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The success of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960 spawned a number of low-budget imitators, but also gave a green light to mainstream feature projects with tougher, more adult approaches to crime, horror and suspense. Director Andrew Stone had specialized in movies about women in jeopardy, from the old Highway 301 to his personal productions Julie (Doris Day versus Louis Jourdan), to the pre-Psycho Cry Terror! (Inger Stevens vs. Rod Steiger) and The Last Voyage (Dorothy Malone vs. a sinking ship). But none of Stone's efforts reaches the intensity of Blake Edwards' Experiment in Terror, a gripping you-are-there account of a young woman terrorized by a madman. At the time Edwards was known for highly successful non-genre fare, mostly star-driven comedies and light dramas like Operation Petticoat and Breakfast at Tiffany's. The only other mainstream thriller of the day that rivals Terror is J. Lee Thompson's original Cape Fear, another story of people terrorized by a cruel criminal.
Returning to gritty B&W, Blake Edwards ratchets up the sensational aspects of his picture. Instead of a documentary approach, he begins with a scene every woman dreads: smart bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick) is seized in her own garage by a brutal, wheezing man who keeps his identity a secret. The man demands that Kelly steal $100,000 in cash from her bank for him: he threatens both her and her younger sister Toby (Stefanie Powers) with rape and death if they go to the police. Kelly is no fool. Her first thoughts are for the safety of the teenaged Toby. She contacts the FBI, and Agent John 'Rip' Ripley takes her case. Ripley has almost nothing to go on and covers all bases, but the risk is enormous. "The Man" has implied that he has several confederates, so the FBI takes pains to follow Kelly and Toby without being seen. Kelly's tormenter doesn't make mistakes during his phone calls, and he proves that he can strike either woman whenever he wants. Ripley and his team discover that their quarry has murdered a sculptress, but is also paying the doctor bills for a young Chinese-American boy, without asking anything in return. The boy's mother (Anita Loo) refuses to cooperate with the Feds. Well aware of her stalker's command of the situation and convinced that nobody can protect Toby, Kelly decides to go through with the robbery.
Experiment in Terror has no comic relief or sentimental digressions; it excited audiences by concentrating on tense situations in a way that the Production Code would have discouraged a few years before. The opening in Kelly's garage plays in a single long close-up, with the lighting obscuring our view of the perpetrator's face. Lee Remick is frozen in a state of shock through the entire ordeal, as her attacker molests her and whispers dire threats in her ear. The rest of the movie shows how vulnerable each of us might be if the right pressure were applied. When Toby is threatened, Kelly is willing to do most anything, and even invites her attacker inside. The no-nonsense agent Ripley uses his best judgment, but the criminal seemingly has little trouble avoiding capture.
Most of the picture is a cruel game of cat and mouse. The Man sends Kelly out to contact an unidentified person at a nightclub, and she's so rattled by his instructions that she allows herself to be picked up by a guy who thinks he's gotten incredibly lucky. Kelly tries to warn young Toby to take sensible precautions. The girl instead falls easy prey to a man who needs only to tell her that Kelly is in trouble.
Experiment in Terror makes the most of its San Francisco locale, especially the commercial dock alongside the popular restaurant Pier 9, which hasn't changed much in 50 years. Philip Lathrop's slick B&W cinematography gives us the feeling that the camera can go anywhere on the city streets, as Ripley's G-Men rush to apprehend suspect vehicles. The famous conclusion occurs at Candlestick Park during a baseball game, with some (for 1962) sophisticated aerial shots. The final pullback into the sky is now a total cliché, but when the show was new it was considered quite stylish.
From his Peter Gunn TV show forward, Blake Edwards almost always relied on composer Henry Mancini, who for Experiment in Terror uses a menacing theme played on low guitar strings. The show opens up on a held shot of traffic on a bridge, which becomes a background for the main titles. If John Barry's James Bond theme seems inspired by Mancini's sensational music for Peter Gunn, Experiment in Terror's jazzy, cool rhythm would seem to align with Barry's theme for The Ipcress File.
The actors help director Edwards maintain the high tension by playing everything straight and sober. Lee Remick is concerned, dismayed or terrorized from one end of the show to the other, while young Stefanie Powers earned her first standout featured role after several TV appearances and a part in a "Tammy" movie. Glenn Ford strides about with a stern face and impeccable manners, especially when dealing with excitable people. The only questionable point of realism about Experiment in Terror occurs right at the beginning, with Kelly's anxious call to FBI headquarters. Three agents are seemingly sitting around with nothing to do. They burst into action as soon as Kelly says that she's in danger, without really knowing anything about her problem. The Bureau is able to assign a veritable army of agents to her case. Now that's the kind of help I wish were available when we big-city Americans get in trouble ... it seems amazing that Kelly could reach such a top FBI action man without first explaining her problem to four subordinates.
