Red Lynch is quite a guy. An avid movie-lover, and admirer of exotic women. Hey, he might be me – or even you…if it wasn’t for the unfortunate fact that he’s also a serial killer, rapist…and (gasp) a fisherman!
It’s Red’s latest vocational skill, that of an extortionist, that warrants our discussion, since he’s actually the main character – and certainly the most interesting one – in Blake Edwards’ great 1962 noirish thriller EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, now available for microscopic inspection in a limited edition from Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Now let me say up front that while I enjoy many of the movies Blake Edwards is famous for – specifically the Peter Sellers comedies, I far more prefer his darker, nastier explorations of the human condition.
Edwards, of course, started out co-scripting vest pocket noirs with Richard Quine at Columbia, then wrote and/or directed a labyrinth of hard-boiled TV programs (Mind Over Murder; Mike Hammer; The Lineup; Mr. Lucky; Richard Diamond), before scoring big with the Peter Gunn series in 1958. Pursuant to the latter, I am a big fan of the virtually forgotten 1967 Gunn movie…and also long for a complete version of his butchered 1973 abortion mystery The Carey Treatment. I’d like to add that my favorite Edwards-obscura is the 1957 Tony Curtis crime drama Mister Corey, a CinemaScoped Blu-Ray I wish Universal would serve up to at least compensate for their 900 E.T.: The Umpteenth I’ve-Had-Enough-of-this-Shit Editions.
EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, one of a gaggle of major studio releases following in the wake of Psycho, crept onto the screens the same year as Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
While less of a camp outing, it is no less a freak show. And the 123-minute black-and-white roller-coaster ride doesn’t waste a minute. No sooner does drop-dead gorgeous Kelly Sherwood (aka drop-dead gorgeous Lee Remick) arrive home from her job as a bank teller than her borderline-normal (i.e. boring) world is shattered. She’s attacked in her garage by a phantom-cloaked maniac, whose only identifiable trait is his heavy asthmatic breathing. Guess who? Yup, it’s Red Lynch.
Lynch has mastered the art of terror to instantly bring his newest victim to her breaking point. His demand: steal 100k from her bank…or suffer the consequences…To underline the fact that he’s thoroughly researched his target, he threatens Remick with an appended ultimatum: do not refuse or contact the authorities “…or I’ll kill your sister.”
Now while – kinship-wise – this personally wouldn’t bother me, it does upset Kelly, as Toby, her beloved teenaged sib, is the almost as beauteous (and up-and-coming starlet) Stefanie Powers (the two live together, Remick acting as surrogate mom).
One of the picture’s most frightening sequences follows. Thinking she’s safe in her secured home, she logically contacts the FBI…only to have Lynch leap out in a startling you-think-I’m-fucking-kidding?! sociopathic display of inappropriate behavior. Lovingly snuffing her face into the carpet, he grinds his foot into the back of her neck, repeating his demands and threats.
Alas for Lynch, Kelly did manage a telling thirty seconds of phone time, and was lucky enough to capture the attention of agent Glenn Ford, who, with less to go on that the law enforcement factions who solved the Boston marathon bombings, locates the shaken-but-not-stirred woman.
This is the basic set-up for the narrative, and it’s a honey. EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, above anything else, is a movie that relentlessly succeeds in twisting a knife in the viewers’ guts via its theme of invasion of privacy. That’s the main tag here. Reflecting the then volatile fear-of-frying atomic-political climate, Kelly and everyone else immediately go on paranoid alert (the movie’s working title was Grip of Fear). LSS, no one is safe in 1960s America; to this distressing goal, the advent of technology is alarmingly demonstrated to work both ways. That no idiot producer has thought to remake this underrated classic – with the even more potent threat of identity theft and persecution in the cyber 2020s – is a solemn nod to the probable fact that these boneheads have no idea this movie exists.
