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Experiment in Terror

Experiment in Terror(1962)

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Experiment in Terror (1962) functions as much as an "experiment" on its leading character, Kelly (Lee Remick), as it does on the audience. Kelly is terrorized by a mostly unseen assailant, Red Lynch (Ross Martin), who wants her to steal $100,000 from the San Francisco bank where she works as a teller. In an intensely suspenseful opening scene, he traps her in her darkened garage one night and grabs her from behind, so that she can only hear his wheezing, asthmatic voice and not see his face. For most of the film, we don't see him either, except in silhouettes or in extreme close-ups of his mouth as he threatens her over the phone.

Kelly quickly involves the FBI, and agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) takes the case. From then on, director Blake Edwards retreats from the subjective presentation of aligning us with Kelly and instead opts for an objective point of view, allowing us to peer in on an assortment of characters as they deal with the unfolding narrative. Edwards also gives us high-angle shots of the action at key moments, building suspense from our knowledge of all the many pieces of the story puzzle. In that sense, it is an "experiment" on manipulating audience response and creating tension by means of careful release of visual information.

That calculated approach could well have resulted in a cold and analytical film, but Experiment in Terror maintains an emotional interest due to characters we are made to care about, primarily Lee Remick. She was a very talented beauty who had recently impressed in Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Wild River (1960), and would be Oscar-nominated for another Blake Edwards film of 1962, Days of Wine and Roses.

Experiment in Terror functions as a late-cycle film noir due to its brooding sense of danger in every corner of the city, and for its magnificent black-and-white cinematography by Philip Lathrop, who achieves what must be the blackest blacks possible. The frame is often so dominated by blackness that that in itself effectively creates the movie's incredibly consistent sense of foreboding and dread. The ominous score by Henry Mancini also contributes, especially his imaginative use of a reverberating autoharp and an electronic undertone. And yet another factor is Edwards' use of direct cuts designed for shock effect, with bursts of music, loud sounds, and sometimes extreme close-ups punctuating the cuts.

Experiment in Terror stands out as a seemingly unusual entry on Blake Edwards' filmography, as he is best remembered as the director of numerous Pink Panther films and many more hit comedies. But Edwards was also extremely capable in other genres, making serious dramas, romantic dramas, suspense films, musicals and a western at various points of his career. Even Edwards' comedies contain suspense scenes in their own ways -- sometimes with a comedic tone, and sometimes as straight suspense sequences, as in the Pink Panther films when we watch the diamond being stolen. It's a reminder of how closely related comedy and suspense really are.

This picture followed by a few months the release of Cape Fear (1962), a similar film in which Gregory Peck and his family are terrorized by Robert Mitchum. Both movies probably owe some of their existence to the game-changing Psycho (1960). In any event, Experiment in Terrorholds its own as a superb and visually beautiful piece of suspense, and it has been very well-served by its presentation on Blu-ray from Twilight Time, with a rock-steady image and its stunning blacks perfectly transferred. In addition, the great use of San Francisco locations, from many corners of the city, come off as quite vivid and full of wonderful texture.

Twilight Time's Blu-ray is limited to 3000 copies and includes an isolated score track and several theatrical trailers and television ads for the film, all of which made a big point of keeping the identity of the villain a secret. Julie Kirgo's liner notes are informative and scholarly. A highly recommended release.

For more information about Experiment in Terror, visit Twilight Time at Screen Archives Entertainment.

By Jeremy Arnold