Experiment in Terror

The common consensus holds that classic film noir came to an end with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Some argue it lasted a little longer, but it’s pretty much universally accepted that the movement was essentially defunct in the 60s. However, film styles rarely have rigidly defined start or stop points; the nature of filmmaking is too fluid for that, and this is especially true of something as nebulous as film noir. So, even if the new decade saw the emphasis shift and other sensibilities start to take hold, there was still some residue of the old noir influence at play. Blake Edwards’ Experiment in Terror (1962) pointed towards the way the thriller movie was to evolve in the coming years yet it still bore some of the hallmarks of the works that preceded it – a dangerous urban environment, a dour and downbeat mood, and ample use of striking, high contrast photography. I’ve always been fascinated by transitional cinema, those pieces which seem to straddle eras, and I enjoy seeing how different styles and movements merge, blend and grow. As such, I think Edwards’ film is an interesting example of the phenomenon.

A nighttime view of San Francisco accompanied by Henry Mancini’s cool and slightly menacing score opens the movie. Gradually the camera tracks in and focuses on one car and its driver; Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick), a teller in a downtown bank, is making her way home to the suburbs – as it happens, my friend and fellow blogger Michael has just posted a piece on that very opening here on his site It Rains…You Get Wet, and you can check out his full review of the film here. To borrow his words: “…the high contrast images of traffic as lights dancing in the nightfall, beside the luminosity in the landscape of the city by the bay, established its film noir bona fides through pure dark imagery”. As she pulls into her garage a series of quick cuts and close-ups make it clear that something is not quite right. Kelly senses danger and, sure enough, a figure emerges from the shadows to grab the terrified girl and set her nightmare in motion. The intruder’s face is never fully visible but his rasping, asthmatic voice breathes his plans into his captive’s ear. Kelly’s job places her in a somewhat unique position – she has access to money, a lot of it, and  there’s nothing to stop her stashing away a tidy sum and simply walking off with it. And that’s exactly what her assailant wants; Kelly will leave her job with $100,000 in her purse and bring it to him. In return, he promises to cut her in for 20% of the takings, and his generosity even extends to letting her and her kid sister live. As this sinister figure melts back into the night, Kelly slowly starts to regain her senses after the initial trauma. She puts a call through to the FBI and gets connected to an agent, Ripley (Glenn Ford), before the connection’s broken and the wheezing mystery man, pinning her helplessly to the floor, makes it clear that the consequences of any further contact with the authorities will be most unpleasant. However, the Feds are no fools, and once that initial contact has been made it’s only a matter of time before they manage to track its source. Kelly now finds herself in the unenviable position of acting as both bait for the G-men and the stooge for her unseen intruder. What follows is a cat and mouse game with Ripley and his agents lurking the background hoping to use Kelly to draw the would-be bank robber into the open. Kelly’s taking one silkily threatening call after another and relaying them to the FBI, while they in turn are racing against time in an effort to identify and locate the suspect. The first part, the identification, proves reasonably easy – it’s a guy by the name of Red Lynch (Ross Martin) – but tracking him down is another matter entirely. The suspense builds slowly and inexorably as the pressure on Kelly mounts and Ripley’s men scour San Francisco for the whereabouts of Lynch. The tale powers its way along towards a memorable finale at a thronged baseball game at Candlestick Park.

