Cinderella-like tale of a girl who falls in love while dreaming of a more glamorous life that she would become typecast with. Often playing alongside older men, Hepburn wowed audiences in such charming romantic pictures as Roman Holiday, Funny Face and My Fair Lady, but with Wait Until Dark Ferrer felt that he had found the ideal vehicle to provide his wife with a new challenge. ‘I thought if she played something as demanding and as difficult as a blind woman who was terrorised by three real monsters and who finds a way to save herself, turns the tables on the worst of the three, that would establish her as a pretty good actress,’ he said in the documentary A Look in the Dark.
While she had appeared in the lighthearted thrillers Charade and How to Steal a Million, Hepburn had avoided tackling material that was too disturbing. For a time she had been attached to a project entitled No Bail for the Judge, a London-set drama that was to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, whose recent classics had included Rear Window and Vertigo. An adaptation of a novel by Henry Cecil, the story told of a judge who is accused of murder, forcing his daughter to launch her own investigation. The script, which was a collaboration between Samuel Taylor and the director, featured a sequence not included in the original novel, in which Hepburn’s character was to become the victim of a sexual assault in Hyde Park. The actress, who had recently suffered a miscarriage due to an accident while filming The Unforgiven for John Huston, was horrified at the scene and eventually backed out of the project. Despite resenting the young star, Hitchcock instead directed his seminal masterpiece Psycho, while Hepburn took the lead role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Wait Until Dark was the type of play that lent itself to a big screen adaptation. Its isolated location and small cast would not only help to generate tension but would also keep the budget to a relative minimum. The screenplay, from husband-and-wife team Robert and Jane-Howard Carrington, would include a prologue in which photographer Sam Hendrix returns home from Montreal and is suspiciously handed a doll by a young woman at the airport when she realises that she is being followed. These scenes served as an introduction to Sam, while also providing a backstory for the young female courier whose body is found in Sam and Susy’s apartment later in the story. The doll that Sam is given is the same one that Roat and his accomplices are convinced that Susy is hiding and this provides the catalyst for the terror that they begin to inflict upon her.
To prepare for the role, Hepburn researched extensively on how to cope with day-to-day life without the aid of sight, first by visiting the Streif Clinic for the Blind in Lausanne, Switzerland and then by undergoing training at the Lighthouse in New York, where she was taught to guide herself around a room with a walking stick while blindfolded and how to read Braille. ‘My job was to make the character believable without theatricality, so that people seeing the picture would accept me for something they knew I am not,’ explained Hepburn during the promotion of the movie. With regard to learning how to navigate while blindfolded she added, ‘It was terrifying. But I soon learned the importance of sound and echoes and the need for being methodical. For example, to find a dropped object, you move your hand in ever-widening circles until the object is contacted on the floor. Then, I was told to make coffee and to prepare a sandwich. Simple things – no, not to the sightless. But you learn.’
While the movie relied on Hepburn’s convincing performance, another key element to its success would be the casting of Roat. Both Duvall and Tolkan had impressed audiences on Broadway and the producers knew that if the character were the make a successful transition to the big screen then they would require an actor with equal talent. By the time he was cast in Wait Until Dark, thirty-two-year-old Alan Arkin had already received an Academy Award nomination for his performance in the Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, while also making a name for himself on both stage and television. ‘I had a plan for this guy and that was that he gets unleashed the first time he pulls a knife on somebody. Which was weeks into the shooting of the film,’ Arkin revealed in A Look in the Dark. ‘I was playing him with what looked like him being a laid back guy, but he wasn’t laid back. Like a snake being laid back, it’s just waiting for an opportunity. He was on every conceivable drug known to man and they were all kind of counteracting each other, so he was in a state of negative neutrality.
Roat is a manipulator and essentially pulls the strings throughout the story, making his two accomplices obey his every command. When petty crook Mike and unscrupulous cop Carlino are hired by Roat to help find the doll, they soon realise that they are dealing with a dangerous and untrustworthy individual. Arriving at the empty home of Susy and Sam, Roat explains his proposition to the pair of criminals, but when Mike stumbles upon the corpse of the courier they discover that they have no choice but to accept his offer. Events become even more unusual when Susy returns home and the villains realise that she is blind, which makes her easy prey. Providing they remain silent and at a distance then she is unaware of their presence as they watch over her, hoping to find some clue as to the whereabouts of the doll.
Arriving unannounced at Susy’s home, Mike pretends to be a friend of Sam’s and manages to calm her nerves when she smells smoke in her apartment. While Roat and Carlino will serve other purposes in their master plan, it is Mike’s responsibility to strike up a friendship with the young woman and find a way to seduce the doll from her. Los Angeles-born Richard Crenna took the role of Mike, the most charming and sympathetic of the three antagonists. Crenna, who will forever be known for his role as Colonel Trautman in the Rambo movies, first started out on the radio show Our Miss Brooks and its subsequent television adaptation. Playing his sidekick, Carlino, was Jack Weston, who had performed in USO shows during the Second World War and had struggled through the New York theatre scene during the 1950s, before making his movie debut a few years later in the Doris Day comedy Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.
