The directing (and producing) career of Blake Edwards ran hot and cold, boy howdy. To his credit, he was frequently attracted to controversial and difficult-to-adapt projects; at one point he was attached to the first Planet of the Apes movie, for instance. But he also had a soft spot for classical slapstick, especially the kind of pantomime done to perfection by Laurel & Hardy. He paid tribute to the form (and, specifically, to The Boys) in the extravagantly broad The Great Race (1965), while his Pink Panther movies ran the gamut from hilarious to unwatchable, with more of the latter than the former. He was best grappling with subjects with which he was intimately familiar. The show business world-set comedies 10 (1979) and S.O.B. (1981) played to his strengths. They were much more sophisticated, intimate, and adult, harking back to the occasional offbeat project one wishes Edwards spent more of his career making. Wild Rovers (1971), for instance, was an unusual, elegiac Western and Experiment in Terror (1962), Edwards's first film after his breakthrough hit Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), is another one of these.
Based on a same-named John Ripley novel by The Gordons, the pen name for married couple Gordon Gordon and Mildred Gordon (Hey, that's three right there!), Edwards seems to have been attracted to the book partly for its sexually daring content, including explicit threats of rape, sexual humiliation, a murdered woman hung naked upside-down, and a long scene where the heroine is mistaken for a swinger and then a prostitute. The movie is quite adult for its time, more realistic and disturbing as an FBI procedural than most crime films up to then. Though stylistically completely different from Hitchcock's film, Experiment in Terror's sexual angles and certain gimmicky aspects recall Psycho (1960). That film's big success probably helped get this green-lighted.
It starts out spectacularly well and then gradually loses steam a bit, though it's still at least good all the way through to the end. The film appears to have been a big success, and I suspect star Glen Ford's characterization of FBI Ripley and his unique relationship with victim Lee Remick was in turn an influence on Akira Kurosawa's High and Low (1963), which portrays co-star Tatsuya Nakadai's police detective and his interaction with victim Toshiro Mifune in a very similar manner. And, as others have pointed out, Edwards's film also clearly influenced director David Lynch, whose Twin Peaks references Experiment in Terror left and right. (Its final shot, meanwhile, was nearly duplicated for an iconic moment in Dirty Harry, albeit coincidentally.)
A Twilight Time release licensed from Columbia/Sony, the Blu-ray of the black-and-white Experiment in Terror looks great. Much of the film makes excellent use of San Francisco locations in scenes that are fascinating to watch from a historical perspective, especially for natives of that city. Several trailers and TV spots are included. They cleverly exploit the film's central gimmick, which keeps both the face of Remick's tormenter and the actor playing him a secret until about halfway through the movie.
Garland "Red" Lynch, who has murdered and abused women in the past, surprises San Francisco bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick) in her garage as she returns home late one night. Hiding his face, he threatens to kill her and her teenage sister, Toby (Stefanie Powers), unless she agrees to steal $100,000 from the bank where she works. When she thinks he's gone for the night she immediately puts in a call to the FBI. But just as agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) comes to the phone, asthmatic Lynch appears again out of the darkness and threatens to kill her once more, warning that he's watching her every move.
Ripley manages to call Kelly back and she carefully replies to his questions in such a outwardly vague way that even if Lynch were listening in he wouldn't be able to guess who's on the line.
A secret meeting is arranged between Ripley and Kelly to discuss a plan of action, all the while hoping Lynch doesn't catch on that the FBI is on the case. Meantime, Lynch keeps the pressure on, calling her at home with more threats and making clear he knows her and Toby's every move.
Experiment in Terror starts out spectacularly good, with wonderfully eerie music (by Henry Mancini) playing over helicopter shots of San Francisco with Kelly driving home in the dark. The early scenes between Kelly and Lynch and Kelly and Ripley are all excellent. Glenn Ford is particularly good, underplaying his role and allowing the audience to watch his character size up the crisis without much dialogue.
Kurosawa's High and Low famously and claustrophobically set its entire first hour at the home where a kidnapping is unfolding. Police and the victims try to make sense of the problem as the kidnapper taunts them with threatening telephone calls. Experiment in Terror generates a lot of similar suspense, yet it's almost disappointing when it then opens up and its story continues over several days, partly in broad daylight.
But if nothing in the film is as good as its first half-hour, it still generates a lot of excitement through to its conclusion. The actor playing Lynch is hidden in the shadows until about the halfway point. For a while, I mistakenly thought he was a character actor named Charles Aidman (probably best remembered today for the Twilight Zone episode "Little Girl Lost"), but then recognized him correctly later on. The actor's name isn't mentioned in any of the advertising (reportedly, he wore a mask in pre-release interviews) nor is it revealed in the film until the end credits, so I won't identify him here. However, after a while the gimmick draws attention away from the story and its characters and distracts the viewer's attention. (Who is that guy?!) He was familiar but not famous in 1962, though he would be within a few years. Somewhat underrated throughout his career, he's very good in Experiment in Terror, adding new wrinkles to an often-seen character type.
The film seems to have made a lasting impression on David Lynch. A "Twin Peaks" sign identifies Kelly's neighborhood, anticipating the later TV show. Laura Dern and William Dafoe have a scene in Wild at Heart staged uncannily like the opening of this film, while Killer Bob on Twin Peaks resembles Lynch (the character, not the director) in other ways.
Video & Audio
Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, Experiment in Terror looks great on Blu-ray, with Philip H. Lathrop's crisp monochrome cinematography (he shot all of Edwards's early successes) really adding to the movie's effectiveness. It's also great to see so much detail in the location photography, of a pre-Summer of Love San Francisco near the peak of its beauty. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is even better, with Henry Mancini's superb score almost another character in the film coming to life. (An electronic hum is used to good effect, creepily directed to the surround channels.) Freed from the anonymous drudgery of Universal-International and the limitations of series television, Mancini entered a ten-year streak of one great film score after another, and this is as good as any of the others. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
Included are two trailers and two TV spots, all interesting in how they expertly market the film's exploitable elements, playing up especially the mystery of the actor playing the killer. All are in high-def and in as great a shape as the main feature.
New to Blu-ray are an isolated score track and the usual well-researched Twilight Time booklet essay by Julie Kirgo, who makes a number of interesting observations not noted here.
A terrific film made even more effective on Blu-ray, what with its superlative video transfer and great audio, Experiment in Terror is a winner all the way. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.