(spoiler) (don't read if you don't want to know the identity of the killer). Kelly's foe is played by the talented Ross Martin, who is given bottom billing to keep audiences off balance about his identity. Martin had been working in TV since 1951 but won film roles only three or four times, and in unlikely career boosters like George Pal's Conquest of Space (he gets perforated by a meteorite) and Eugene Lourie's The Colossus of New York (run over by a truck, honest). Known as an 'acting chameleon' able to play any role, Ross received a big boost from Experiment in Terror and eventually landed a payoff, star-making assignment as Artemus Gordon in TV's The Wild Wild West. A not particularly large or prepossessing man, Ross Martin makes his villain in Experiment a new kind of sexual threat. Using a wheezing voice to maximum effect, Martin's 'Red Lynch' is supremely creepy, a brilliant slimeball who gets his kicks from manipulating people, and eliminating those that learn his identity. The business about Red's altruistic generosity to the crippled Chinese boy is necessary to give him a bit more human complexity, as he's a stack of unanswered questions.
Lee Remick and Glenn Ford are extremely capable in their roles, though neither is a stretch for their talents. Ford in particular seems to be on autopilot, and his FBI man comes off as a generic tower of strength, who eventually settles scores by pulling his pistol at the right moment. Likeable Ned Glass is a stoolie that can't give Ripley a good I.D. for the mystery man, and favorite cop Clifton James is a police captain. Patricia Huston plays another woman who comes to agent Ripley for help. Tellingly, she comes on to Ripley, which apparently affects the way he handles her problem -- she's actually in more imminent danger than is Kelly. Perhaps the only overused situation in Terror is Huston's occupation, which provides a a spooky murder sequence with a room packed with dismembered mannequins.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Experiment in Terror is a polished presentation of this classic suspenser from a time way before movies came to be dominated by serial slayers, pitiless torturers and sickos of every stripe and persuasion. The B&W widescreen image is flawless, and the detailed soundtrack as clear as a bell; Henry Mancini's music seems a part of the general soundscape, sneaking in here and there to contribute to the general atmosphere. In times of greatest stress, a low electronic hum is added to the soundtrack, creating a subliminally disturbing effect that I've noticed nowhere else but The Silence of the Lambs.
All of that musical manipulation (Boo!) can be sampled directly via Twilight Time's Isolated Music Score alternate track. TT also includes some TV spots, a trailer and what appears to be a Teaser, that might be missing a text roll up front (my guess). Julie Kirgo's liner essay illuminates aspects of the film not immediately apparent, such as the fact that its script earned a king-sized payday for writers Gordon and Mildred Gordon. Kirgo also notes that Kelly Sherwood has no ongoing romance and in one scene even puts off a potential date. The film's maniac male seems determined to rob Kelly of her independence, and forces her to do his bidding throughout the whole film. Very significantly, Experiment in Terror refuses to follow the standard genre pattern that insists on a final shot with the emotional heroine comforted in the arms of her handsome savior.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. A note from Mark Stevens, 1.24.13:
Hi Glenn, Just a note to let you know I thought your review of Twilight Time's Experiment in Terror Blu-Ray was spot on. Glad to see this one made it to Hi-Def, especially with that great isolated Mancini score. (By the way, that sinister solo instrument isn't a guitar but an autoharp.)
I was never really a big Glenn Ford fan but I thought he was exceedingly good in this. It's interesting that the two films I've truly enjoyed Ford in have been released by Twilight Time -- Experiment in Terror and Fate is the Hunter. -- Best, Mark Stevens
2. Another 'spot on' note, from Lon Huber, 1.23.13:
Glenn, Your take on Experiment in Terror is spot-on.
As a native San Franciscan, I'd like to add that Experiment in Terror is the only shot-in-San Francisco film I've ever seen which is geographically correct in every detail. If the dialogue states the FBI needs to get to Larkin Street, the next shot is actually Larkin Street. I know Edwards had a great fondness for San Francisco - The Days of Wine and Roses was shot here, too. I see his fidelity to the geography as an expression of that, and possibly also a way to amp up the realism. Experiment in Terror also really feels like San Francisco in 1962. Only The Conversation and Zodiac come as close to capturing the mood of The City so well. (Bullitt and Dirty Harry are literally all over the map, geographically, and neither fully conveys a uniquely San Francisco mood like the Edwards films do.)
Thanks again for the review, it got me excited to double dip for this on BluRay. -- Lon Huber
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