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Shortly after Audrey Hepburn finished filming Two For the Road (1967) with Albert Finney, the actress was once again on the road - this time to California. The actress and her husband Mel Ferrer left their home in Switzerland in January 1967 to begin preparations on Wait Until Dark (1967). A thriller in the Hitchcock mode, Hepburn would star and Ferrer would produce the movie which was based on a stage play by Frederick Knott, author of Dial M for Murder (1954).
In the film, Hepburn plays Susy Hendrix, a woman recently blinded in an accident and still learning how to adapt. She is often home alone while her photographer husband, Sam (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.), travels from assignment to assignment. As Sam is returning from a business trip, he meets a woman in the airport who asks him to hold onto a doll for her. It turns out that the doll contains heroin and a man named Roat (Alan Arkin) is after it. Enlisting the aid of two con men (Richard Crenna and Jack Weston) to help him retrieve the drugs, Roat tries to insinuate himself into Susy's life after her husband departs on another trip. Together the three men concoct an elaborate scheme of deception in order to gain Susy's trust and locate the missing doll. Complicating the situation is the fact that Susy and Sam are unaware that a little girl in their apartment building had actually taken the doll. Eventually, Susy sees through Roat's scheme and realizes she is in grave danger. In the chilling climax, filmed mostly by the light of an open refrigerator, Susy is forced to fight for her life against a cunning psychopath.
Hepburn and Ferrer wanted Terence Young, director of the first three James Bond films, to helm Wait Until Dark, but studio executive Jack Warner was concerned about Young's tendency to go over budget on his films. Warner also had Sir Carol Reed in mind for director but, in the end, Young got the job. As for the casting, George C. Scott and Rod Steiger were initially offered the role of the main villain, Roat, but both actors turned down the unsympathetic part. Eventually the role went to Alan Arkin, who was better known for his stage work, although he had just received an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor for his film debut in The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!(1966).
In order to prepare for her role, Audrey Hepburn spent time training at the Lighthouse for the Blind in New York along with director Terence Young. According to Warren G. Harris in Audrey Hepburn: A Biography, "At the Lighthouse, Audrey and Young had to wear black shields over their eyes until they became acclimated to what it was like in the world of the visually impaired. Bit by bit, Audrey learned how to depend on hearing and touch rather than sight. She took lessons in Braille and how to walk with a stick. She became adept at applying makeup and fixing her hair without help from a mirror." Young admitted that "Audrey was miles faster than I. She was quickly able to find her way, blindfolded, around the Lighthouse rooms and corridors....when it was my turn, every natural disaster took place."
For filming, Jack Warner insisted Hepburn wear contact lenses because he thought her eyes were too expressive for a blind person. The actress refused, saying she could convey blindness without them plus the contacts were extremely uncomfortable to wear. Unfortunately, Warner had the final word and Hepburn was forced to comply. Despite her physical discomfort in the role, she impressed her peers with her professionalism. Young stated, "I ran picture after picture to see previous attempts of other actors playing blind and I never saw anybody nearly as good. She was able to focus in the far distance, and to keep the focus so that even if she was talking to someone very near, her eyes would not refocus on that person." Co-star Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. also admired Hepburn, "That performance is so extraordinarily authentic. Working with her was heaven, even though she was going through hell with Mel."
Indeed, Audrey Hepburn and husband Mel Ferrer were going through a difficult time in their marriage prior to filming Wait Until Dark. The situation got worse with the added pressures of filming such an emotionally demanding picture. The couple had one son, but Hepburn wanted more children and to cut back on her filmmaking. According to Warren G. Harris in Audrey Hepburn: A Biography, "Mel╒s career had become so entwined with hers that if she cut back, he might find it hard getting work on his own." While filming in New York and California, the couple left their son at home in Switzerland with his grandmother. Hepburn missed him so much that she ran up hundred-dollar-a-day phone bills just to hear the sound of his voice. Hepburn and Ferrer officially separated later that year and divorced the following year. Audrey Hepburn did not make another film for almost a decade until Robin and Marian (1976).
When Mel Ferrer and Terence Young showed the film to Jack Warner, he liked everything except the climactic scene between Hepburn and Arkin in the dark apartment. Warner decided to test the film at a sneak-preview to see how audiences would react to it. According to Harris, "During the showing at a 900-seat theater in Glendale, the disputed scene left the capacity crowd gasping and shrieking with fright, so Warner gave it his blessing."
Although Audrey Hepburn gave strong performances in both Two for the Road and Wait Until Dark, she received the Academy Award nomination for Wait Until Dark that year. She was up against Faye Dunaway for Bonnie and Clyde and Anne Bancroft for The Graduate. But the award went to another Hepburn - Katharine - for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
Director: Terence Young
Producer: Mel Ferrer
Screenplay: Robert and Jane Howard-Carrington. Based on a play by Frederick Knott
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Art Direction: George Jenkins
Music: Henry Mancini
Cast: Audrey Hepburn (Susy Hendrix), Alan Arkin (Roat), Richard Crenna (Mike Talman), Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (Sam Hendrix), Jack Weston (Carlino), Julie Herrod (Gloria).
C-108m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Deborah L. Johnson