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"Life is short, art is long, decision difficult, and experiment perilous."
Jacques Tourneur is a special director with an appeal difficult to explain. He's refined without being precious, gentle but not limp, and incisive without being a showoff. Anybody who sees Great Day in the Morning, Canyon Passage, Out of the Past or Curse of the Demon will come back for a repeat viewing, because Tourneur's pictures are so subtle and rich. Although he worked mostly in American studios the director definitely has a broader sensibility. His father was the great French / American director Maurice Tourneur.
The best Tourneur films have a quiet surface with strong dramatic undercurrents. Tourneur is not afraid to understate things. In one scene in Experiment Perilous a maid (Margaret Wycherley) finds a woman's nightclothes in her employer's bag. She quietly puts the bag away without mentioning it or causing a fuss. We might think that the discovery is a plant to set up a later revelation, but no. It's just there to show that the maid and her boss have a trusting relationship.
Tourneur is also not afraid to be morally ambiguous. The hero of Experiment Perilous is fairly sure that his motives are honorable, but not so certain that he's smug about it. He doesn't go around justifying himself to people. The hero of Curse of the Demon begins with a closed mind, yet is soon forced to question himself. Nothing is set in stone. In Out of the Past Jane Greer's good qualities prove to be inseparable from her evil streak. Nobody gets pigeonholed in a Tourneur movie -- the worst villains are never simply villains.
Tourneur's movies had many writers, but he imparts a special sensitivity to all of his characters. Sure, late career losers like The Fearmakers and War-Gods of the Deep are pretty bad. But in Tourneur's hands a creaky sermonizing story like The Stars in My Crown becomes a little gem of integrity. Tourneur movies tend to be quiet.
Onward to Jacques Tourneur's 1944 Experiment Perilous, a small drama of rare distinction. Often compared to Gaslight but lacking that film's flashy star turns, this thriller has the feel of a good novel. It shares thematic content with Laura and Vertigo. It's certainly a career highlight for misused "object of beauty" actress Hedy Lamarr. Most of Lamarr's MGM films do nothing but put her on display. This RKO gem allows her to show some vitality.
1900. Doctor Huntington Brady (George Brent) meets the frail and excitable Cissie Bederaux (Olive Blakeney) on a stormy train ride back to the city. Although he never sees Cissie again, Brady becomes deeply involved with her wealthy relatives, Nick and Allida Bederaux (Paul Lukas & Hedy Lamarr). Nick wants Brady to investigate Allida's mental disturbances, which are having an ill effect on their young son. Allida is so nervous that she can barely hold a conversation. Aided by Cissie's diaries and intrigued by Allida's portrait in a museum, Brady looks further into Nick's claims. Is something underhanded really happening at the Bederaux house, or is the doctor just falling in love?
Experiment Perilous is a superior period noir. The good doctor is drawn into a private investigation of matters that could compromise his social standing. Dr. Brady knows he's interfering with the affairs of a prominent man, yet even when he's almost certain that real "peril" is threatening his own life, the most he can do is to leave a letter to be opened in case he should suddenly be found dead. Getting involved in quasi-romantic intrigues with another man's wife is indeed a perilous experiment, no matter what the motive.
Viewers willing to let a quality mystery grow naturally will be amply rewarded. We learn about more than one off-screen death, a mysterious diary, a boy seemingly locked away in an attic nursery and a wife made neurotic by subtle psychological tricks. Beautiful Allida Bederaux is no longer sure of anything in her life. Husband Nick is not the transparently solicitous fiend of Gaslight. He doesn't openly torture Allida but we always sense that something is amiss. Brady's nice-guy friend Clag (Albert Dekker, before he began playing bad guys exclusively) doesn't realize what's going on, as his interest gets no farther than a gaping appreciation of the gorgeous Allida. I remember feminists in the early 1970s examining these kinds of movies as critical of stifling female roles. Allida's beauty is a handicap that repeatedly makes her the pawn of insecure men.
