Experiment in Terror might have more properly been called Exercise in Style. That’s not to gainsay the film’s striking and effective set pieces, let alone its preponderant atmosphere of psychosexual menace. It’s simply to point out that, at this early juncture in director Blake Edwards’s career, the budding auteur of the antic was equally intrigued by the prospect of toying around with film style and genre mechanics. Just as Breakfast at Tiffany’s played minor-key variations on the romantic comedy, and Days of Wine and Roses sought to out-Wilder Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend, Experiment in Terror assayed Hitchcockian suspense. Credit the film’s modest virtues to Edwards’s undeniable verve as a visual stylist. Still, with a running time slightly over two hours, Experiment in Terror is a bit too protracted to count as an unqualified success.
Edwards efficiently sets the mood with an opening that derives its kick from careful contrapuntal construction. Wide-open spaces and rapid motion prevail as carefree career girl Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick) tools across the San Francisco Bay Bridge in her convertible, the glittering lights of the city constellated along the horizon below her. Alone and (quite literally) in the driver’s seat, Kelly is a free agent, in control and calling her own shots—a sense of the character imparted, before we even know who or what she is, by nothing more than the “pure cinema” of the first few shots. That things are nowhere near as freewheeling as they seem is doubly indicated by the lowering darkness of nightfall as well as the ominous undertones of Henry Mancini’s harping score.
Presently, space slowly closes in around her as Kelly turns into a suburban neighborhood, onto a cul-de-sac, and proceeds into her shadowy garage. Unbidden, the garage door slides down, and a leather-gloved hand abruptly enters the frame, clasping over Kelly’s mouth. Her mysterious interlocutor, who keeps carefully to the shadows, is no casual acquaintance. He informs Kelly that he knows everything there is to know about her down to her measurements. His raspy, heavy-breather delivery does little to dispel the invasively sexual undercurrents of the man’s demands. He wants her to steal $100,000 from the bank where she works as a cashier, or else he’ll kill her and her younger sister Toby (Stefanie Powers). (His description of Toby isn’t entirely mercenary either.) From here on out, Kelly will be caught in the crosshairs of a series of men, criminals, and cops alike, who all know better than she what she should be doing. In this regard, Experiment in Terror plays like a prescient critique of the thriller’s voyeuristic tendencies, along the lines that Laura Mulvey would point out a decade later in her well-known essay on visual pleasure and the male gaze.
Enter stolid G-man John Ripley (Glenn Ford). Ford isn’t given much to do in this mostly thankless role, except simply go through the motions, since his character completely lacks, say, the unbridled fury that Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat required from him. With his arrival on the scene, Experiment in Terror settles fitfully into police procedural mode as Agent Ripley dutifully tracks down the culprit, one Garland Humphrey “Red” Lynch (Ross Martin). The sense that the narrative’s marking time is alleviated by a ferocious shoot-out that leaves several dead and dying, including Popcorn (Ned Glass), a would-be stoolie. Another memorable scene has Lynch getting to a witness (Patricia Huston) before Ripley can be bothered to show up. The mannequin designer’s two-story apartment is strewn about with detached plastic limbs and sightless gawping heads, among which Lynch suddenly makes an appearance. Edwards nicely ramps up the uncanny element, much as Mario Bava would in notable giallo thrillers like Hatchet for the Honeymoon.
Location shooting around San Francisco is another of the film’s modest virtues. It’s also entirely in keeping with a noir-inflected penchant for the “mean streets” poetics of real locations. A prime example of this is the impeccably executed finale at Candlestick Park. This scene effectively flips the script on Lynch, exposing him to the merciless gaze of thousands when he runs onto the infield at the end of a San Francisco Giants baseball game after the handoff of the robbery’s proceeds goes predictably awry. More than anywhere else in the film, Edwards achieves his effects through the power of expressive editing: breaking the sequence down to its basic morphemes, then building it back up, as well as ratcheting up the tension, through their judicious juxtaposition. This sequence alone indicates that Edwards had a working knowledge of film form that was not entirely unworthy of comparison with the Master of Suspense himself.
Twilight Time’s 1080p Blu-ray transfer of Experiment in Terror is pretty impressive, rendering Philip Lathrop’s exquisitely wrought black-and-white cinematography with deep, sharp blacks and a finely modulated grayscale. The Master Audio surround track vividly puts across Henry Mancini’s ominous autoharp-driven score, works immersive wonders on crowded indoor environments like the jazz dive to which Lynch lures Kelly, and knocks the finale right out of Candlestick Park.
True to form, Twilight Time delivers a minimalist package for Experiment in Terror with an isolated stereo mix of the score available for Mancini aficionados, a roster of TV spots and trailers, and an illustrated booklet with essay by film writer Julie Kirgo.
Experiment in Terror may not exactly terrorize you, but its exquisite monochrome cinematography has never looked more gorgeous than on Twilight Time’s Blu-ray.