EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962)
Director: Blake Edwards
Cinematographer: Philip Lathrop
Screenplay: The Gordons (Gordon and Mildred) from their novel “Operation Terror”
Music: Henry Mancini
Art Director: Robert Peterson
Lead actors: Glenn Ford, Lee Remick
Supporting actors: Ross Martin, Stefanie Powers, Roy Poole, Ned Glass, Patricia Huston, Anita Loo
Alternately riveting and ponderous, EXPERIMENT IN TERROR occupies an unusual niche in noir history, with one foot in the visual tropes of classic noir and another in the early sixties “shock” strategies that would soon emerge into greater fracture and deliberately incomplete plot-character connections which took hold as narrative techniques in subsequent films.
American noir had, for the most part, moved away from narrative dislocation in the 1950s, favoring more linear storytelling (though exceptions do exist: think Stanley Kubrick, Paul Wendkos, Bruno VeSota) but with greater emphasis on more flamboyantly dysfunctional characters. Psychopaths became increasingly lurid, with “bad cops” littering the landscape. Alfred Hitchcock laid down a new gauntlet for noir in the genre-bending PSYCHO (1960), which merged “shock” and a carefully crafted sense of “graphic” violence in a way that promised to up the ante for a “spectacle”-driven hybrid of noir, horror, and exploitation.
EXPERIMENT IN TERROR follows in the wake of that development, taking one big step backwards into the police procedural while retaining a potent sense of the sleazy undercurrent to be found in changing societal mores. Mostly it teases the audience with these elements, however, leaving plot and character holes in plain sight but making audacious attempts to elide them with a series of character interactions highlighting the increasing confused state of heterosexual psychology in modern life.
The film is ultimately unsuccessful in connecting these interactions into a coherent view of that psychology as manifested in the early sixties, leaving it to a more-bewildered-than-jaded FBI crew (led by a stoic, supremely professional Glenn Ford) to wander through the minefields of a paradoxical kind of deviance (as manifested in Ross Martin’s portrayal of “Red” Lynch, the asthmatic criminal terrorist who is ultimately undone by his own penchant for spectacle).
Taking his cues from PSYCHO, director Blake Edwards employs a series of “shock” effects in order to disorient the audience, while simultaneously attempting to create a more complex underside for his bad guy. This approach has proven influential as a general dramatic/narrative construct as employed in neo-noir, giallo, and horror films even if it is clumsily (indeed, almost half-heartedly) implemented in EXPERIMENT IN TERROR. Having painted his film into a narrative corner, Edwards opts for the most flamboyant “big finish” he can employ—a baseball game at Candlestick Park, where the “All-American” nature of baseball can be subverted by the developing action and in turn subvert and thwart Lynch’s effort to twist that “wholesomeness” to lurid, criminal ends.
Such usage brings the film full-circle formally in its bravura employment of San Francisco locations and sweeps the viewer along as these real-life settings stand in for the type of multivalent plot development that usually informs police procedurals. Cinematographer Philip Lathrop, who absorbed the lessons of the camera as a long-time operator for stalwart noir lensman Russell Metty, employs as many off-kilter angles and inverted reverse shot sequences as he can to add more movement to a plot that is otherwise vulnerable to sluggishness.
Ultimately, it is Lathrop’s film more than Edwards, as the “noir-o-meter” strongly suggests. Without characters whose conflict stems from melodramatic interaction within a dark or criminal nexus, the film is forced to rely on its visuals and on “shock” editing rhythms to deliver a sufficient set of noir atmospherics.
Character elements: 31/60 (5.2 out of 10)
Visual (mise-en-scene/setting) elements: 56/75 (7.5 out of 10)
[Mise-en scene: 7.6 (42/55) Setting: 7.0 (14/20)]
Plot/screenwriting elements: 22/65 (3.4 out of 10)
[Plot: 2.9 (13/45) Screenwriting: 4.5 (9/20)]
Total: 109/200 (5/5 out of 10).
EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, despite its “shock” effects (which, in fact, are not “noir” devices; they are tools of the “horror” genre) breaks out in close alignment to the standard “police procedural” subtype. Save for its flamboyant bad guy, it has much more in common with films like T-MEN, BORDER INCIDENT and HE WALKED BY NIGHT than any others. It’s probably no coincidence that all of the above films were shot by John Alton—for that is the “school of visual thought” that drives EXPERIMENT IN TERROR from its opening sequence to the very flashy helicopter pullaway at its conclusion.
Some brief notes on the individual elements…
Homme fatal/femme fatale or peril-inducing character(s): “Red” Lynch is flamboyant and strange (mostly that asthmatic voice…), but, oddly, the film seems to want to undercut that, and by doing so makes him too human. Much more could be written about Lynch’s views toward women, as they become complicated to the point of paradox as the film progresses (which might be one reason why many see it as a precusor to even more flamboyant displays of psychoexotic sexuality), but those complications tend to dilute the level of menace that he represents as the film plays out. (11/15)
Morally ambiguous characters: Certainly not anyone other than Lynch (and the incidental snitch named Popcorn). The film goes out of its way to establish some rudimentary ambiguity for Lynch, but it’s mostly a case of too little/too late. (2/5)
Alienated protagonist: Certainly not Glenn Ford. Lee Remick is imperiled, and that throws her off some facet of her personality. Ross Martin is too interested in being menacingly flamboyant (or is that vice-versa) so we don’t get to know much about his actual state of mind. There are kernels of discontent here, but much of it comes from Red Lynch’s girlfriends: only one of them survives. (3/5)
A dupe or a fall guy: No. (0/5)
Violence relative to character development/interaction: Clearly there is a great deal of threatened violence, but the primary violence is psychological, and again this winds up being more fitful across the film, which takes long stretches of its later running time in procedural/investigative efforts. Of course Lynch does murder in order to silence a witness (Patricia Huston, playing a five-minute version of Diane Keaton’s character in LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR), but even that is sublimated a bit into Edwards’/Lathrop’s hommage to Stanley Kubrick. The question becomes is a semi-kinky murder reveal (strung up amidst the mannequins) more “violent” than, say, the events depicted in a film like THE BIG COMBO. My answer: no. (7/10)
Characters trapped by past events: This is all left very open in the film. The backstory of Red Lynch indicates some inchoate level of psychopathy, but we don’t get enough details. We assume there is something from the past that has made him that way, but that’s as far as it goes. (4/10)
Degree of character triangulation: This is mostly indirect and handled in the spaces within actions (Ford counseling Remick how to act while taking into account his projection of Martin’s behavior, for example). The “triangle” that does exist throughout the film (law enforcement-->possible victim-->assailant) is always in play, but always in the background. (4/10)
Black-and-white cinematography: Check. (10/10)
Low-angle/expressionist techniques: Lathrop follows Metty’s stylistic approach in TOUCH OF EVIL, only he turns low angles into very high angles. This plays off a good bit of expressionist lighting and evocative camera views in domestic interiors. He borrows what he needs from the “noir lensman’s unofficial handbook” to suggest an omniscient camera, but he shows a desire to follow Metty into Altonesque regions. (3/5)
Sense of fatalism (spoken/visual): Very high, in keeping with the approach in a police procedural, where establishing the sense of menace/danger/things-out-of-control at the outset is the key to maintaining tension as the plot plays out its details. (15/20)
Use of extreme mise-en-scene (claustrophobic/barren): In late classic noir there is more of a “kitchen sink” approach to the strategies here…that is, using both visual extremes in the same film. EXPERIMENT IN TERROR does this both in its tracking shots and in its cutting, with its pattern being “track through the barren/open, cut to claustrophobia/closeup.” That seems to be as much an editing strategy as anything else, and it was also utilized a good bit in Edwards’ TV noir, PETER GUNN, which employed the same editor (Patrick McCormack). (8/10)
Use of mise-en-scene to portray alienation: If this were “to portray fear,” it would be a 4/5, but “noir” is not simply about fear, it’s about self-loathing and the slow boil of indignation exploding into events, and we only get glimmers of that side of things in this film. More effective in this regard are the scenes that tease us with more visual connections with Red Lynch: there is much “alienation” in the asthma/inhaler sequence, as it fills in a real “otherness” that permeates both physical and psychological being. (3/5)
Odd camera angles/visual effects, sequences: Following the lead of Welles/Metty in TOUCH OF EVIL, Lathrop composes visual set pieces that move in and out of spaces (it’s interesting how many early 60s films seem to take up from that approach), but here there is not quite the same palpable level of connection between those set-pieces, given that they encompass so many differing set-ups. The film’s ending creates visual excitement but seems to consciously deny visual closure—and this might well be the technique it pioneered for so many neo-noirs/thrillers that would follow in the years to come. (3/5; docked a point for a less-than-coherent use of the devices).
