Please note: this review does contain a few spoilers
After specializing in light comedies (Operation Petticoat, High Time [M]), romances (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and mini-adventures on TV featuring suave detective Peter Gunn, in 1962 Blake Edwards chose to dive into two genres relatively new to him: the social drama, via Days of Wine and Roses, about the destructive force of alcoholism; and the grim psychological thriller Experiment in Terror, where FBI investigative procedures were given almost equal time as the familiar cat and mouse antics between a heroine, a G-man, and the blackmailing killer holding a valuable hostage in exchange for $100,000.
Both films starred Lee Remick, and while the attractive, talented actress shared top billing in Experiment with veteran character actor Glenn Ford, the real star of the film is arguably Ross Martin, who transformed a generic baddie into one of the sleaziest, vicious screen villains without spilling a drop of blood onscreen, or indulging in a graphic act of sexual violation.
Martin had co-starred in the short-lived TV series Mr. Lucky, of which several episodes were written by Edwards, and the actor had paid his dues in countless TV appearances going back a decade, including a one-shot spot on Peter Gunn. Even though he isn’t seen in full until the last act, through his wheezing voice, the facial mannerisms captured by stark macro cinematography, and Henry Mancini’s thematic organ drone, Martin’s realization of serial blackmailer / killer / rapist Garland is full-dimensional, and there’s never a doubt the monster is capable of tormenting his victims at a cruel, leisurely pace.
For Edwards, the film undoubtedly proved he could handle the suspense genre, and there’s a sense he studied Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) very carefully, drawing from that film’s stark cinematography and a few striking angles to create high tension. The use of close-ups is especially affecting in the opening sequence where Garland grabs bank teller Kelly (Remick) from behind in her locked garage, and whispers his blackmailing intentions and pre-existing comfort for killing into her ear. Edwards keeps Martin’s face in shadow, but he films Martin’s mouth and porous skin in an almost grotesque manner.
It’s a great opening sequence because it’s not flamboyant: the scene’s tension relies wholly on the actors’ performances, with a soundtrack not filled by score but Garland’s wheezing voice. We also know Garland’s a full-time monster because of his second attempt to ‘train’ Kelly into recognizing his easy reach, yet to the credit of Edwards and screenwriters Gordon Gordon and Mildred Gordon (billed as “The Gordons”), Kelly isn’t a weak-willed heroine: as Garland’s teasing intensifies, she becomes more rebellious, standing up for herself and kid sister Toby (Stefanie Powers).
To modern audiences, Experiment may seem a little slow, but there are no wasted moments: the procedural stages of the FBI’s efforts to mine every clue for a link to Garland (likely drawn from Gordon Gordon’s own time at the bureau) remain enticing, and they form a slow build to the eventual climax that wraps up a kidnapping, a robbery, the cash hand-off, and an exciting chase through a baseball stadium – a sequence that arguably influenced the finale of The Satan Bug (1965) and, perhaps the midsection of Dirty Harry (1971).
The link between Experiment and Dirty Harry isn’t specious. Both films feature potent villains with a prior history of physical and sexual assault, and the respective actors delivered extremely vivid performances as monsters, although Garland’s more in control of his rage: when he kidnaps Toby and demands she remove her clothes, Martin’s leering eyes and wicked grin imply Garland’s behaviour that could easily brutalize Kelly’s sister. His only physical assault is in touching Toby’s cheek, but with more time, it’s likely Garland could’ve indulged a little.
The finale in the baseball stadium recalls the midsection of Dirty Harry, where the detective hunts down and torments Scorpio (Andrew Robinson), and there are slight similarities in the way Scorpio writhes like a weasel under Harry’s heel on the baseball diamond, and Garland continues to wheeze a few breathes of life before he’s no longer a menace on the pitcher’s mound. Like Dirty Harry, Edwards involves a helicopter at the end of the scene, but whether by coincidence or advance planning, Experiment begins with a aerial shot of a bridge where a helicopter flies across the night sky, and ends with a POV from a helicopter as the camera pulls back to a pair of farther views of the illuminated stadium.
An additional cinematic parallel worth noting is the exceptionally directed sequence in which Garland’s acquaintance Nancy (Patricia Huston) is killed. Only after she ends her emergency call to Ripley does Edwards reveal her ‘unusual occupation’ - a sculptress - and her apartment: a weird, unsettling studio crammed with mannequin body parts mounted, shelved, and suspended all over the place. The artful framing includes protruding limbs and heads, and concludes when Ripley arrives and finders her suspended like one of her creations. Mario Bava may not have drawn whole ideas from the scene, but there are slight atmospheric similarities in the way Bava fixated on mannequins in Blood and Black Lace (1964).
Both Experiment and Lace also feature jazzy soundtracks, but Henry Mancini applied same approach as in his Touch of Evil (1958) score – minimal, with cues lasting only as much as necessary. Like Orson Welles, Edwards placed a greater emphasis on location sounds, and the film’s use of real locations and black & white cinematography really give Experiment a genuine docu-drama feel; it’s still a glossy production, but there’s a palpable documentary quality that may have been inspired by the Gordons’ procedural minutia.
Only during the main title sequence (and the final bit of the End Credits) is Mancini’s music characteristically rich: in documentary style, the aerial camera follows Kelly as she drives her convertible Ford Fairlane over a bridge, and the dirty jazz beat suddenly switches to a softer, string-saturated B-section before a return to the main theme, with it’s plucked autoharp and weird arpeggio effects that resemble a constricted female voice).
The bulk of the score is largely restricted to brass, rapping percussion, and an organ drone that’s as chilling as Bernard Herrmann’s slashing strings in Psycho, or Harry Manfredini’s laughing motif in Friday the 13th (1980).
