Movies either cater to our collective dreams or play upon our worst fears; the purpose of Hollywood’s classic film noir decidedly slanted toward this latter pursuit – yet, even so, bringing lightness (usually in the form of justice – poetic or otherwise) to all the moral opacity that preceded it. While in retrospect, the movement collectively known as ‘film noir’ (so coined by the French apropos) undoubtedly experienced its most prolific flourish throughout the 1940’s, it is nevertheless true that its influence lingered for some time thereafter and, arguably, has never entirely fallen out of fashion. Crime – that perennial favorite topic in the movies – thrives on the artistic precepts of film noir. Thus, Blake Edward’s Experiment in Terror (1962) falls somewhere in the middle of three well-established film genres: the crime/thriller, the police procedural drama, and the ‘damsel in distress’ melodrama.
That it remains all but disregarded in the public’s mind and through the passage of time is an artistic oversight this review – among many others – will endeavor to rectify. For Experiment in Terror may well be Blake Edward’s finest film – and this from the director who gave us such iconic masterworks as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Pink Panther (1963) and Victor/Victoria (1982); to name but three of Edwards’ more prominent achievements. Yet, Experiment in Terror is undeniably Edwards working outside his comfort zone; abandoning his usual frothy touch and penchant for romantic/musicals and/or sardonic comedies to delve into a truly sublime deconstruction of abject fear. That the movie continues to works so incredibly well is a testament to Edward’s directorial prowess.
From its opening shots of an obscured Golden Gate Bridge, vaguely shimmering in the dusty light of headlamps from oncoming traffic, to its initial isolation and assault of our heroine, Kelly Sherwood inside her spookily half-lit garage (superbly infused with a looming trepidation by Lee Remick ); onto Edward’s delicious staging of the seemingly unrelated murder of nymphomaniac mannequin artist, Nancy Ashton (given appropriately unsettling flourish by Patricia Huston), and finally, building to its demophobic climax inside San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Experiment in Terror achieves a heightened mantle of quality and unrelenting sense of dread with almost lyrical precision; Edwards playing his audience like a harp, knowing exactly when and what strings to pluck in order to mount, then shape and re-shape our collective unease into occasional nail-biting frenzy. Add to this, Ross Martin’s thoroughly creepy turn as the asthmatic assailant, Garland Humphrey ‘Red’ Lynch (his wheezing a cross between promiscuous heavy-breathing and Darth Vader), and, Glenn Ford’s righteous G-man, John Ripley (a variation on his hard-bitten lawman from Fritz Lang’s irreproachable, The Big Heat 1953) and you have the essential ingredients for an exemplar of the noir thriller.
Experiment in Terror would be a straightforward – if harrowing – tale about a seemingly unrepentant and completely psychotic stalker, taunting his doe-eyed prey into blackmail robbery with repeated threats of bodily harm, except that neither Martin’s Red Lynch nor Remick’s Kelly Sherwood is as simply defined in the screenplay or, in fact, as conventionally played by our mesmerizing stars. For starters, Lynch isn’t all bad – his affinity for Asian honey, Lisa Soong (Anita Loo) and her ailing son, Joey (Warren Hsieh) seemingly turned him to a life of crime; or perhaps proving to be his moral salvation and simultaneous undoing of a very disturbed mind (blackmailing, then murdering unsuspecting bank tellers as explained by Ripley in the movie’s back story – merely to help Lisa pay for Joey’s expensive treatments and chronic care, while presently indulging his freakier side, expertly disguised as an old crone, sneaking into a women’s public restroom to terrorize our protagonist; then appearing in dark sunglasses, kabuki white pancake make-up and a hoodie, reminiscent of one of those biologically plague-ridden undead from Boris Sagal’s 1971 cult classic, The Omega Man for the fitful/fateful finale).
It’s a hard heart that cannot relate to this man pushed to the edge of his own existence and desperation; Blake Edwards giving us a glimpse into Lynch’s private suffrage - awakening in a cold sweat while suffocating from a horrific asthma attack, gasping into his puffer, merely to survive. There’s something odd about Lynch – and not just in the superficial, obvious way, even as he allows Toby, whom he has kidnapped, to keep her dignity – if not her clothes – the latter, mailed as a present to better inform Kelly their plotted thievery of $100,000 must go through at any and all costs.