Blake Edwards is arguably most famous for his comedic films, and the bulk of his work as a director lies in that area. Even though he created the iconic TV show Peter Gunn, I don’t believe many people associate him with crime stories. Regardless of that, Experiment in Terror offers strong and convincing evidence that he was more than capable of handling dark, suspenseful movies. The opening scenes of the film pitch the viewer straight into an edgy and unpredictable world where danger seems to lurk in even the most innocuous settings. I think there’s always something very effective about films which highlight the fact that characters can never feel genuinely secure even in their own homes. Here, Kelly Sherwood finds herself under virtual siege, and the proximity of FBI watchers does little to assuage the suspicions of the character, or the viewer, that Red Lynch can get to her any time he pleases. Edwards made great use of real San Francisco locations to help ground the movie but the interior work particularly stands out. There’s a palpable sense of menace throughout, but there are also moments that go beyond that and become positively creepy. I’m thinking mostly of the scenes in the apartment of one of Lynch’s girlfriends – a maker of mannequins whose home is more a chamber of horrors with dummy body parts and impassive visages literally stacked to the rafters. While I guess these scenes could be viewed as a stylistic indulgence that don’t do much to further the plot, they add a lot to the atmosphere of unease. Visually, the film is impressive from first to last and I feel that it’s only a few lapses in the writing that let it down somewhat. I’m referring here to characterization of the villain; Lynch is clearly a bad man, a felon with a long and varied record. Yet, the introduction of a young Asian woman and her son suggests there’s more depth here, another layer to Lynch that’s neither fully explored nor explained. Perhaps the novel from which the film was adapted went further into this aspect but, never having read it, I’m not able comment one way or the other.

Although Glenn Ford gets top billing in this one his is honestly more of a supporting role. He’d started to take on a middle-aged appearance by this time and brought a certain gravitas to the part of Ripley. Movies where menace and hysteria simmer just below the surface need a figure of stability to prevent everything from flying off into melodramatic territory. That’s essentially the function of Ford in Experiment in Terror, and he’s fine as that strong point of reference at the heart of it all. The two most significant roles are those of Lee Remick and Ross Martin, with the former having to do the lion’s share of the work and carry the film for long stretches. Remick didn’t always get the chance to show what she was capable of as an actress and sometimes found herself cast in indifferent roles. Experiment in Terror placed her front and centre though and gave her a meatier part. Rather than going for the easy option and playing it as a stereotypical damsel in distress, Remick brings a lot of welcome resilience to her character. By doing so, she gives a bit more punch to those scenes where she’s in real danger and fearing for her life. Ross Martin’s villain is excellent too, he looks the part and has just the right sinister air about him. Edwards’ decision to shoot his early scenes in a way that concealed his identity works very well and, although the script would have required a major revision to facilitate it, it’s a pity the faceless nature of Lynch couldn’t have been sustained for longer. There’s good support from a very young Stefanie Powers as Remick’s kid sister, one of the main levers Lynch uses to ensure compliance with his plans, and she brings an appropriate sense of innocence to her role. Ned Glass could usually be relied on to add a touch of sleazy charm to any movie he appeared in, and that’s exactly what he does as a chiseling reporter reluctantly helping the Feds. Finally, there’s a touching little cameo from Patricia Huston as Lynch’s ill-fated girlfriend – if nothing else, her presence serves to highlight the ruthless and callous nature of her lover.

Experiment in Terror, as a Columbia picture, is a Sony property. It was long out of print on DVD in the US but has been reissued as a MOD disc and there is a Blu-ray on the way from Twilight Time. I have the inexpensive Sony disc that’s been released in the UK, and I find it more than satisfactory. It’s quite a basic effort with no extra features but the image is very clean and sharp and is presented 1.85:1 with anamorphic enhancement. I think this is a first class example of the evolving nature of crime movies at the time, featuring some of the look and feel of earlier film noir while looking forward to the more explicit realism that was to come. A fine thriller that I strongly recommend checking out.


39 thoughts on “Experiment in Terror

  1. I knew once you mentioned to me that this film review was on its way it’d be a worthy one. Stellar, my friend. This film by Blake Edwards is one that’s a must for fans of noir and the filmmaker, I think. It’s a tight, taunt thriller that seems to have slipped between the cracks in the last few decades.

    Although Glenn Ford gets top billing in this one his is honestly more of a supporting role. He’d started to take on a middle-aged appearance by this time and brought a certain gravitas to the part of Ripley.

