Movies either cater to our collective dreams or play upon our greatest fears; the purpose of Hollywood’s classic film noir decidedly slanted toward this latter endeavor – yet, bringing lightness (usually in the form of justice – poetic or otherwise) to the moral opacity preceding it. While the movement collectively known as ‘film noir’ (coined apropos) undoubtedly celebrated its most prolific flourish throughout the 1940’s its influence lingered for some time thereafter. Arguably, it has never fallen entirely out of fashion. Crime – that perennial fav in the movies – thrives and lives on. Call it suspense, a thriller, the chase for the man with the face, or a whodunit to set the world topsy-turvy, only to iron out all of the plot wrinkles in the end and, well… you have, Blake Edward’s Experiment in Terror (1962); a movie that seems to vaguely fall somewhere between the precepts of three well-established sub-genres in the noir movement: the crime/thriller, police procedural, and finally, the proverbial ‘damsel in distress’ melodrama. That Experiment in Terror remains the lesser known in Edwards body of work is more a testament to that body in totem than any great defect within the movie itself. For Experiment in Terror may very well be Blake Edward’s finest movie yet – 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 his more prominently and perennially resurrected achievements. Experiment in Terror is undeniably Edwards working outside his comfort zone; abandoning his usual frothy light touch for comedy and penchant for romantic musicals to delve into a truly sublime deconstruction of terror. That the movie continues to works so incredibly well is a testament to Edward’s directorial prowess.
From its opening shot of a slightly fog-obscured Golden Gate Bridge, vaguely shimmering in the dusty headlamps of oncoming traffic, to its initial isolation and assault of our heroine, Kelly Sherwood (superbly infused with looming trepidation by Lee Remick ) inside her spookily half-lit garage in Twin Peaks; 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 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 a paradigm in the noir movement.
Experiment in Terror would be a straightforward – if harrowing – tale about a seemingly unrepentant and 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 simultaneously proving to be his Achilles heel and moral salvation (blackmailing, then murdering unsuspecting women 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 another 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 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 tougher-than-anticipated gal, 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 this 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 mechanical exercise of solving a crime. When he does noble, it’s always with the quid pro quo of sacrificing something – or someone – to achieve his objective; derailing Lisa Soong’s monetary gains 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 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 biggest mystery of all. Perhaps the movie was merely overshadowed by 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. And 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 are the movie’s stunning use of location to consider – then reflective of a more contemporary and naturalistic approach to telling stories of film, 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.
This 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.
Knowing 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 film noir – the restoration of order, but without an underlay of traditional moralizing placed over the futility of the crime. Still, it’s a dower finale; one thoroughly in keeping with the time-honored precepts of the noir movement. What it all means for Miss Soong (earlier threatened by Ripley as an accomplice after the fact in Lynch’s spree of criminal activities) remains unresolved as ‘the end’ flashes across the screen. So too are we denied any sort of satisfactory closure between Kelly and Toby; not even a moment’s embrace except in distant long shot, the sisters’ emotions riding high or strangely absent? We are never quite sure. If anything, Experiment in Terror fades to black prematurely, or rather, just a tad too succinctly to completely satisfy. Given Edward’s finely wrought attention to narrative detail throughout, he sort of drops the ball in this last act; the open-ended conclusion 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 counterbalanced to enthrall. Edward’s – a formidable storyteller – hews a fairly human saga from the conventions and mechanics 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 on the internet). 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 to 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 panache. We are captivated, or rather – distracted – by everything going on near the peripheries of the screen; the vignettes more elusively 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 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 convoluted spellbinder, Experiment in Terror generally makes no sense at all; but unravels into a thoroughly beguiling quagmire – or perhaps, quicksand - the audience does not mind getting stuck in. They certainly don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Perhaps, they shouldn’t even try.
Experiment in Terror gets a region free release from U.K. distributor, Indicator on Blu-ray. In North America we had Twilight Time’s limited edition, but with decidedly limited extras. I didn’t think it possible to improve on TT’s transfer, except that in motion the new hi-def transfer via Sony’s association here, and advertised as a 4K remaster, appears to have been ever so slightly tweaked for an even more engrossing, reference quality presentation. The B&W image showcases solid detail and superior tonality that perfectly captures the quasi-noir ambiance 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, film grain realistically reproduced. Experiment in Terror’s lossless DTS-HD mono audio packs a punch. Better still, Indicator has given us some well-rounded extras – justly deserved and sorely lacking on the TT release. For starters, there is a comprehensive audio commentary from film historian/critic, Kim Morgan, who also provides us with some astute liner notes to peruse. Indicator ports over TT’s isolated score, showcasing Henry Mancini’s sublimely spooky score. Perhaps best of all, we get an exclusive interview with Stephanie Powers; a great ‘reflection’ piece sure to delight. Add to this, the original theatrical trailer and TV spots and, well…Indicator proves yet again there isn’t anything it can’t do better. Best of all, this disc is region free!!! Bottom line: Experiment in Terror comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)