Urban setting: Oh yes. (10/10)
Exotic/barren/remote location setting: As in keeping with the film's visual strategies, a kind of “smorgasbord” of lurid/evocative actual locations, all of them striking but losing a certain amount of power because they are so variable. (3/5)
Night club/gambling setting: A whisper of it in the downtown “meet-up” scene and in the locations associated with the bookie/informer Popcorn. (1/5)
Convoluted story line: Much more convoluted than one might first think, and this seems to stem from having left out a good deal of psychological exposition from the Gordons’ source novel. The film seems plot-heavy as a result, despite the intriguing side trips. (4/5)
Use of flashbacks: No. (0/10)
A murder or a heist at the center of the story: Yes. (5/5)
A betrayal or a double cross: No. I don’t think kidnapping Toby (Stefanie Powers) constitutes such an action, but it’s one example where the film attempts to manufacture extra tension that doesn’t ultimately add as much as the time it takes to insert it into the story. (0/5)
Story told from the perspective of the criminals: No. (0/5)
False accusation of fear of same: No. (0/5)
Sexual relationships vis-ŕ-vis plot development: None of this comes into play in the interactions between Ford-Remick or Remick-Martin (despite the latter’s leering menace in the garage scene). Where we do see this is in the attempt to develop a psychological profile of Martin (Lynch), with various interesting (but ultimately indeterminate) glimpses into his interactions with women. IIRC the Gordons have a passage in the novel where the Chinese girlfriend talks about how Lynch would flare up when events occurred that made him feel or remember that he had been a “mama’s boy” as a youth, but nothing like that surfaces here. So we must really conclude that what’s here in the film is mostly latent. (4/10)
Spoken narrative: No. (0/5)
Hard-boiled language/repartee: Lynch is lurid and (somewhat) abusive, which I would argue is the analogue of what we see in earlier noir. The “crime boys” also have a few instances of “shop talk.” (2/5)
Level of bleakness in denouement: Another area where EXPERIMENT IN TERROR looks ahead is in its interesting “chill” on the happy ending. Its closing shot treats everyone as cogs in the machine, stripping away human interaction and presence by taking the viewer further and further from the action (and from the ground). That clearly marks it as a film that leaves behind earlier notions of noir where the universe either naturally or forcibly “realigns” in the wake of a violent/action-dominated finish. We are relieved, but we are not reassured. (7/10)
So EXPERIMENT IN TERROR is distinctive, innovative and derivative all at the same time. It is a great entertainment, but not quite a great film. It shows that psychopathy and alienation, as regards their portrayal in the movies, were moving in different directions and that a more “random” view of these forces as they move through the world is beginning to emerge. (We see a lot of this, in a more focused and formulaic way, in THE FUGITIVE, which arrived on TV screens the following year.) At the same time, the film employs all the tried-and-true visual effects used to intensify the police procedural, thus “injecting” noir into characters and a story that don’t delve much into the psychological underpinnings in the action.
I think those who highly favor it might elevate it beyond its actual level of accomplishment because the time frame it recreates is a moment that seemed pregnant with possibility when it was the present, and is now seen as a moment where a significant transition occurred, one that produced a severing of innocence. The women assailed in EXPERIMENT IN TERROR—the two sisters (Remick and Powers) are unharmed physically but they face an uncertain future…and one that the film doesn’t care to even address. That is a kind of prophetic oversight for what would increasingly become standard procedure as American society seemed to choke on its own abundance. Lurking under all of the film’s lurid flamboyance is what we have lost--whether it be youth (even in the midst of a present-day culture even more fixated on youthfulness), a sense of purpose, a concept of “progress,” or even just the ability to be oblivious.