With Arthur Penn having directed the original Broadway production and Anthony Sharp adapting it for British audiences, Warner Bros. would require the talents of an experienced filmmaker to capture the same kind of tension and excitement as the stage shows. At first the studio was eager to hire Carol Reed, the legendary director of such classics as It Happened in Paris, Night Train to Munich and The Third Man, but instead Ferrer insisted on Terence Young, best known for his work on the first two James Bond pictures. Wait Until Dark would reunite Young and Hepburn after over twenty years, as the two had originally met during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. In September 1944, the British military, under the command of Field Marshal Montgomery, launched an ambitious mission called Operation Market Garden, in which Allied forces attempted to seize control of several bridges along the Rhine in an effort to break through Nazi defences. The mission was a failure and the British army and their allies suffered heavy casualties.
Having survived the massacre, Young spent time in a hospital in the city of Arnhem recovering from his wounds, where he was nursed by a fifteen-year-old Hepburn, who had been moved to the Netherlands from London by her mother, believing that they would safe hiding in a neutral country. A year after the Second World War finally came to an end, Young returned to Arnhem to shoot a pseudo documentary entitled Theirs is the Glory, which was soon followed by two fictitious war movies, They Were Not Divided and The Red Beret. He eventually turned to more commercial projects such as Too Hot to Handle, starring Jayne Mansfield, but it would be with 1962’s Dr. No, the first adaptation of Ian Fleming secret agent James Bond, that he would cement his reputation as a stylish and exciting filmmaker.
Young wisely kept his direction to a minimum, allowing the characters to develop with few distractions. Over the years, Hepburn has received praise for her positive portrayal of the blind protagonist, not merely reducing her to a helpless victim but instead showing her as intelligent and resourceful. Released just two years after A Patch of Blue, in which a blind white woman fell in love with an African American, Wait Until Dark has been hailed for allowing blindness to become the story’s focal point. In their book Coping With Vision Loss: Understanding the Psychological, Social and Spiritual Effects, authors Cheri Colby Langdell and Tim Langdell noted that, ‘Here the blind leading lady is courageous, firm and strong, until she finally shows fear in the last act of the play: she acts contrary to stereotype since she is everything one does not expect a blind woman to be – resourceful, independent, brave in the face of unrelenting intimidation.’
Roat, on the other hand, is a double-crossing, malicious and psychotic creep whose interest is purely business and has no value for the lives of those around him. This character would be a change of pace for Arkin but it was a challenge that he was more than capable of rising to. ‘I think playing a heavy is liberating if you have a lot of rage and negativity that you want to expiate and are afraid to do in your own life. I have my problems like everybody does, but I don’t think that’s one of them. It wasn’t liberating for me. In fact, I don’t think anybody was terribly happy with what I was doing for a long time,’ he confessed with regards to playing the villain of the piece. Indeed, he has also expressed his distaste for how he was forced to treat his co-star during filming; ‘Most of all I hated terrorising Audrey Hepburn. I was nuts about her, I was crazy about her.’
While Arkin’s scene-stealing performance followed in the footsteps of Duvall and Tolkan, in 1998 acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino took on the role in a revival of the show, starring alongside Marisa Tomei in a production that received unanimous hostility from the critics, with the New York Times stating that he ‘seems to be not so much acting as just hanging out.’ But Arkin, meanwhile, chewed the scenery to perfection and during the final reel, as Susy is finally forced to stand up against her attacker, both stars are able to hold their own. Not all critics appreciated Arkin’s portrayal of the killer though, as Roger Ebert in his Chicago Sun-Times review dismissed his ‘exaggerated performance,’ as well as adding, ‘I don’t think Audrey Hepburn should have gotten an Academy nomination for her performance (she was much better in Two for the Road), but I don’t want to quibble.’
A common criticism among modern critics regarding Wait Until Dark is that, in an era of controversial pictures like Midnight Cowboy and The Graduate, the movie played it too safe. The 1960s marked something of a transition for the American film industry, with the Production Code (perhaps more commonly known as the Hays Code), that had been in effect since the early 1930s, being replaced with a more lenient rating system. The stars that had dazzled Hollywood during the 1950s, such as Cary Grant, James Stewart and Audrey Hepburn, found that by the end of the 1960s a new generation of actors were the toast of Hollywood. While it featured the same ‘jump’ as the original play, Wait Until Dark was notably restrained when it came to profanity, violence and nudity, something that modern audiences had grown accustomed to.
Despite its shortcomings, such as the numerous plot holes littered throughout the movie (why does she never try to phone the police when she gets chance?), Wait Until Dark remains a tense and well-made film that drew strong performances from its stars, most notably Hepburn. Despite her fifth Academy Award nomination, Hepburn chose to put her career on hold following its release, not returning to the big screen until Robin and Marion eight years later. Ferrer has nothing but praise for his star and former wife; ‘I’m very proud of the picture and I’m very proud of Audrey in it, I think she does a beautiful job. In fact, all the actors are good, but Audrey is just that little bit better.’
Previously published in Paracinema no.17.