Besides, Remick’s Kelly Sherwood is hardly the victimized shrinking violet of this story. Lest we forget, this is an actress unafraid to do ‘gusty’ – superbly cast as the twenty-cent tart and presumed rape victim trapped in Otto Preminger’s equally underappreciated, Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Whether she is disobeying Lynch outright by attempting to telephone the Feds, or refusing to back down from Ripley’s rather methodical plan to ensnare Lynch; Remick’s heroine knows how to play both sides against the middle – singularly focused on saving her sister’s skin, while intent on regaining the freedom to be able to look over her own shoulder without reprisals. Kelly Sherwood is committed to say the least, and, Remick gives her all of the astute observations of a woman driven to succeed. Where others might cower, she will instead conquer. It’s a refreshing take on that traditional ‘save me’ scenario usually placing the male protagonist firmly in the driver’s seat.
But Glenn Ford’s competent G-man comes almost too late to this party; working at a chronic disadvantage and left to pick up the pieces of either a botched détente between Kelly and a hapless nightclub Lochinvar (Al Avalon) mistaken by both for Lynch; or unable, at first, to spot Nancy Ashton’s upside down corpse dangling from the rafters inside her warehouse of petrified plaster busts. Ford’s great acting strength is downplayed heroism. He isn’t the perfect hero – or perhaps ‘hero’ is, itself too strong a word for what Ford brings to his characterization. Nor does he aspire to acts of heroism for their own sake. No, Ripley’s just doing a job – presumably well paid for it too – but interested only in the exercise of solving the crime. When he does noble, it’s always with the quid pro quo of sacrificing something – or someone – else to achieve the objective; ruining Lisa Soong’s monetary gains provided to her by Lynch that have greatly helped ease her son’s physical/emotional stress, or accidentally shooting stoolie newspaper hound, Popcorn (Ned Glass) merely to satisfy an itch for getting closer to the truth.
It’s something of a letdown that Stephanie Powers – cast herein as Kelly’s sister, Toby – never rises above tepid timidity; the otherwise stellar screenplay co-written by Gordon and Mildred Gordon (based on their novel – Operation Terror) forcing the buxom teen into virtually every pitfall and cliché known to the noir movement as its’ token ‘silly white girl’. But Experiment in Terror has so much going for it – not the least being Philip H. Lathrop’s stylish cinematography: a moodily sumptuous and veritable travelogue in and around this cosmopolitan city by the bay. And then there are Henry Mancini’s exemplary orchestrations to consider – turning his usual verve for sixties swing on end, underpinning virtually all his cues in minor chords to maintain and even elevate the story’s persistently threatening climate.
Experiment in Terror is undeniably a superior example of just how far the noir movement had come since the post-war years. The movie remains, arguably, one of the last examples from its ilk; bidding the crime/police procedural thriller a bittersweet farewell until Roman Polanski’s evocative Chinatown (1974) brought it all back with vintage style. That Experiment in Terror remains something of a misplaced gem – absent, really - among the many truly great examples made some two decades before it; this arguably remains its real mystery. Perhaps the movie was merely overshadowed by Blake Edward’s other accomplishments as a director. Indeed, when one thinks of the typical Blake Edward’s outing, Experiment in Terror does not come to mind – either immediately or even as a postscript in his illustrious career; the director having established, then ensconced his reputation in the annals of film history elsewhere. From a purely chronological perspective, Experiment in Terror seems too far removed from the 1940’s - that generation of ‘legitimate’ noir thrillers - to be considered a viable candidate for proper canonization. Finally, there is the movie’s stunning use of locations to consider – then reflective of a more contemporary and naturalistic approach to telling stories, arguably running counter intuitive to the great tradition of noir, set in a world of highly stylized chiaroscuro lighting. Whatever the reason for its long overdue absence of acknowledgement as a fascinating, powerfully wrought and exquisitely acted suspense movie, Experiment in Terror is all of the above and sincerely worthy of reconsideration.
Our story begins on a dark, cool evening; Kelly Sherwood crossing the Golden Gate in her convertible en route to her modest bungalow on the other side of the bay, nestled in the unassuming suburb of Twin Peaks (oh, now there’s an inspiration for director David Lynch if ever one existed). But as she pulls into her garage and kills the motor, a foreboding sense of danger begins to mount. Is that someone’s belabored breath she hears seeping from the darkened recesses, even as her loyal dog continues to bark in the front yard? A few baited moments of ambiguity and we learn, of course, that Kelly Sherwood is not alone; her unseen assailant reaching out from the peripheries of the screen to subdue her with gloved hands; his deep wheezes becoming more prominent as he whispers into her ear. Herein, Blake Edwards holds the camera steady on an extreme close-up of Lee Remick’s panicked face, Ross Martin’s polished white fingers gleaming in the moonlight as they tighten around Kelly Sherwood’s mouth and throat; groping at her waistline; Martin’s Red Lynch whispering innocuous words in between heavy gasps that sound more threatening than they actually are.
