Husband and wife writing team Mildred and Gordon Gordon, working as The Gordons, had many works adapted for the movies, including Make Haste to Live (1954) and That Darn Cat! (1965). Their 1961 novel Operation Terror became one of my favourite thrillers, the gritty Experiment in Terror (1962).
The story is an FBI procedural in which Special Agent John “Rip” Ripley (Glenn Ford) works to prevent a killer from claiming more victims while enacting his scheme to rob a bank. Rip gets a late-night call from a young woman, Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick), who needs protection from an extortionist psycho. In a terrifying opening sequence, Kelly is grabbed in her garage and told by the wheezing man holding her, that she must rob the bank where she works and give him the money, or he’ll murder her little sister (Stefanie Powers). Kelly defies the asthmatic killer’s order to stay silent and establishes secret communication with Rip through a cleverly coded phone conversation.
As Kelly and Toby pretend to obediently go on with their routines and prepare for the robbery, apparently never having involved the law, Kelly talk to the stakeout agents and meets with Rip at the bank, while his team work frantically to piece together a profile of their villain. With some help from informant “Popcorn” (Ned Glass), they learn the man is Red Lynch (Ross Martin), and following the clue that he dates Asian women, they’re led to one (Anita Loo) who seems to be protecting him. They’re surprised to learn it’s because Red’s been financing her son’s medical treatment. Meanwhile, we’re shocked to watch Red murder a mannequin dresser (Patricia Huston). That woman had just come to Ripley with a seemingly unrelated concern about a friend dating a strange man, and her murder shows us that Red is ruthless and his threats against Kelly and Toby must be taken seriously.
These strands and characters are all masterfully woven together to produce a greatly suspenseful thriller, and one that often gets overlooked, not only in its genre but also among its director Blake Edwards’ credits. It’s the only feature of this kind that he made (he’d done slick crime in TV’s Peter Gunn) and different compared to his own work from those years, preceded by the romantic Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and followed by the sad Days of Wine and Roses (1962) and farcical The Pink Panther (1963).
It’s a cliche to say a city is a character in a film, but that’s the truth about San Francisco in this one. The novel’s action took place in Los Angeles, and the memorable climax during a Rams-Colts football game. For the movie the city was changed to SF and the manhunt to a nighttime baseball game, Giants-Dodgers at Candlestick Park. (Reminded me of the manhunt in Stray Dog (1949), not to mention many movies since.)
Experiment was photographed by Philip Lathrop in black and white, and has a wonderfully moody noir look in every frame and location: offices, bedrooms and parking garages, nighttime stakeouts in city and suburbs, all are captured with deep shadows, sharp angles and stark contrasts. The apartment full of staring mannequins would give some people the willies even without a stalker hiding among the dummies and leaving a murder victim strung upside-down. It’s part of the movie’s focus on body parts, starting with the extreme close-ups on Red’s mouth and Kelly’s horrified eyes; great images but also hints at Red’s view of women. Adding to all this dread and tension and making scares more chilling, despite the film’s lack of blood and violence, is one of Henry Mancini’s best scores. He uses isolated instruments and strange, sad and gloomy melodies, a piano tinkle here, a horn there, the eerie sounds of autoharp played with a metal pick.
The acting is just as strong and understated. Lee Remick is tough and defiant, scared but never a victim, because she’s quick-thinking and unafraid of confrontation. Red arranges for her to meet (him or a representative, she has no way of knowing) at a peculiar carnivalesque bar/burlesque/shooting gallery nightspot, where she stands around looking so desperate to be picked up that some random creep ends up taking her and her FBI tail for a ride. Her exit from this “wrong guy’s” moving car and right into the path of a speeding truck is just one of her daring displays of daring. She’s alone and open to attack, but she becomes the mama bear protecting her little sister. It’s a great character and one that doesn’t just exist to be in jeopardy and rescued or romanced by the lawman.
The Agent Ripley character was featured in several books by the Gordons, and in the movie Down Three Dark Streets (1954) was played by Broderick Crawford. Here, Glenn Ford is just the steady, determined, focused, careful man you’d want and trust in this kind of nightmare. He’s a comforting emotional anchor for Kelly, has a sense when something’s off, doesn’t take advantage of the women in distress, and isn’t ashamed to admit he might be wrong. He’s part of a very positive picture of dedicated, hard-working, humble and heroic agents who get their man, which makes it hard to understand why the real FBI wasn’t thrilled by the film.
That bad man was the monumentally creepy and unforgettable Ross Martin, whose name isn’t revealed until his very special end credit. He gloats and provokes and seems to know and hear everything Kelly does. Suspecting (though not yet able to confirm) that she’s being watched, Red dresses in granny drag to corner her in a restaurant ladies’ room. When he’s wearing a hoodie at the stadium, he looks uncannily like the Unabomber sketch. In every disguise and appearance, Martin never fails to rivet and rattle the viewer, and it’s a performance that, like Psycho and Cape Fear from that era, paved the way for the modern showy villains through Dirty Harry to Silence of the Lambs, Se7en and beyond. But no matter how sweet his gesture of helping a girlfriend’s kid or how cute it is that he buys the kid stuffed toys, no matter how human Martin’s dependence on an inhaler (that’s quite a few noirish movies with asthmatics as baddies), actor and script just present those things as mystifying contradictions. They don’t try to explain Red, or ask that you like or understand him. If anything, the more “human” weaknesses Red is shown to have, the more unpredictable and dangerous he becomes, and the more satisfying his dramatic end on the pitcher’s mound.
Experiment in Terror is a must for fans of crime and suspense movies, and it’s my contribution to the Beyond the Cover Blogathon hosted by Liz of Now, Voyaging and me. Click here to see the roster and stay tuned to both our blogs all weekend to see all the contributions.