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Experiment Perilous (1944) was a prestigious A-budget picture from RKO, stylishly directed by Jacques Tourneur, who had recently been moved up from B-movie status based on his successful work for producer Val Lewton on films such as The Leopard Man (1943) and Cat People (1942). Experiment Perilous was based on a novel by Margaret Carpenter and adapted by screenwriter-producer Warren Duff, who altered the setting from the present day to the year 1903. The film is burdened by an inordinate amount of exposition, particularly in the first half, but the deliberate pace is helped considerably by both the acting and by Tourneur's eye for detail and some inventive visuals. (The film was photographed by Tony Gaudio, and the sumptuous art direction by Albert S. D'Agostino and Jack Okey earned the film its only Academy Award® nomination). Maureen O'Hara and Laraine Day were both considered for the female lead, but RKO ultimately borrowed Hedy Lamarr from MGM, and the result was one of Lamarr's most memorable performances.
Hedy Lamarr's character makes a fashionably late appearance in the film, although in the best tradition of such enigmatic 1940s characters as Rebecca (1940) and Laura (1944), she is the constant topic of conversation. As the movie opens, Dr. Huntington "Hunt" Bailey (George Brent) is traveling via train to New York during a pounding thunderstorm. Fellow passenger Cissie Bederaux (Olive Blakeney) is frightened and chats with Bailey for comfort. She tells him that she has been away in a sanitarium with a weak heart, but is returning to visit her brother Nick (Paul Lukas) and his wife Allida (Hedy Lamarr). Cissie arranges to have her bags sent on under Bailey's care in New York as they part ways. Later, Bailey joins his friends Clag (Albert Dekker) and Elaine (Stephanie Bachelor) at a party and is astonished to overhear artist John Maitland (Carl Esmond) mention that Cissie had just died of a heart attack. Bailey is fascinated by Cissie's former revelations about Nick and his young wife, especially after he goes to a museum and sees the portrait Maitland painted of the beautiful Allida. He is invited to tea at the Bederaux house, is taken with Allida and becomes intrigued when Nick confides his fears that his wife may be insane. Through a mistake made on the train, Bailey is able to read Cissie's journal about her brother and comes to the conclusion that Nick is wildly possessive of Allida, has killed for her in the past, and may kill again.
In his book on the director, Jacques Tourneur: the cinema of nightfall, Chris Fujiwara quotes producer Robert Fellows on the logic behind the change in setting: "It was felt that the slightly archaic quality of the heroine, who appears in the book as a cloistered and frustrated orchid, would lend itself to a clearer expression on the screen if presented against a less realistic background." The change in setting further put critics and moviegoers in the mind of a similar story that had recently been brought to the screen, MGM's Gaslight (1944), starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Fujiwara feels that the switch in period allows the filmmakers to "...tap into the subtext of Victorianism [and] the sexual motifs of the story. Nick becomes the arch-Victorian bourgeois, obsessed with the constant danger of his wife's sexuality and driven to kill in an effort to control it." Fujiwara also sees Experiment Perilous as more optimistic than the films Tourneur made for producer Val Lewton, but the film "...revises the triangle of Cat People....Whereas Cat People transforms and displaces female sexuality into a monstrous becoming-animal, Experiment Perilous instead makes the heroine's husband into a kind of monster, motivated by his own sexual problem, at which the film hints in Nick's line, 'Mentality never quite makes up for the physical, does it?'"
Fujiwara has high praise for Hedy Lamarr's performance, which he says "somehow suggests both fragile inadequacy...and modest assurance....Much of the intense, evanescent eroticism of the film can be attributed to [her]. Modern audiences may luxuriate in the camp effect of casting the Vienna-born star as a woman who retains her simple Vermont origins despite an intensive program of Europeanization by her Austrian husband, but the internal contradiction of Lamarr's casting perfectly suits the ambiguity of the film. Her strange, paradoxically triumphant performance is visibly a weird structure of compromises required for the character simultaneously to seem 'insane' and be 'normal.'"
In her admittedly ghostwritten autobiography Ecstasy and Me, Hedy Lamarr said that "the picture I like myself best in is Experiment Perilous...It had a touch of all those popular films like Gaslight and Suspicion  where a husband tortures his wife psychologically. It is a theme that fascinated me, with reverse English. I was often the victim of a husband, but it was my own strength that broke the bonds." Writing that the film was her first on loan-out from MGM, Lamarr noted that "it was the first time I worked at RKO. Everyone treated me like a queen. Never did a movie go so smoothly. One day when John (Loder, actor and Lamarr's third husband) visited me on the set I was so happy with my working on the lot that I convinced John he should move there from Warner's. He got caught up on my enthusiasm and did. Even after we were divorced, he said it was the smartest career move he had ever made."
Experiment Perilous was overshadowed in its year of release, unfairly or not, by the more popular Gaslight. Once past the comparisons, however, critical reaction was mostly positive; the writer for Variety said that "[The] picture unfolds in both straightline and flashback techniques. It covers a lot of territory and sets, and depends mainly on dialog to put over its dramatic unfolding. Despite these handicaps, [the] picture carries good pace of suspense."
Executive Producer: Robert Fellows
Producer: Warren Duff
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: Warren Duff, based on the novel by Margaret Carpenter
Music: Roy Webb
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Editing: Ralph Dawson
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Jack Okey
Set Decoration: Claude Carpenter, Darrell Silvera
Cast: Hedy Lamarr (Allida Bederaux), George Brent (Dr. Huntington Bailey), Paul Lukas (Nick Bederaux), Albert Dekker (Clag), Carl Esmond (Maitland), Olive Blakeney (Clarissa 'Cissie' Bederaux), George N. Neise (Alec/ Gregory), Margaret Wycherly (Maggie).
by John M. Miller