Anyways, Remick’s performance is so (no pun) on the money that you’re really grieve for her. All of a sudden, her coworkers, neighbors, passersbys – even the FBI agents – are all suspect. This is in perfect contrast to Ford, in one of his finest portrayals. Now at first look, you might think: What are you saying? He’s acting by-the-numbers…almost phoning it in. Check it out again. He’s keen on getting facts, and it’s only after he receives them that he becomes thoroughly detached and disinterested with his “clients.” Craggy, weary and displaying the shellacked hairdo from the era where the aging star seemingly decreed to combat advancing years by dipping the top of his head in a tar bucket, Ford is apathy personified.
In one incredible scene, he listens to Remick do her best to provide details. When done, she almost collapses in sobbing shock. Once Ford has processed the pertinent information, you can actually see the switch go off in his head: her concerns mean nothing to him; he’s got what he wanted and needed. As Kelly pours her heart out, Ford impatiently taps his wrist, looks at his watch…he just really isn’t that interested. Insult to injury, he then honestly reveals what Lynch will do to get her to pull off the heist; in effect, he’s scaring Remick with the same predatory gory stuff Lynch did. Ford’s agent Ripley is Lynch’s doppelganger. I’m not kidding. Two secondary victims – a silent movie addict/informant named Popcorn (Ned Glass) – and a seductive Anne Bancrofty mannequin artist (Patricia Huston) are sloughed off as pathetic expendables, even when the latter ends up hanging upside-down slaughterhouse-style alongside her plaster of Paris arms and legs. Ford nonchalantly muses to another agent that he guessed wrong about her involvement in the case and calmly exits the crime scene. Later, an equally cold-blooded cohort remarks of another fatality, “Bound to happen…Can’t expect to live forever.” Ford does everything but respond with, “Say, I don’t know about you – but I could sure go for a hoagie.”
Ford reminds me very much of Robert Ryan in Nicholas Ray’s 1951 gem On Dangerous Ground. While not as outwardly psychotic, there is that same detached connection. I’m especially referring to a scene where Ryan confronts a blind Ida Lupino, who is instantly attracted to him because he’s the first one who hasn’t been condescending to her, or, more precisely, her affliction…a mistaken emotion, as the cop’s m.o. is that he simply doesn’t care.
Most prominently, Ford’s sober I-don’t-wanna-hear-your-crap attitude is a direct descendent of his own incarnation of detective Bannion in Lang’s The Big Heat. Ripley could be Bannion ten years later…like in the concurrent wildly popular Paladin ballad, “A knight without honor in a savage land…”, the terra firma in question being Kennedy’s Camelot.
Lee Remick’s psychologically pulverized woman at the picture’s taut conclusion isn’t comforted by Ford (the usual wrap-up in a million other crime movies and TV episodes). The job is over; he couldn’t care less what happens to her. He walks off frame.
The climax in question unfolds at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park (offering viewers the unintentional jolt of ringside seats to a Giants game for $2.50!); it’s an exciting location, reminiscent of another SF-based police thriller, Siegel’s Dirty Harry, filmed almost a decade later. The nocturnal, fog-enshrouded Frisco locale is used to stunning, if not chilling effect and is played out in the community of Twin Peaks, which I suspect likewise inspired another Lynch.
Many of the “terror” sequence compositions seem to have additionally emboldened a slew of giallo directors, including Mario Bava and Dario Argento…as well as Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi. Edwards has also acquiesced to Alfred Hitchcock’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Film Mayhem. Turn off the sound during some of the confrontational scenes between Lynch and Remick and they could be misinterpreted as rapturous intimate couple moments. In the proper context, however, these segments comprise some of the creepiest visuals in Edwards’ canon, save exposing Julie Andrews’ breasts in S.O.B.