Doc Brady isn't insecure but we're also not 100% sure about him. Brady visits a museum to see Allida's mesmerizing portrait, a scene that reminds us a bit of James Stewart in Vertigo. When Brady meets Allida in the flesh she's wearing the exact same dress, as if she were a vision come to life. Brady is far too refined to openly show his infatuation, which seems to be noticed only by the gracious husband, Nick. Much like Kim Novak's husband in Vertigo, Nick encourages Brady to get to know Allida better, so as to confirm his suspicions about her mental health. Then again, Nick has apparently also encouraged Allida to wear the "portrait" dress. It's been pointed out that the 'mystery portrait' from romantic novels figure strongly in 40s thrillers. This film doesn't get listed with the likes of Laura and Portrait of Jennie, probably because the painting itself is not the focus of an obsession.
Experiment Perilous is interrupted once or twice by elegant flashbacks prompted by Cissie's diaries. Tourneur handles these recollections with great delicateness. The camera stays at a discreet distance from images of Nick and Cissie's father. It then prowls over a fancy room, before "discovering" a dinner party in progress in the next chamber. Only Max Ophuls does comparable work in dream-like scenes of this kind. 1 Outside of full-on action scenes, Tourneur's camerawork is less actively assertive than Alfred Hitchcock's; he doesn't go in for 'pure cinema' editorial montage effects as does Hitch. Vertigo's Scotty stares at Madeleine's portrait as the camera and soundtrack go delirious with operatic effects. Tourneur's Brady regards the Allida portrait only for a moment. We know he's impressed, but the effect is more internalized.
George Brent is not a flashy actor so critics tend to jump to the conclusion that somebody else, usually a star name, would be a better choice. He's better than good here, as he is in The Spiral Staircase. Besides, if it were Cary Grant or Gregory Peck playing Dr. Brady, the character wouldn't be so interestingly vulnerable. Hedy Lamarr is of course a knockout but rarely did she get a part with this kind of complexity. A Paris flashback shows something happening in her eyes when Paul Lukas' character proposes. We can see the fairy tale coming to a rude end for the Vermont country girl who accepted all the free schooling and the trip to Europe, and now feels she must pay the piper. That's just the way it is. Considering that his Nick Bederaux is such a twisted dastard, Paul Lukas manages some very sympathetic touches. A fellow who considers himself cheated in love, Nick has married a beauty guaranteed to draw unwelcome suitors like flies. That Nick should become so cruelly jealous doesn't seem at all farfetched.
The "ghost" character in Experiment Perilous, Sister Cissie is an interesting personality. She's gone too soon, yet her influence is felt throughout the picture. Olive Blakeney made plenty of movies but never got a part as nice as this one. Olive must have gotten along well with Hedy Lamarr, because she returned for a part in Lamarr's The Strange Woman a couple of years later.
Experiment Perilous provides a psychological explanation for its mystery but doesn't belabor it; the movie ends in a fight in a house about to explode. In a unique touch, a row of several large aquariums explodes, flooding an upstairs room even as a fire rages below. It's as if the outwardly sedate Bederaux house has finally gone insane and betrayed its true nature.
Recently graduated from Val Lewton's horror unit, Jacques Tourneur was the first of Lewton's three directors to embark on a major career. The show makes the most of superior RKO production values. Miniature views of a train carefully navigating rain-soaked rails help establish the film's overall tentative mood. The concluding fiery effects scenes make brilliant use of miniatures and rear-projection. One exceptional shot is a classic example of Lewton economizing methods. Albert Dekker watches horse-drawn fire wagons racing through the New York streets. We see the wagons only as reflections in a storefront window -- they're most likely a reflection of a rear-projected stock shot. Very clever.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Experiment Perilous is an acceptable transfer but not a new one. Although the picture is sharp and rich a few moments are unsteady, and a torn frame goes by near the end. The picture still plays very well. No trailer is included. The image of the drop-dead beautiful Lamarr on the keep case package is from an original poster, and does her no favors.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Experiment Perilous rates:
1. My favorite of these little lyrical Tourneur touches is the brief little moment in Out of the Past where Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum are drying each other's hair in the Mexican bungalow. The door blows open and the music rises as we drift for a moment across an empty room, with the rain pouring outside. It's just long enough to tell us that the lovers are getting really cozy, over in an unseen corner: " ... and it felt good to be in there".
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