A couple of months ago, people over at the I Love Film board were submitting lists of their twenty favorite films of all time. Somebody had the 1962 noir Experiment in Terror as their number four film (after Sans Soleil, A Woman Under the Influence, and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.) This intrigued Filmbrain, as he had not seen nor heard of it. What was this film that followed those three masterworks? The first thing that struck Filmbrain was its director -- Blake Edwards -- someone associated more with classic comedies (S.O.B., The Party) than with noirs.
In the opening montage, a car drives up a canyon road and passes a sign leading to Twin Peaks. (Was Lynch giving a nod to this film with his TV series? Lynch fans -- please comment.) The film wastes no time getting into the action. As soon as Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick, not pictured here, alas) arrives home, she's grabbed by the asthmatic villain (Ross Martin) that will torment her and her sister (a young Stephanie Powers) for the next two hours. Kelly works in a bank, and asthma boy tells her she will have to steal a lot of money or he will kill her sister.
The film breaks with many narrative conventions usually associated with noir. We learn early on who the villain is, and the police are well aware of the situation. This, unfortunately, is the film's downfall. After this powerful opening, it just sinks into tedium. Kelly has every detective in San Francisco watching out for her -- at home, on the street, at work, in restaurants, etc. Never do we get a sense that she is ever in any danger. There's a lot of waiting around in this film, and too much time is spent following lead detective 'Rip' Ripley (wonderfully played by Glen Ford) as he chases various leads as to the whereabouts of the tormentor. A whole slew of secondary plots appear that aren't really necessary, and there are too many minor characters that serve as pure exposition. By the film's final act (a way overlong sequence at a baseball game, with gratuitous scenes of Don Drysdale pitching) Filmbrain lost all interest. However, the film did have something wonderful going for it -- style, baby, style.
Edwards and his cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop have created something that is a joy to watch for two hours -- a good thing considering the weakness of the plot. The film becomes a lexicon of film noir visual conventions: heavy shadows, contrasting patterns, high and low angles, etc. At times they perhaps go a bit overboard, as witnessed by the three photos above. San Francisco seems to be in a state of perpetual sunset, and everybody owns Venetian blinds. (How does the shadow wind up on the ceiling in that bottom shot?) The shots on the right are more indicative of what's to be found in the rest of the film -- stunning use of lighting and shot composition.
The other winning element in the film is the score -- Henry Mancini at his finest. Some wonderful motifs and themes that are never overbearing or used to excess. (Does a soundtrack exist on CD?)
Filmbrain can't help but think that Edwards was more interested in the look of the film than the film itself. He is quite skilled at storytelling, so perhaps the fault lies with the screenwriters ('The Gordons', as per the credits). It's not a terrible film, and Filmbrain certainly would still recommend it. The visuals and the acting (especially Glen Ford and Ross Martin) make up for what it otherwise lacks. The excellent DVD transfer brings out the richness of the cinematography in all its black and white glory.