Blake Edwards’ 1962 thriller, Experiment in Terror, opens on the night skyline of San Francisco. Lines of traffic cruise down the highway in the pitch black with Henry Mancini’s haunting and sinister score lumbering in the background. It then cuts to a suburb with a convertible pulling into a garage. Out of this car steps out a beautiful young woman, Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick). She’s single, works as a bank teller and she lives alone with her younger sister, Toby (Stefanie Powers).
Toby is already in bed and Kelly is about to lock up for the night when suddenly, the garage door slides down unexpectedly when she didn’t press any button or do anything. Out of nowhere, a man lunges at her. With his gloved hand clasped over her mouth and his face entirely in shadows, his asthmatic voice wheezes into her ear that Kelly has to steal $100,000 from the bank she works at for him. If she doesn’t co-operate or goes to the police, he will kill her and her sister. He states that he has done it before, and he will not hesitate to do it again. He then opens the garage door, ditches Kelly inside and leaves. But he’ll be back again and again until Kelly finishes the job.
Edwards was known as a director who worked in comedy. His best-known work being the bumbling Inspector Clouseau Pink Panther series and the Audrey Hepburn starring vehicle, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Experiment in Terror, no matter how hard people can argue for or against it, is no laughing matter. It blends elements of a Hitchcockian thriller, a police procedural and film noir into just over 2 hours with no meandering fat or fluff. No love interest, comic relief or weak subplots are found here. The film is just hard-wired suspense that is kept to a basic level of filmmaking.
Initially, Remick’s performance is that of a scared rabbit. There is a sense of paranoia surrounding her at all times since coming into contact with the shadowy figure. She’s fearful of taking her sister to college the next morning, she keeps her eyes peeled constantly at work for any suspicious behaviour. However, her bravery does manage to shine through her fear. Immediately after the assailant leaves her alone for the first time, Sherwood frantically rings the FBI office about the mysterious intruder. However, the criminal still manages to get the upper hand and knocks her down before she can speak any further over the phone. The man lets her off the hook, just this once and leaves the house again. But even though this phone call was brief, too brief in fact, it was still more than enough time to tell the FBI of the danger that lies ahead of her. There’s a lot of admiration for Sherwood’s character – she isn’t just a damsel in distress.
This incident sparks off the investigation led by Agent Ripley (Glenn Ford). Ford’s role in the film is given a large amount of screen time, going as far to interview and question the suspect’s girlfriend, Lisa Soong (Anita Loo) and her 6-year-old son who has recently undergone hip surgery. Though despite his questionable method of work, Ripley’s character is steely, firm and fair. Kelly questions why the culprit hasn’t killed her or sister yet because of being involved thoroughly in the investigation – surely he would know by now? Ripley simply states that he has probably panicked and taken an educated guess before making further threats. He is knowledgeable enough to know how criminals operate.
Though despite some good characterisation, strong performances, gorgeously shot location black-and-white cinematography and a memorable score from Mancini, Experiment in Terror’s main downfall is that despite the unusual long runtime for a late film noir, it still doesn’t manage to tie up any loose ends. What became of the sisters at the end? What was the criminal’s motive and why? Who were the other women that he killed and what functions did they serve for his back story? A lot of plot beats go unaddressed leaving the audience craving more answers – that would make the film a more rewarding watch. The story doesn’t manage to fill in the blanks and skips over important pieces of information. But think of it as a good complaint. Experiment in Terror still manages to convey dread through its minimalist narrative and characters.
After this, Edwards made the drama, Days of Wine and Roses once again starring Lee Remick before making a slew of Pink Panther movies. One would only hope that he stepped out of the world of comedy once again. When he is outside of his comfort zone, he knows how to handle other genre pieces well, perhaps better than what other filmmakers gave him credit for.