Lynch’s initial contact is cryptic. He’s not there to maim, murder, or even take advantage of his victim, but to outline the details for future plans involving her. Kelly’s to steal $100,000 from her place of employment – the bank – or face the real possibility of losing her life and sacrificing her younger sister, Toby to Lynch’s depraved will. Lynch delights in telling Kelly all about herself. He seems to know everything about her life; daily rituals and habits, her favorite places to hang out, and even the name of Toby’s boyfriend, her school and after school activities, and the fact she’s currently spending the night at a friend’s house. Taunted by this omnipotent presence without ever seeing his face, Kelly is allowed to leave the garage and go inside, so long as she doesn’t double-cross Lynch or make any attempts to wreck his plans. Of course, given the first opportunity to run for help, Kelly tries to telephone the FBI. She is promptly subdued by Lynch who knocks her momentarily unconscious, then steps on her neck to pin her to the shag carpet after she has already made initial contact with agent, John Ripley.
The phone call terminated before Ripley can get details, he spends a frantic few moments telephoning every Sherwood in the telephone directory before once again making contact with Kelly. This time, she’s fearful and noncommittal about her initial reasons for the call, forcing Ripley to concoct his own scenario; Kelly cleverly answering ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to his probing questions, thus alerting Ripley to the fact she may still be watched or, in fact, not alone. In response, Ripley tells Kelly to leave the line open, placing twenty-four hour surveillance on her phone before agreeing to meet her at the bank the next afternoon for a more formal interview. In the meantime, Ripley is approached by Nancy Ashton, a nymphomaniac who openly flirts while attempting to explain her seemingly unrelated case to Ripley – about a friend who may or may not be in danger. Given Ashton’s overtures, Ripley is apt to discount Ashton as just a loose woman with ulterior motives.
That changes when Nancy invites Ripley to her apartment that also happens to be her place of business. She’s a mannequin sculptor, her rather elaborate workroom riddled in half-assembled busts, disembodied arms and legs mounted on racks attached to her ceiling. After consulting with Kelly inside her bank’s boardroom, and with the complicity and understanding of her manager, Ripley and his partner (Gilbert Green) arrive at Ashton’s apartment, discovering her strangled remains swinging from one of the overhead racks. Ripley also notices Nancy had Kelly’s address scribbled on a piece of note paper. Consulting with his captain – Moreno (Clifton James), Ripley manages to piece together a few clues, provided to him by ‘Popcorn’ – a weasel of a newshound. These clues lead Ripley straight to Garland Humphrey ‘Red’ Lynch; a known felon suspected in several murders of bank tellers and the disappearance of a sizable fortune in stolen monies. Presented with this information, Kelly elects to help Ripley find Lynch before it’s too late for either her or Toby.
Ripley has Kelly keep her sister in the dark about Lynch for some time; the impressionable teen probing Kelly to explain what’s been going on until Kelly finally breaks and regales Toby with the less lurid details. From here, the story momentarily waffles; regressing poolside to follow Toby and her boyfriend, Dave (Harvey Evans) as they unapologetically bask in the California sun without a care in the world. Days pass, Lynch baiting Kelly on the phone, eventually instructing her to meet him at a bizarre downtown nightclub; part seedy pub featuring scantily clad showgirls reclining on swings suspended over the crowd from the ceiling/part neglected fairground, complete with various gaming tables and a shooting gallery. Kelly’s eyes dart around the congested, noisy club, hoping to catch Lynch’s eye. Instead, she picks up – or rather is picked up herself – by a barfly who lures Kelly into his car, intent on taking her home for the evening. When Kelly realizes the man is not her contact, she panics and jumps from the moving vehicle; almost struck down by an oncoming van. Ripley and his partner spring into action, the bewildered would-be pick-up artist interrogated, but then released.
Not long afterward, Lynch telephones Kelly at home, breathing heavily and vowing to teach her a lesson for having stood him up at the club. Kelly grows belligerent at the suggestion she has deceived Lynch and the two get into a heated argument that ends with Lynch hanging up. The movie’s narrative takes an unexpected turn when Ripley tracks down Lisa Soong, Lynch’s suspected gal-pal. Initially denying all claims of even knowing the man, Miss Soong later confesses on the advice of legal counsel (Clarence Lung) that she and Lynch dated only briefly. She knows nothing of his prior crimes - statutory rape, forgery, criminal assault, armed robbery and quite possibly even the murder of three women – and frankly she really doesn’t care upon learning these truths. Ripley is baffled by Soong’s noncompliance, but later unearths the real reason for her apprehensions. It seems Lynch has been philanthropic to both Soong and Joey – her paraplegic son – paying for his lengthy hospital stay and sending him toys and other treats to ease his mind.
The next afternoon, Ripley places two policemen to shadow Kelly’s every move. But even they are powerless to prevent this clever blackmailer from resurfacing inside a lady’s restroom in a crowded diner, momentarily tormenting Kelly with promises of retribution should she be having second thoughts about going through with his master plan. The bank’s manager, Raymond Burkhardt (William Sharon) promises Kelly a shallow promotion for her participation in Ripley’s counterplan – to draw Lynch out of hiding by offering him what he wants – the $ 100,000. Popcorn contacts Ripley, explaining that he just might have a lead. Only Popcorn isn’t willing to divulge his sources. So, Ripley takes him to the local pool where Kelly and Toby are lounging, explaining to him that what he calls ‘editorial ethics’ might just as easily result in both women losing their lives. The movie’s narrative takes an even more unexpected twist when Lynch contacts Ripley by telephone, suggesting he has information about the Kelly Sherwood case. Knowing he has his man on the other end of the line, Ripley attempts to keep Lynch talking, all the while denying he knows anything about the particulars of the case. But Lynch grows suspicious and hangs up.
In the meantime, Popcorn telephones, explaining to Ripley he has decided to help him out – on the house, as it were - having it on good authority that someone is preparing to aid in Lynch’s escape from the United States to an undisclosed country with no extradition once he’s stolen the $100,000. Popcorn takes Ripley to a seedy boarding house where the mysterious contact, Don Schumaker is hold up. But when Schumaker spies Ripley hiding in the wings, gunfire ensues. Ripley kills Schumaker, but not before he accidentally shoots Popcorn dead; Captain Moreno arriving too late to avert this bloodbath. Ripley now returns to the hospital to question Joey about his ‘uncle’ Lynch; Joey telling Ripley he’s never met Lynch, but that he sent him a big stuffed tiger for his birthday.
Realizing that the scene is getting much too hot, Lynch decides to kick his plans up a notch, telephoning Toby to meet him outside a local diner, plying her with a lie that Kelly has been badly injured in a near-fatal car accident. Toby gets into Lynch’s car, only afterward learning he is actually the man who has been threatening her sister with bodily harm. Lynch takes Toby to an abandoned furrier’s shop, forcing her to disrobe down to her panties and bra before locking her in the dank basement cellar and giving Toby’s sweater and pants to a cabbie wrapped in brown paper, instructing him to give the parcel to Kelly after picking her up at the bank.
Realizing that her sister’s life depends on what happens next, Kelly agrees to meet Lynch at Candlestick Park with the ransom money; Ripley sending his partner to retrace Lynch’s steps. This eventually leads the police to the furrier’s and the safe return of Toby. Meanwhile, Lynch bides his time until the Giant’s baseball game ends; blending into the crowd and finding Kelly, whom he attempts to escort from the stadium without incident and right under the nose of the advancing police. Instead, Ripley spies the duo about to leave, charging the frantic Lynch, who shoots one officer dead before retreating into the open-air stadium in his last feeble attempt to escape capture. Instead, Lynch is gunned down by Ripley; Toby arriving by police escort and reunited with her sister before Lynch’s body is recovered from the stadium green; the camera dramatically rising into the air for a final panoramic view of the police descending the stands on all sides to join Ripley who is standing over Lynch’s corpse with bitter resolve.