    Excellent point, Colin. So, too, regarding the “interior work” you bring to the fore in the film. The marvelous location shots tend to push that back, but it was another strong suit in Experiment in Terror. The other thing that caught my attention watching this again was the work of Anita Loo. For this period to have an Asian in a key role, one that didn’t fall back on stereotype, was something extraordinary. Wonderful examination of this film, my friend. Well done.

    p.s., thank you so much for sharing my links, Colin. Besides being a superb writer, you’re very generous and I very much appreciate it.

    • Thank you Michael. And regarding the links, you’re more than welcome – you’ve certainly shared my stuff many times before.

      I agree about Anita Loo. I actually found that whole subplot fascinating and if I have a complaint it’s that this wasn’t developed or explored further. I felt that thread was left dangling and unresolved.

  2. I will be watching this one tonight. It’s been too long since I’ve seen it. I agree that it’s a fine film and I’ve always thought that Ross Martin’s performance is particularly memorable. I myself have only ever seen a couple of episodes of “The Wild, Wild West”, but I imagine that for those seeing this picture now and who knew Martin best as Artemus Gordon in that series, his performance here would be quite disconcerting! have the old OOP U.S. disc and that too is a perfectly acceptable presentation.
    Thanks Colin.

    • Dafydd, I used to have that OOP US disc too, but sold it on some time ago, before the MOD reissue, when it was going for a good price. From memory, I’d say it was the exact same transfer that’s used on the current UK release.

      Martin is obviously best remembered for his role in The Wild, Wild West. However, I always thought he did a fantastic job on the early Columbo episode Suitable for Framing.

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  4. Great stuff – and you literally ‘pipped me to the post’ on this one Colin as I was just watching it the other night. Next week I plan to blog on Blake Edwards’ unsung excursions into the crime and mystery genre – between you and Michael’s excellent posts I’ll be able to focus more extensively on some of the other films … I agree with you that it’s a beautifully and meticulously shot by Lathrop and that It is a real shame that Martin couldn’t be kept ‘hidden’ longer. On the other hand, when that ploy was taken through to its ultimate conclusion on TWO MINUTE WARNING I think it really annoyed audiences so it is always really hard to judge when to let people off the hook (as it were). I guess it being set in San Francisco it was only reasonable that there be an Asian character of some prominence …

    • Ha! Well I did warn you I was going to put up something on Remick, didn’t I? Is it safe to assume you’ll be mentioning Peter Gunn in your upcoming piece then?

      Yeah, keeping the villain only half seen is something of a balancing act that can be taken too far and even backfire badly if the reveal turns out to be a disappointment. Martin certainly doesn’t disappoint and it has to be said that the greater screen time afforded by his “identification” is most welcome. All in all, the faceless threat aspect probably ended at the right point if we’re going to be honest.

      As for Anita Loo, I think it’s not so much the fact that she’s featured in the movie that makes it interesting. It’s more the matter of fact portrayal of her relationship with Martin that marks it out given the era the film was made. I still feel the failure to go into the idea of Lynch not being rotten through and through, and his affection for Loo’s kid, was a bit of a missed opportunity.

      • Deep down one could argue that this is precisely what makes it less Noir, that lack of the characters being really compromised – in the end he’s the bad guy, Lee Remick (the gorgeous Lee Remick) is the good girl and Ford’s the tough cop. Had it been even 5 years earlier and it would have all been up for grabs. Don’t get me wrong, I love Edwards’ films (PETER GUNN will get three separate mentions in my post last count) but as you say, it’s a transitional film and fascinating for that. Compared it with TOUCH OF EVIL and let’s say that layers of complexity seem to have been shed in the interim …

        • You’re right Sergio. The look is pure noir, but the characters are much more clearly defined – although it does seem like at least some thought went into adding a touch of ambiguity to Lynch. But generally yes, the new decade signaled a more straightforward approach.

          • Fascinating that Edwards made two of his most trenchant films with Remick back to back with DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES and then had a smash with THE PINK PANTHER the following year – no wonder he took it so hard when his career dipped in the early 70s …

            • He seemed to completely change direction, didn’t he? With the exception of The Carey Treatment and Wild Rovers – I really like both of these – he aimed for much lighter fare, very successfully it has to be said.

              • Don’t forget THE TAMARIND SEED – Incidentally, just got the Spanish DVD of that and annoyingly it is in widescreen but not anamorphic though a perfectly decent transfer in terms of colour. On the other hand, the Warner disc of CAREY is a bit faded and soft sadly but given a nice anamorphic encoding all the same.

                • Argh! Shamefully, I did forget The Tamarind Seed. It’s annoying to still get non-anamorphic transfers these days, isn’t it? It seems that Wild Rovers, The Carey Treatment & The Tamarind Seed all could have been afforded better transfers.

              • I recently picked up the MOD for THE CAREY TREATMENT. I saw it first-run the year I graduated from high school. It’s far from perfect, but I remain a fan of it. Interesting, again, we have another Asian actor, the great James Hong, in another prominent role in that film. Again, not a stereotypical one either.

                • This is on my, ever lengthening, list of titles I need to pick up.
                  On the subject of Edwards and Asian characters, the Panther movies certainly played to the stereotypes, but I think there was an affection there more than anything. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s though…

                    • You know Michael, I really love Breakfast at Tiffany’s – it just pushes all the buttons for me – but that’s such a weak element. It certainly doesn’t spoil the movie in my opinion yet it’s just, I don’t know, lame.

                    • Yeah, I’ve seen people condemn the movie as a result of this but that’s not for me. There are too many other good and wonderful things there: Mancini’s music, Peppard’s hesitancy, Ebsen’s heartbreaking innocence, and of course the brittle, delicate charm and beauty of Hepburn.

      • It’s a fair point, Colin. Makes one wonder what ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor, doesn’t it? It wouldn’t be the first time others have trimmed things from a Blake Edwards’ film. And thanks, Cavershamragu, for the kind words.

        • Yeah, that’s what I was wondering too. It seemed like there was material that was excised somewhere along the line. I wonder if the original source went into this in more detail.

  5. Hi Colin, Thanks for stopping by my blog for the book review. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I still have not managed to get my hands on a copy of the film so I haven’t seen it yet. I skipped the reviews (and how funny that you and Michael ended up posting so near each other on the calendar) as I hate even the tiniest of spoilers but I’m looking forward to coming back to them. Thanks again!

    • You’re welcome. It was a bit of a coincidence that Michael and I hit on this one at pretty much the same time but it’s been fun comparing notes. Hope you get the chance to see the movie soon.

  6. Hi Colin,
    with such a talented, experienced and versatile crew as Edwards, Lathorp, Mancini, Remick and Ford, “Experiment in Terror” certainly had everything going for it. At that point in time, the preview/trailer was unusual, and provided a stronger than usual inducement to see the film, (especially as it promised a “nod” towards the film-noir/neo-noir genre). It consisted mainly of the opening scenes of the film without the credits – until the tension is released with a voice-over explaining what we had seen and introducing the name of the film etc.

    I was particularily interested in your opening paragraph concerning the transition of the classic film-noir to the neo-noir. Although there were other neo-noir films that preceded it, Kasdan’s “Body Heat” (1981) with Kathleen Turner and William Hurt, certainly jolted the genre into new life, with Turner’s character, “Matty Walker”, (in my opinion), one of the most successful “femmes fatales” ever, to “explode” onto the screen. I have a copy of “Body Heat” on Blu-ray. T

    Thanks Colin, for yet another review that encouraged me to recall some of those great times at the movies.

    • Great to hear that it brought back a few memories Rod.

      The whole neo-noir business is an interesting area – although I think that post-noir is considered the more accurate term for for movies such as this one – and I really must try and feature a few more examples in future.