The best examples occur when the camera pans over to reveal Garland standing as a mannequin in Nancy’s studio, and when he confronts Kelly in the women’s washroom in a restaurant; it’s an ugly, coarse chord that’s close to being oversaturated and distorted. Mancini’s forays in suspense are often overlooked by critics, and Experiment is another perfect example of his knack for capturing the drama and personas of characters, and never prolonging a cue’s effect.
Lathrop’s cinematography is so rich with contrasts and shades of grey, and both lighting and objects are always forcing the audiences’ eyes to a specific area within the frame – either from angular geometric objects (Kelly’s humble house is situated on a sloping hill that overlooks San Francisco), or lighting effects (such as slits of light from window blinds that angle downward on either side of an actor). They’re small gestures, but even when the camera follows a conversation in a moving car to a parked position, the composition is gorgeous.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray makes use of a gorgeous HD transfer which captures all the nuances of Lathrop’s cinematography, with lovely grain. There’s no overt signs of noise reduction, making this a must-have for B&W film fans.
Sony’s 2003 DVD presented the film with its original mono sound mix, which brings up the issue of the film only being available on TT’s BR in a DTS 5.1 mix, which presumably came with Sony’s HD transfer. In prior years, Sony has mucked around with aspect ratios (older flipper DVDs featuring widescreen and panned & scanned transfers were reissued as P&S DVDs) and over-matted films technically composed for milder widescreen or fullscreen presentation (notably the bungled 1.85:1 DVD of Mysterious Island [M]). They’ve also tightened aspect ratios on films, as is the case with 10 Rillington Place (1971) which looks far too tight matted at 1.85:1 than older TV transfers framed at 1.78:1.
A popular fantasy with some film score fans (myself included) is whether it’s possible to take the existing stereo tracks from the scoring sessions and create a dynamic 5.1 mix. The reasoning tends to come from hearing the score first in stereo, or realizing how many details were missed when comparing the mono film mix to the stereo cues, if not wanting a film to contain the dramatic scope in the original music recording. I’ve always been curious how a film would play with a revamped sound mix, and Experiment offers a genuine take on what’s likely a newly crafted 5.1 mix. (I use the term ‘likely’ because there’s no public confirmation on whether the 5.1 mix is part of Sony’s new in-house experimenting with surround mixes as isolated tracks are discovered.)
The plus is that it’s a surprisingly well balanced mix that neither overpowers nor feature a tepid stereo spectrum; it’s fine, but it does lack the bass oomph which made Mancini’s droning Garland motif so terrifying in mono: when that motif reverberated on the soundtrack, it was exceptionally unsettling – an aspect that’s only present in the isolated music track which present’s Mancini’s full score in stereo 2.0.
Fans of the film and Mancini will be delighted TT’s BR features the original score recording, of which only a few elements were retained for the otherwise re-recorded soundtrack album from 1962, but the lack of the original mono mix is unfortunate. The hope is had Sony included a mono track, it would’ve been present (as was the case with TT’s Mysterious Island); but the fear is whether Sony’s going back to their old tricks and denying fans and collectors a choice.
A 5.1 remix isn’t the same a colorizing a movie (although audio purists would disagree). It’s a truer surround sound experience than the terrible bullshit stereo tracks Fox created for the bulk of their non-stereo Studio Classics films, but in each case Fox did include the original mono mixes, so let’s hope this is merely an anomaly.
In addition to the isolated score track, TT’s disc includes original trailers and TV spots (Sony’s DVD stick with just one trailer), plus lengthy liner notes by Julie Kirgo, who contextualizes the film and offers a few details of the original publicity campaign.
For Ross Martin, his leap into feature films didn’t provide the expected career boost. Columbia chose to keep the actor’s identity covert until the end credits – a ploy perhaps reminiscent of Hitchcock obfuscating the complicity of Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates via deceptive publicity stills during Psycho’s release – and it took a while before Martin would become famous for his role as Artemus Gordon in TV’s The Wild Wild West (1965-1969), and countless TV appearances. Garland remains one of his best roles, largely because the script allowed for an unusual level of contrasting material: while a monster, like agent Ripley, audience sympathies are momentarily tested when it’s revealed he has a girlfriend and a kind attachment to a boy with troubling medical issues.
Then in her early twenties, Stefanie Powers enjoyed a fleeting feature film career (The Interns, McLintock!, Stagecoach [M]) before largely settling in TV, becoming most famous as The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1966-1967) and Jennifer Hart in the eighties hit Hart to Hart (1979-1984).
Like Lee Remick, Glenn Ford appeared in film and TV productions through the seventies and eighties, and Experiment’s FBI agent Ripley is one of several urban-level authority roles for which the actor was so well suited to play, including The Money Trap (1965), Fate is the Hunter [M] (1964), and The Big Heat [M] (1953), although he tended to excel as deeply conflicted men pushed into grey moral regions, such as wealthy businessman Stannard who tells his son’s kidnapper to essentially go screw himself on national TV in the taut, emotionally brutal Ransom! [M] (1956) which screams for a Blu-ray release.
While apparently at home with comedy, Edwards tackled other genres when he seemed to need a breather from his patented brand of farce, and it’s not unfair to say he wasted several years on too many Pink Panther films when his skills should’ve been applied to harder emotional material. His meandering during the eighties may have come from being burned too many times during the seventies, but his rare forays into other genres have largely held their own, especially the slow-burning espionage romancer The Tamarind Seed (1974).
Novels by the Gordons adapted into films include Make Haste to Live (1954), Down Three Dark Streets (1954), Experiment in Terror (1962), and the Disney classic That Darn Cat! (1965).
The character of John Ripley appeared in several novels: FBI Story (no relation to the 1959 James Stewart film), Case File: FBI (filmed as Down Three Dark Streets), Captive, and Operation Terror (Experiment in Terror).
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan