‘Wait Until Dark’: Terence Young’s Terrifyingly Effective Suspense Thriller with Brilliant Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin

Frederick Knott, the esteemed English playwright, might have written only three plays in his career, but this means that two-thirds of his complete opus ended up in the classics category, in no small part due to successful and highly praised film adaptations. Dial M for Murder premiered at the Westminster Theatre in London in 1952, only for it to be made into an expert crime mystery thriller by Alfred Hitchcock two years later, while Wait Until Dark, another complex and dark play in the vein of Hitchcock’s interests directed by Arthur Penn (who would helm Bonnie and Clyde the very next year), saw the light of day in early 1966 on Broadway, where it instantly attracted the attention of both the audience and Warner Brothers, determined to turn it into a feature film starring none other than Hollywood’s sweetheart Audrey Hepburn in a much darker, insidious story than her filmography had ever witnessed. Warner Brothers soon acquired the rights to the play and, even though Lee Remick, the actress that starred in Penn’s play, did a marvelous job by all standards, it seems that Hepburn was the first and only choice for the lead role since the very beginning. Still remembering the nasty rumors that she had stolen the part of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady from Julie Andrews a couple of years prior, Hepburn urged Warner Bros. to announce the project early and make it clear to the public that Remick was never a potential choice for the lead role. Since Hepburn and her then-husband, producer Mel Ferrer, who joined her on the project, were good friends with English director Terence Young (the director of three of the first four James Bond movies), whom Hepburn had allegedly met more than two decades earlier while she treated him as a nurse in the Netherlands during the Second World War, they lobbied hard for him to get the gig, even though Jack Warner initially wanted Carol Reed in the director’s seat.

An ingeniously crafted suspenseful thriller telling a story of a blind woman (Hepburn) engaging in a battle of wits and psychological strength with a group of greedy, unscrupulous criminals (led by inspired Alan Arkin’s chief mastermind) determined to find a heroin-stuffed doll lying somewhere in the blind lady’s New York City apartment, Wait Until Dark premiered just before Halloween in 1967 to critical acclaim and box office success (17,5 million dollars earned on a 3-million-dollar budget), with Hepburn getting her fifth Best Actress in a Leading Role nomination, which she ultimately lost to Katharine Hepburn for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?. Frederick Knott and Arthur Penn’s play was very successful, ending its Broadway run only after a total of 374 performances, but it wouldn’t be unfair to argue Terence Young’s cinematic version reached even more impressive heights, as Wait Until Dark, the motion picture, is still loved and equally chilling even after exactly half a century of homages and plain imitations. Occasional, often discussed but still largely insignificant, plot glitch aside, Wait Until Dark remains a bright example of how to effectively build up tension and resolve a story in a nerve-wracking climax that compelled the audience to shriek consumed by total darkness. It’s rather interesting to note that Warner decided to market the film, much like Hitchcock would have probably done, by using a simple yet highly effective warning to all future audiences that the lights in the theaters would be toned down during the ending sequence, promising a fully immersive experience of pure horror. It might sound like a funny promotional tool, but be sure to know this must have had a profound influence on the more than satisfying box office results.

Wait Until Dark was adapted to film by screenwriters Robert and Jane-Howard Carrington and shot by the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Charles Lang (A Farewell to Arms, Sabrina, Some Like It Hot, How the West Was Won). One of the key aspects of this particular film was its unforgettable, haunting musical score, composed by Henry Mancini, the musician fondly remembered for his light pop and comedy compositions. Luckily for us, the composer of Moon River and the Pink Panther theme, just like Audrey Hepburn, wanted to do something entirely different at this stage of his career, and he sure did: the score of Wait Until Dark is constantly unsettling and occasionally terrifying. Besides Hepburn and her diabolical on-screen nemesis Arkin, the film features several great supporting roles from Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., and Jack Weston. But it’s Hepburn and Arkin’s dynamics that ultimately steal the show, with his flamboyant, never quite over the top performance as the embodiment of pure evil and her passionate, fully dedicated interpretation of a seemingly helpless woman in ultimate peril finding the inner strength to come out victorious in the end. To what lengths Hepburn went to do her job properly can be seen in the interesting fact she spent a lot of time training for the role of a blind woman at the Lighthouse for the Blind in New York, where she was accompanied by the director himself, who later claimed “Audrey was miles faster than [him],” “quickly able to find her way, blindfolded, around the Lighthouse rooms and corridors.”

The importance of Wait Until Dark lies on two different levels. First and foremost, it’s an incredibly effective thriller which can easily be called a horror film, more than suspenseful enough to keep you alarmed at all times, with one of the most compelling finales ever seen in cinema. Even the great Stephen King, the master of darkness, stated he considered this film to be the scariest movie of all time, additionally praising Alan Arkin’s role as perhaps “the greatest evocation of screen villainy ever.” Secondly, Wait Until Dark, the second film Audrey Hepburn shot in 1967 (after Two for the Road), was the last project she did before a decade-long pause. The semi-retirement, a decision which she reached perhaps encouraged by the emotional turmoil of her separation with Mel Ferrer the following year and a well-known, publicly-stated desire to spend more time with her family, lasted until 1976, when she made a come-back in Robin and Marian alongside Sean Connery. With all trivialities aside, for us, Wait Until Dark is one of the very best thrillers of the decade, and definitely among the top “Hitchcock without Hitchcock directing” movies of all time.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Robert Carrington & Jane-Howard Hammerstein’s screenplay for Wait Until Dark [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
Wait Until Dark is the best Hitchcock movie that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t direct. With a cast led by a cool brunette—Suzy Hendrix, played by Audrey Hepburn, who’d been tapped by Hitch to play just that type eight years earlier for his ill-fated No Bail for the Judge—the film is often mistakenly attributed to Hitch. Projecting his own pompousness on the director, critic Rex Reed huffed and puffed that “If Hitchcock could only laugh at himself, this is the movie he’d make.” It’s easy to see why. —Joel Gunz, Wait Until Dark: Audrey Hepburn’s Non-Hitchcock Hitchcock Film

The following is an excerpt from The Dissolve, written by Noel Murray, ‘The elegant, rare career of Audrey Hepburn.’

Audrey Hepburn stopped making movies right around the time the “New Hollywood” started gearing up, though not because she didn’t have any interest in the more daring kinds of films being made, and not because the younger generation of producers and directors didn’t want her. The dissolution of Hepburn’s marriage to Ferrer, and her subsequent re-marriage to Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti—with whom she had a second child, Luca—occupied her time at the end of the 1960s. She weighed every offer against whether she’d rather make that movie or be with her family, and each time, family won out. Her Wait Until Dark director Terence Young was quoted as saying of Hepburn’s decision-making process: “First of all you spend a year or so convincing her to accept even the principle that she might make another movie in her life. Then you have to persuade her to read a script. Then you have to make her understand that it is a good script. Then you have to persuade her that she will not be totally destroying her son’s life by spending six or eight weeks on a film set. After that, if you are really lucky, she might start talking about the costumes. More probably she’ll just say she has to get back to her family and cooking the pasta for dinner, but thank you for thinking of her.”

Hepburn’s official final film before entering semi-retirement was Wait Until Dark, Terence Young’s lean, nerve-racking adaptation of Frederick Knott’s popular stage play about a newly blind woman, Susy, trying to outwit a trio of drug-dealing thugs (played in the film by Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, and Jack Weston). Young keeps the action fairly stage-bound, setting almost the entire movie in Susy’s small basement apartment. But Hepburn does remarkable work in that tight, cluttered space—so remarkable that she earned her fifth and final Best Actress Oscar nomination. She plays Susy with a sympathetic mix of pluckiness and self-pity, and she lets the audience experience both Susy’s intelligence and her anxiety, as she figures out why and how her three dangerous visitors are lying to her. If Hepburn had a 1960s type, it was characters who’d already experienced a deep hurt, and had become skilled at sniffing out the garbage that men tried to foist on her. —Noel Murray, The elegant, rare career of Audrey Hepburn

 

TAKE A LOOK IN THE DARK

Take a Look in the Dark featurette: Alan Arkin and producer (and husband of Audrey Hepburn at the time of production) Mel Ferrer look back at the production of the film, working with Audrey, and the film’s response. It’s particularly great to hear Arkin’s thoughts on his performance as he loves and hates the role, loved playing a sleazy drug-addled maniac but hated tormented such a nice person like Hepburn on set. —High-Def Digest


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HENRY MANCINI

Henry Mancini was one of the most versatile talents in contemporary music. The Mancini name is synonymous with great motion picture and television music, fine recordings and international concert performances. During his lifetime, Mancini was nominated for 72 Grammy Awards, winning 20. He was nominated for 18 Academy Awards winning four, honored with a Golden Globe Award and nominated for two Emmy Awards. Mancini created many memorable film scores including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther, Days of Wine and Roses, Hatari!, Charade, Victor/Victoria, 10, Darling Lili, Arabesque, Wait Until Dark and The Glass Menagerie. Mancini recorded over 90 albums with styles varying from big band to jazz to classical to pop, eight of which were certified gold by The Recording Industry Association of America.


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CHARLES LANG

Charles Bryant Lang, Jr., A.S.C., one of Hollywood’s most famous cinematographers, labored long and hard in the Golden Age of Hollywood, receiving credit on more than 150 feature films. His style is most closely associated with his romantic black-and-white technique, awash with translucent light, which emerged in the 1930s with such films as A Farewell to Arms, Desire, and Angel. Yet, like all the cinematographers of his era, he worked on films from all genres, in all visual styles. Cinematographers, like all Hollywood employees during the 1930s and 1940s, were signed to long-term, binding contracts. Thus the bulk of their work was associated with one studio. Charles B. Lang toiled for Paramount Pictures from 1929 to 1951, almost the complete length of the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system. As such he fulfilled his promise as a cinematographer early on, since Paramount, then under the influence of Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg, was the home of great photographers of black-and-white cinema. But as required by changing studio personnel and dictates, Lang adapted to the harsher film noir style of the 1940s. The Big Heat, directed by Fritz Lang in 1953, remains one of the most important examples of the late film noir period. It creates a beauty in the American suburbs and contrasts the jagged edges of the changing American urbanscape. Finally there have been his color films. Here Lang moved outdoors to film such Westerns as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and One-Eyed Jacks. The quality of Lang’s work was recognized by his peers. He was among the most honored of Hollywood’s cameramen. As part of the Hollywood system from 1922 to 1973, Lang worked on many a mediocre film. But his name on the credits of any film usually guaranteed an interesting visual effort. His greatest work created a complexity of visual delight that students of film will continue to appreciate far off into the future. —IEC

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark. Photographed by Howell Conant & Bud Fraker © Warner Bros. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only. A special thanks to Josh Merritt.

 
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