Experiment in Terror (1962)

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Charles Webb

Experiment in Terror (1962)
Director: Blake Edwards
Writer: Gordon & Mildred Gordon (The Gordons)
Starring: Lee Remick, Stephanie Powers, Glenn Ford, Ross Martin
Release Date: April 13, 1962


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Experiment in Terror (1962)

Most of you familiar with the name Blake Edwards typically think of his comedies, most notably his work with the legendary Peter Sellers. In a career that stretches over 60 years he had a particularly vigorous period of creative output between 1963 and 1982 when he brought films like The Pink Panther, 10, The Party, and Victor/Victoria to the screen. It’s somewhat jarring to then reconcile this director of such wonderful physical and situational comedy with the one behind this taut (at least for its time), tense, and occasionally vicious thriller.

The premise is the stuff of early high-concept: bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Remick) is threatened by asthmatic into stealing $100,000 from her branch, with the bulk of the running time intercutting the stories of Kelly who wants to keep both herself and her younger sister Toby (Archer) safe; a square-jawed FBI Agent (Ford), unsurprised by the evil with which he’s confronted but nonetheless moved by it; finally, the would-be thief and sometime killer himself (Martin) who brings an unsettling sexual component to the role. We would recognize the film today as more of a police procedural, complete with Feds and cops on stakeouts, the meticulous collection of evidence, and finally the confrontation with the criminal. Experiment in Terror objectively has all of the qualities to earn the title of “classic” and really only comes down a few notches thanks to the way that kind of material was handled back in the late 50’s and early 60’s (more on that later).

You can find seeds of this premise in later films as recently as Cellular (2004, and if I recall correctly getting a Hong Kong remake), the Johnny Depp vehicle Nick of Time (1995), and The Silent Partner (1978, which we reviewed a while back). Even the increasingly cancerous Saw franchise can trace its roots back to the core premise of Experiment… while trading in lofty and increasingly tortured (excuse the pun) moral theses about the distances the individual is willing to go, the crimes they’re willing to commit to survive. What Experiment… was unwilling (or unable) to do was revel in the actions of its antagonists as its antecedents have been wont to do.

That’s not to say the later films exactly endorse of promote the actions of their villains – in fact, in each case (save Saw) the villains typically get their comeuppance, usually violently. However, the screenplay by married screenwriters, the Gordons, allows no sympathy for criminals, and without fail every perpetrator of dirty deeds (no matter how incidental) comes to a sticky, almost Hays-mandated end. Measure this alongside Kubrick’s The Killing where screenwriter and novelist Jim Thompson was still allowed latitude to give his band of thieves some essence of humanity, if not sympathy. In contrast, Martin’s villainous “Red” Lynch prowls the foggy streets of San Francisco, wheezing threats into the phone with equal parts glee and sexualized anger. It’s a foregone conclusion that the minute he gets the loot from the bank in his hands, he’ll put a few bullets into Kelly.

You can get in a full round of cultural archaeology with this movie if you’re willing to take the time. It reflects interesting (if outdated) thoughts on crime and criminals, and the role of law enforcement. There’s a detectable reverence for Ford’s “Rip” Ripley and his G-men. Crisp suits, steely-eyed, and straight-talking they make a fine contrast with the disheveled, compromised, jowly embodiment of local law enforcement that deals in snitches and bought information. The Gordons’ screenplay belongs to an era (either real or imagined) where the FBI was comprised of the shining knights of law enforcement.

But it gets really interesting when you look at how they dealt with crime and interacted with criminals. Particularly instructive are two women who become involved in “Red” Lynch’s schemes (whether deliberately or quite by accident). One is a co-conspirator with second thoughts played by Patricia Huston. Huston’s Nancy Ashton approaches Ripley looking to divulge what she knows about Lynch but is put off when the agent makes it clear that the FBI isn’t in the business of making deals, and that her involvement in any crime would be subject to prosecution. Strictly speaking, this was true, and predates the culture of plea bargaining in the modern justice system, but as the scene plays out Ripley comes off as cold.

Another useful interaction is between Ripley and the sometime-girlfriend of Lynch, Lisa (Anita Loo). Lisa is the mother of a 6-year-old with medical issues and again, it’s interesting to note the manner in which the law deals with a potential informant in 1963 versus today: it’s unthinkable for Ripley to threaten the mother with prison or leverage the custody of her son for information on the movements of her boyfriend. Instead, Ripley appeals to her sense of civic duty, warning that Lynch has killed and will kill again.

Back again to Lynch: it’s interesting to see such unrestrained sexual sadism without the benefit of obfuscation in a character from that era. That is, there’s a clear line between Lynch and mesh-shirted Christopher Plummer’s Harry Reikle. These characters are in a sense grotesques: outsized criminal personalities, narcissists, and killers. What’s interesting is why these characters kill: I suspect it’s because they’re essentially narcissists. They can’t believe for a moment that other human beings don’t fear them, and will annihilate the ones with the temerity to doubt their resolve. The commission is crime becomes a way of reinforcing self: isn’t it illuminating that the first thing Lynch says to an already frightened Kelly is that he’s killed twice?

According to the IMDB entry, David Lynch is actually a fan of the film, and it’s hard not to notice the opening sign welcoming viewers to the Twin Peaks housing development during the opening. And if you want to get into cinematic narcissist killers, look no further than the late great Dennis Hopper’s Frank in Blue Velvet (1985).

Is this a movie worth seeing? Well, the performances are great across the board, and if you can allow yourself to get past the culture shock then yes, it’s actually a must-see. I have noticed noir being tossed around in online discussion about the movie. While I’m not comfortable squaring this movie with that genre I will say that it’s a classic of crime fiction.

I was unable to find a trailer online, but you can find some clips set to the Henry Mancini score here:

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of Charles Webb's work at his blog Monster In Your Veins.

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