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.