Experiment in Terror concludes on an atypical moment for a film noir – the restoration of order, but without the traditional moralizing over the futility of crime. Still, it’s a dower finale; one thoroughly in keeping with the time-honored precepts of film noir in general. What this finale means for Miss Soong (who earlier has been threatened by Ripley with being charged as an accomplice after the fact in Lynch’s spree of criminal activities) remains a plot point unresolved as ‘the end’ flashes across the screen. So too are we denied any sort of satisfactory resolution between Kelly and Toby; not even a moment’s embrace except in distant long shot, the sister’s emotions riding high or strangely absent? We’re never quite sure. If anything, Experiment in Terror concludes prematurely, or rather, just a tad too succinctly to completely satisfy.
Given Blake Edward’s finely wrought attention to narrative detail throughout, he sort of drops the ball in this last act; the open-ended finale leaving the viewer mostly unfulfilled. That’s a shame. But it’s not a deal breaker because the rest of Experiment in Terror is so exquisitely balanced. Edward’s – a formidable storyteller – hews a fairly human saga from the conventions of this crime/thriller; the caricatures dissolving into flesh and blood, curiously caught in their own webs of deceit and desperate struggle of wills; each with a feral desire to succeed no matter the sacrifice.
On the surface, Experiment in Terror ought to have never clicked as succinctly as it ultimately does; the story rather absurd at face value. As example: why does Red Lynch stalk Kelly Sherwood in the first place? He takes his sweet time to learn all he can about her life (and this back in the day when one’s personal information was not readily available for all to see). Ripley’s dossier on Lynch does more than suggest he brutally raped, then murdered three women – all of them bank tellers – presumably to satisfy his own fetishistic avarice. Yet, Lynch’s threats to Kelly and Toby do not scream sexual sadism; only the prospect of imminent death if they fail to comply. Why not simply rob the bank himself, as Lynch has proven, most convincingly in the bathroom confrontation with Kelly, to be a master of disguises. And what about the money? The suggestion herein is that it will be partly used to continue Joey Soong’s treatments even as Lynch makes plans to flee the country before retribution for his prior bad acts can catch up with him. But why the philanthropy? Certainly, it helps to humanize Lynch; a refreshing departure from the clichéd unscrupulous and irredeemable noir villain. Yet, is this the mark of a psychotic serial killer?
No, the elements that make the story work in the first place are not to be found in the Gordon’s intricately crafted screenplay, but rather in the performances put forth throughout; the narrative arc further subdued by the movie’s stylistic elements. We are captivated, or rather – distracted – by everything going on at the peripheries of the screen; the vignettes more illusively compelling than the whole: discovering Ashton’s dangling corpse in her apartment, Kelly’s flubbed contact with Lynch inside the seedy carnival-esque nightclub, and so on - these become pivotal moments of suspense despite the fact they depart from the central narrative, even in inexplicably captivating ways, but that neither augment nor flesh out our story in any sort of meaningful way.
It’s a very clever bait and switch on Blake Edward’s part and in Experiment in Terror’s case it works magnificently. Like John Huston’s The Big Sleep – another spellbinding, if convoluted, noir crime/thriller, Experiment in Terror generally makes no sense at all; but it becomes a thoroughly beguiling quagmire – or perhaps, quicksand - that the audience doesn’t mind getting stuck in because it absolutely engrosses us from its start to nearly its finish. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Perhaps, they shouldn’t even try.
Experiment in Terror on Blu-ray exhibits yet another near perfect hi-def transfer via Sony’s association with Twilight Time; a reference quality presentation given meticulous attention. The B&W image showcases solid detail and superior tonality that perfectly captures the quasi-noir ambience in Philip H. Lathrop’s cinematography. Invariably, location work is marginally less refined – at the mercy of imperfect lighting conditions – and decidedly softer in focus than the studio-bound footage. But the original film elements are in near perfect condition minus that oft aggressive verve made by a lot of the studios to digitally sharpen or artificially reduce inherent noise and grain. Speaking of grain, it’s present and accounted for and realistically reproduced.
Experiment in Terror’s lossless DTS-HD audio is 5.1. Presumably, the original movie was released in mono. But Sony’s repurposed tracks sound fantastic; the mostly dialogue-driven story effectively utilizes front channels with some luxuriating ambience in the surrounds for effects and Henry Mancini’s brooding/somewhat kinky score. This disc sounds as good as it looks. My one regret is, of course, that Experiment in Terror features no extras apart from Twilight Time’s usual commitment to providing us with an isolated – and most welcome – score. There’s also a trailer and TV spots; but one sincerely wishes Twilight Time’s co-founder, Nick Redman had committed himself to recording an audio commentary as well. Bottom line: Experiment in Terror comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)