Of course, Red is the Lynch-pin holding the tense narrative together. He’s also the movie’s most complex character – the only one fully-developed. Although seen largely in shadow or disguise, we know more about him than we do of Kelly, Toby or even Ripley (believe it or not, a recurring character in several of the writers’s books, upon which this movie was based on). And it’s frustrating. For the majority of the picture’s two hour-plus running time, I was champing at the bit for someone to kill Lynch. Then Edwards throws a wild pitch: Lynch has a serious girlfriend whom he treats lovingly and compassionately, even paying the thousands of dollars to treat her son’s physical disability. The result is that I ceased to want Lynch killed…now I only wanted him maimed. Lynch is superbly played by Ross Martin (whose identity, as part of the picture’s promotion, was withheld until the very end). While the movie did well critically and chalked up decent box office, it was Martin who ultimately reaped the rewards for his performance. His chameleon expertise garnered him the plum supporting role of Artemis Gordon in the long-running hit television series The Wild, Wild West.
Kelly’s increasingly fragile mental state makes her suspicious of even inanimate objects; everyday utensils (especially the telephone) become objects of terror. Lynch’s “experiment” is to envelop Sherwood into a world governed completely by fear, humiliation and degradation – essentially the current GOP playbook should any moderate Republican even consider running for office. This intrusive horror bodily manifests itself in a shocking sequence where Kelly’s space is defiled by the ultimate invasion: Lynch-in-drag cornering her in the ladies room of a restaurant (made all the more grating by his apparent decision to model his old lady impersonation after Lionel Barrymore in Devil Doll).
The script doesn’t miss a trick – one of the few forays into screenwriting by the husband and wife team, The Gordons. That the male Gordon’s first name was also Gordon is likely a parental faux pas I surmise to have been his own adolescent experiment in terror. Bizarrely enough, the duo’s most famous motion-picture work was That Darn Cat!, filmed by Disney in 1965, starring Hayley Mills and Dean Jones. Like Operation Terror (the name of the novel), the story concentrated on the importance of surveillance in contemporary crime detection (Gordon Gordon spent World War II working for the FBI in counter-intelligence).
The Blu-Ray of EXPERIMENT IN TERROR is aces in all departments. The spectacular black and white photography by Philip Lathrop has never looked as crystal clear. Rich in dark velvety tones and ominous spectral imagery, Lathrop’s sinister canvas truly paints a nightmarish vision of the city. While the old DVD looked okay – the B-D is a revelation, truly befitting the picture’s trappings of noir voyeurism.
The sound is even better. Henry Mancini’s eerie jazzy score is one of his best, certainly my favorite of all his Edwards projects. A couple of years ago, in a jazz club, I was ecstatic when a combo segued into a version of the title theme. Apparently, one of the musicians caught sight of my delighted approval and approached me afterward.
“You must be a movie fan,” he announced to me, hand extended.
“So must you,” I replied.
He nodded, and proudly explained that a baptism by fire prerequisite for all new musicians to the group was to do a cover of EXPERIMENT IN TERROR.
Indeed, the spine-tingling main title has become a standard for seriously cool jazz and rock ‘n’ roll bands (there is a rock version in the movie, playing on Kelly’s car radio).
What’s particularly terrific about this B-D is that the audio is in authentic stereo. I never knew the movie was recorded that way; maybe it wasn’t (certainly no other screening/video master was ever released in anything but mono), but the music surely was. It’s awesome to have that main track fill the room in full digitally-cleansed 5.1 stereo. The soundtrack, like all Twilight Time offerings, can be accessed in IST (Isolated Score Track), which allows film music fans to access the Mancini work as a CD album.
The platter comes with two theatrical trailers and two sixty second TV spots. One of each is a strange take on the pic’s promotion (utilizing the jittery opening montage), the other more traditional. Curiously, we are told by the narrator that the movie uniquely “…uses San Francisco as its laboratory” – something I naturally assumed all stimulant-minded people did back then.
EXPERIMENT IN TERROR. Black and white. Letterbox [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 stereo-surround DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. SRP: $24.95.