Suspense! Thrills! A lovely and resourceful heroine. A beautiful city location that becomes a character. A familiar director and composer combination. An intriguing villain. An ordinary setting made frightening. Sounds like a Hitchcock film to me, but it’s not. It’s Blake Edwards’ 1962 thriller Experiment in Terror. Blake Edwards? Operation Petticoat Blake Edwards? The Pink Panther Blake Edwards? The Great Race Blake Edwards? Victor/Victoria Blake Edwards? That’s the guy. Blake Edwards who also gave us TVs Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky, and Days of Wine and Roses and Wild Rovers and The Tamarind Seed. Blake Edward could do it all. He was a bit actor in films (“Corporal at counter” in The Best Years of Our Lives). A young man with a vision and a distinct comic attitude who became a well known and popular writer/producer/director. Experiment in Terror falls between Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Days of Wine and Roses in Edwards’ directing career.
Experiment in Terror was adapted by The Gordons from their crime novel Operation Terror featuring their recurring character FBI agent John “Rip” Ripley. Gordon Gordon was an editor and 20th Century Fox publicist as well as an FBI agent during World War 2. Mildred Gordon had been a teacher and editor when the couple combined to writer novels and screenplays. Their character Agent Ripley had been portrayed on film by Broderick Crawford in 1954s Down Three Dark Streets. The Gordons also gave us the 1965 feature Disney’s That Darn Cat! based on their story Undercover Cat, which is another recurring character.
The first character we get to know in Experiment in Terror is the city of San Francisco (think Hitch’s Vertigo), this time in gleaming black and white. The city at night gleams with a pristine sheen courtesy of talented cinematographer Philip Lathrop. The city in the day is bright without warmth with harshness even in the innocent setting of teens at a swimming pool. Lathrop received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers in 1992 and in 1999 the Society of Camera Operators awarded him the Historical Shot award for his work as cameraman on the famous opening shot of Touch of Evil. Lathrop’s two career Oscar nominations were for Earthquake and The Americanization of Emily.
The opening of the film shows us Miss Kelly Sherwood, bank cashier, at the routine action of driving home from work. The city lights are as beautiful as stars around her, but there is a sense of unease heightened by Henry Mancini’s memorably moody score. Kelly is accosted and intimidated by an unseen man, an eerie voice in the darkness. He knows everything about her and she will be his partner in robbing her employer or Kelly and her teenage sister will come to harm.
Kelly is played by the Lee Remick, an actress with talent and looks to spare. Like many of Hitchcock’s leading ladies (think Madeline Carroll, Ingrid Bergman, Eva Marie Saint, etc.) she seemingly effortlessly conveys intellect as well as emotion. Along with Hitchcock’s gals (think young Charlie, Iris Henderson and Lisa Fremont) Kelly is a resourceful and canny woman so despite warnings and physical harm she contacts the FBI. Agent Ripley as played by Glenn Ford is a no-nonsense yet compassionate man. Ripley is also a busy man. Perhaps the case of lonely Nancy Ashton played by Patricia Huston involved with a man who may be about to commit a crime has something to do with the Sherwood file. Miss Ashton works from home and her studio apartment filled with department store mannequins is the setting for a scary and shocking scene (think the carnival in Strangers on a Train or the windmill in Foreign Correspondent).
The FBI has little to go on except Kelly’s recollection of her tormentor’s asthmatic breathing. The agents keep an eye on Kelly and her sister Toby, played by 20-year-old Stefanie Powers in her first big role, while investigating cases with a similar M.O. Like the FBI, the viewers learn more of the villain as time passes. At first we see only the dark shadow and hear the voice. Later, we see his mouth during a phone call. Eventually we see the full face of the villain in time to let us know that the man who picks Kelly up at a bar is not the man the FBI hope to apprehend.
Agent Ripley finally gets a name for the murderer, Garland “Red” Lynch, and gets promising leads on this character. Ned Glass plays a quirky little police informant who knows a thing or two and plays by his own rules. Anita Loo is Red’s on again – off again girlfriend who refuses to co-operate with the authorities because of Red’s kindness and financial support to her disabled 6-year-old son.
Red Lynch is played by Ross Martin from Blake Edwards’ Mr. Lucky TV show. Ross Martin was one of those guys. You know the type. You’re watching a scene with half a dozen actors acting their heart out and Martin comes into the room, leans against the wall and gives them the once over with those baleful eyes and he’s the guy you watch. Ross Martin had been an actor since his teen years and with a talent for dialects became in demand for radio and moved to television easily. The road to movie stardom was strangely closed to him despite his association with Edwards in Experiment in Terror and The Great Race. The studio build-up for his engrossing performance included keeping his identity secret until the end credit “Red Lynch played by Ross Martin”. He received excellent notices and a Golden Globe nomination. Unfortunately, a heart attack at age 38 may have frightened producers away from offering Ross Martin the large roles suitable for his large talent. Luckily, television fans can still enjoy Ross Martin’s talents in a variety of guest spots and his signature role of Artemus Gordon on The Wild Wild West. Costumes, largely of Martin's own devising, played a large and fun part in that television role, and a little old lady disguise is a shocker in Experiment in Terror (think Mrs. Bates from Psycho in the flesh).
Knot in the stomach plot twists lead us through the crime to the climax in a crowded Candlestick Park during a Dodgers vs. Giants night game (think the music hall in The 39 Steps, the ballroom in Young and Innocent and the Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much). The audience is placed on tenterhooks wondering when Lynch will make his move, but we can be distracted by Don Drysdale on the mound, Harvey Kuenn at the plate and Willy McCovey in the outfield. And wait, isn’t the stadium organist playing the theme to Mr. Lucky? I think of that cheeky nod to his other collaboration with Henry Mancini and Ross Martin as Blake Edwards’ Hitchcock-like cameo appearance in the film.
The psychotic Red Lynch is reduced to a snarling animal and the girls are safe, as well as the bank’s funds (think “MacGuffin”), but you knew just looking at the stalwart Agent Ripley that it couldn’t end any other way. And it sure feels good to get that knot out of your stomach.
I think Experiment in Terror is the best of The Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made, but if you click on that phrase you’ll find different opinions and movies in this dandy blogathon hosted by Dorian of Tales of the Easily Distracted and Becky of ClassicBecky’s Brain Food.