Monday, 5 January 2015

Noir of the Week #3 Experiment in Terror (Blake Edwards, 1962)

Experiment in Terror (1962)

Frank Black
5 January 2015

Mention Blake Edwards and most people will think of the Pink Panther films, a series that started with a nod to the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties and ended up as a sort of bloated, self-indulgent cash-cow for star and director, both of whom struggled to show their true worth in their later films, though both did succeed: Sellers with the witty Being There (1979) and Edwards, notably, with the sophisticated and genuinely funny Victor/Victoria (1982) – though he misguidedly returned to the Panther franchise three times after Sellers’ early death.
Beyond the Panther films, his name conjures up images of Audrey Hepburn in a black figure-hugging dress, smoking sexily with a long cigarette holder in his charming adaptation of  Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), but Edwards had a strange career. He made a name for himself with the smart private eye show, Peter Gunn, which ran from 1958-1961. Gunn was an upmarket PI, listening to cool West Coast jazz (the score was by Edwards’ frequent sparring partner, Henry Mancini), charging a standard fee of $1000, some twenty years before Jim Rockford was asking for only $200 a day plus expenses. This wasn’t Edwards’ first foray into this territory; n fact, he developed the Gunn character from his own creation, Richard Diamond, Private Investigator (starring Dick Powell in the radio version (1949-53) and David Janssen on television (1957-1960)).
While his career may be dominated by lighter films, this moe dramatic streak runs through works like Mr Cory (1957), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), his excellent elegiac Western, Wild Rovers (1971), The Carey Treatment (1972) and Experiment in Terror (1962).
The latter is a thriller set in San Francisco, making excellent use of real locations around the city, not least The Clarendon Heights/Twin Peaks area where the victim/heroine lives and is watched both by the killer and the FBI.
Based on the book, Operation Terror, by Gordon and Mildred Gordon, who also wrote the screenplay, it concerns bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick), stalked by an asthmatic killer, Red Lynch (Ross Martin), who – initially at least – is unidentified and who threatens to kill her and her teenage sister Toby (a young Stephanie Powers), unless she helps him rob the bank she works at. 
Despite the fact he knows she has been in contact with FBI agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford), he continues to stalk and torment her until his identity is discovered and the story climaxes in a shootout in a deserted Candlestick Park, following a baseball game.
Here’s the tremendous opening sequence, shot in beautiful black and white by Philip Lathrop and moodily scored by Henry Mancini:

Purists might scoff at this being classified as noir, but it is a thematically dark film as well as one that liberally cops various visual motifs from the genre, like the shadows of blinds that fall across Ford in his office where  he meets a woman who may or may not be about to set him up,  or the shadowed garage where Kelly first encounters Lynch, which Edwards carefully uses to ratchet up the tension.
Mancini’s jazzy score is used subtly to build up an ominous sense of fear, complementing Edward and Northrup’s visual techniques, whether carefully constructed mise-en-scene, intense close-ups, use of deep focus or abrupt transitions to  jar the audience. However, certain scenes stand out, most notably the opening in Sherwood’s garage when the expected assault is replaced by cold threatening coercion, and the almost surreal scene in Nancy’s (Patricia Huston) apartment, where it is gradually revealed that she shares it with what seem to be hundreds of unclothed mannequins, which are later used effectively to ‘reveal’ her murdered body after she has tried to help Sherwood by going to the FBI.
The FBI agents are neither trivialised or heroicised. They simply get on with their job in an almost matter of fact Dragnet-manner; while Ford’s character clearly is the smart hero of the piece who, with his colleagues, pieces together the puzzle through research, his performance is deliberately low-key and there is no attempt to involve him in a relationship with the victim, nor do we see anything of his life beyond his work: the narrative focus is on Sherwood and Lynch and the police-work itself. Lynch’s character is given a little depth when it is revealed that an Asian-American woman he has been dating will not inform on him because he has been helping her financially because her son is in hospital – though this is not an aspect the film dwells on too much.

This is a stylish, well-paced gripping late noir (or early neo-noir – argue among yourselves), beautifully shot with excellent performances, especially Remick and the understated (and often undervalued) Ford.

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