  7. I’m starting to sound like a broken record, I fear, Colin…but this is another movie that I’ve not seen. I don’t have anything salient to add to your thorough and engaging review other than you’ve made this one sound well worth watching. I’m awfully fond of Ross Martin from his days on THE WILD WILD WEST and look forward to seeing him take on a despicable slimeball role. I also like Lee Remick and think she was a really beautiful woman who could also bring some serious chops to the table when required, for example in WILD RIVER, THE DETECTIVE and the wonderful ANATOMY OF A MURDER.

    Speaking of Blake Edwards and PETER GUNN…have you sprung for Timeless’ complete series set yet? The verdict so far is that it’s a good one, with very good picture quality and only 3 episodes taken from shorter, syndicated prints (and comes with a bonus CD of Mancini’s music for the series). I have the Region 2 season 1 set (which is fine) but am sorely tempted by this new one.

    • Jeff, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for. If you’re multi-region capable then the UK DVD release is the most economical option. I’m sure the BD will look very nice, but coming from Twilight Time it’s going to cost an arm and a leg.

      As for Peter Gunn, I have to say the new set looks very attractive but I have the two old UK sets and don’t know if I can realistically justify buying again.

  8. Pingback: The Blake Edwards mysteries | Tipping My Fedora

  9. One thing I really like about this movie is the lack of romance, which would have been gratuitous. Kelly has sort of a boyfriend, he is a co-worker, seems kind and concerned. The plot hints that their relationship, if there is much, is in the early stages and she takes pains to conceal her troubles from him.
    By removing any distractions of romance, it keeps the suspense at a high level.

    • That’s true, and something that hadn’t actually occurred to me until you mentioned it. Remick’s character is given a life outside the confines of the plot, but it never really intrudes on the the thrust of the narrative. I doubt if such focus would be maintained today; if the movie were to be remade (God forbid!) then I could see an unnecessary romantic angle being tagged on just for the sake of it. As it stands, the script maintains a kind of purity that, as you say, allows the suspense to reign.

  10. And actually, it adds to it. Her gentlemen friend seems to care, he looks earnest and manly, but he could do nothing without betraying the fact that she had confided. Mostly, she can’t tell anyone because they don’t really know if one of the bank employees is in on the crime. Plus, there is no hint of attraction between Kelly and Ripley either, which would be total movie land junk. Their interactions are far more realistic.
    Since I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, the scenes are very familiar to me. I actually burst out laughing at a few parts, but nothing to do with the plot, just the geography….
    1. The opening titles where Kelly is driving a convertible across the San Francisco Bay Bridge at night. I don’t know of any time of year when a person can drive a convertible across any bridge on SF Bay without freezing. The water is cold and the Bay is breezy.
    2. Kelly and her sister appear to live high on a hill in the suburbs just outside San Francisco. Besides some spectacular views, all of the hill communities surrounding San Francisco are renowned for one thing: lots of fog and lots of wind. It flows in from the sea, climbs the hills and rushes down the other side to the Bay. Brrrrrr!

    In the movie, it’s always perfect sleeveless weather, like it was San Diego, oh, 500,miles to the south. 🙂

  11. Very interesting. I’m afraid I have no knowledge of San Francisco save what I’ve seen in the movies, so it’s good to get the perspective of someone who is familiar with the area – and able to pick up on all those little inconsistencies.

  12. Pingback: Blu News – 2 for April | Riding the High Country

  13. I must confess I hadn’t even heard of this before the UK Blu-ray announcement, and was all set to ignore it (especially with Lady from Shanghai to attract my attention), but your review has definitely caused me to change my mind. Indicator certainly seem to know how to pick ’em.

    • Well if I’ve caught your interest, then I’ll have to take that as a compliment. It’s a good movie and a good choice to put out on Blu-ray as it’s got the kind of visuals that do benefit from the added resolution.

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