“No, no, no, no. I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to talk to you.”
With the success of numerous Pink Panther sequels, and the likes of 10 and Victor Victoria in the 1970s and early 1980s, it’s often forgotten that director Blake Edwards also experienced an earlier round of box office and critical approval. Films such as The Perfect Furlough, Operation Petticoat, and Days of Wine and Roses from the late 1950s and early 1960s marked Edwards’s first period of success. A fourth film from that period — and one that seems an unlikely project for a director so associated with comedy — was Experiment in Terror, a 1962 film noir that arrived after the end of that style’s most prolific period. The title is available from Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment in a nice-looking but typically sparse DVD edition.
Kelly Sherwood is accosted in her garage one night by a man with an asthmatic voice. She and her younger sister are threatened with violence if Kelly does not agree to steal $100,000 from the bank where she works as a teller. Against her assailant’s instructions, Kelly contacts the FBI. Agent John Ripley takes on the case and arranges police protection for both Kelly and her sister Toby. Meanwhile, his office attempts to learn the identity of Kelly’s assailant, and eventually identifies him as Red Lynch through the help of police informants.
To ensure that Kelly will do as he asks, Lynch kidnaps Toby. On the FBI’s advice, Kelly carries out the theft and agrees to meet Lynch where he asks. The meeting place turns out to be Candlestick Park, where a baseball game is in progress. Reaching her seat at the game and with a massive police presence in place, Kelly awaits Lynch’s next move.
Experiment in Terror starts off with a bang. The scenes in which Kelly is held captive by a shadowy assailant create a real sense of fear by virtue of the juxtaposition of Kelly’s sharply-lit, terror-stricken face and Lynch’s completely shadow-covered one. Lynch’s words to Kelly are measured but deeply menacing because of the hoarse breathing that accompanies them. These few minutes create the mood of tension that never falters throughout the rest of the film. But even before the events in Kelly’s garage, the ground is set by an opening credit sequence that establishes the urban setting of San Francisco and shows us Kelly driving home from work after dark across the Golden Gate Bridge, all set to discordantly mournful music by Henry Mancini. Her home is in a quiet-looking neighborhood overlooking the city.
These sequences immediately establish the film’s noir pedigree: events happening in the shadows; an urban environment that looks respectable on the surface but soon reveals corruption underneath; and, especially, a villain with a distinct mannerism that always signals his presence. The film also contains a substantial police procedural element that is not uncommon to film noir.
Several fine acting performances anchor the story — Lee Remick as Kelly, Ross Martin as Lynch, and Glenn Ford as Ripley. Remick is the real class of the film, as she plays Kelly with a steely resolve that belies the surface fragility of a beautiful young woman. Her performance is in the finest tradition of female noir protagonists who must face down threats to their previously safe and sheltered lives. Ross Martin (later well known for his portrayal of Artemus Gordon on television’s The Wild Wild West) gives Lynch the cold eyes and malevolent grin that suggest a deeply dangerous villain without ever slipping into caricature. Glenn Ford has the task of trying to make FBI agent Ripley interesting. It’s a difficult one, for the script reveals little about his character, but at least Ford’s by now somewhat weathered visage fit the part (at 46, like Robert Taylor, he had finally started to look the age of the characters he played). Ford projects enough confidence and air of authority to make his agent believable, even given the infallible nature that was so often attached to the FBI in films of the time. Look for Stefanie Powers, in her pre-sophisticated days, in the role of Kelly’s sister Toby.
Director Edwards maintains tension throughout with an effective combination of different locations, judicious use of sound effects, and the well-edited climactic set-piece in Candlestick Park (somewhat reminiscent of the use of the stadium in Dirty Harry). Baseball fans will see some rather familiar faces during this sequence.
Columbia gives the black-and-white film a quality 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. Black levels are deep, and whites are clean with a finely detailed grayscale yielding excellent shadow detail even in some of the film’s darker sequences. Edge effects are not an issue. The image shows a few speckles but is otherwise free of debris. It’s a very nice-looking result. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is in good shape, free of age-related hiss or distortion, and seems to have a presence that goes beyond the standard mono track. The disc sports an original theatrical trailer for the film as well as trailers for The Big Heat and The Lady from Shanghai.
Experiment in Terror is a later film noir that is closely linked to the style’s classic roots. A combination of intelligent plot, fine principal performances, and shrewdly maintained tension results in a highly entertaining and repeatable viewing experience. Columbia has provided a very fine transfer to make it all the more appealing. Recommended.