A Successful “Experiment”

When Blake Edwards died last December, he was known mostly for comedies.  The writer/producer/director had done several seminal ones such as The Pink Panther, 10, and Victor/Victoria.   He’d actually begun his career in front of the camera, appearing in small, usually uncredited roles between 1942 and 1948.  While most were B pictures, he did get into The Best Years of Our Lives, They Were Expendable, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, and A Guy Named Joe, before moving behind the camera.  Edwards made his first big splash in television, not with a comedy but as the creator/producer and sometimes director and writer of the stylish private eye series, Peter Gunn.  He could do serious movies as was proved by his directing of The Days of Wine and Roses and the classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  

One of his lesser-known films has been a favorite of mine ever since I first saw it on late-night television when I was a kid.  Experiment in Terror is a thriller based on the book Operation: Terror by Gordon and Mildred Gordon (credited as “The Gordons”).  They were a popular husband-wife writing team in the 1950’s.  Their book Undercover Cat was the basis for the 1965 Disney movie, That Darn Cat.  Today their books are almost forgotten, but at that time they could insist that they do the screenplay for any adaptation of their stories.  Unfortunately, some of the dialogue they wrote is the weakest part of this film.  In one scene they had an FBI agent inform a possible accomplice after-the-fact that the agency doesn’t make deals and anyone involved in a crime must face prosecution.  It would have sounded forthright in those days, but today it’s amusing.  The plot, however, is strong, and Edwards was perfect for directing it.

The movie opens with Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick) driving across the San Francisco Bay Bridge, which is likely the third most-filmed bridge in the US behind the Golden Gate and the Brooklyn Bridge.  She pulls into the garage at her home, but as she gets out of her car the garage door seems to close of its own accord.  She hears someone’s wheezy breathing and calls out.  Suddenly she’s grabbed from behind.

You don’t get to clearly see the villain, played by Ross Martin, until halfway through the movie.  Even his credit was withheld until the very end of the film.  Martin had been working steadily in television for over a decade, including doing a Peter Gunn episode.  His major break was three years away, with his role as Artemis Gordon in The Wild Wild West.  He continued to work regularly every year, even doing a Mork and Mindy episode in 1981, the year he passed away from a heart attack.

In the garage, Kelly is told by her attacker that he wants her to steal a hundred thousand dollars from the bank where she works (the equal of 750,000 in today’s dollars).  If she tries to go to the police, he’ll kill her, and reveals he’s killed twice before.  He also threatens Kelly’s sister, Toby (Stephanie Powers, in her second film role), whom Kelly is raising.  After an abortive attempt to contact the FBI, the Feds track her down and learn of the plot.  There begins one of the best cat and mouse thrillers ever filmed.

Glenn Ford portrays the lead FBI agent, John Ripley.  Ford was a transplanted Canadian, born in Quebec City in 1916.  His family settled in Santa Monica, California, when he was 8 years old.  He’d been given a contract by Columbia in 1939, but his career was put on hold by service in WWII.  Afterwards, he returned to Hollywood and soon carved out a niche as a solid leading man in such movies as Gilda, 3:10 to Yuma, The Blackboard Jungle and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.  He made over 100 movies before retiring in the early 1990’s.  He died in 2006 at the age of 90.  Ripley was a perfect role for Ford – a sympathetic authority figure, almost a marshal character from a 1950’s western placed in the modern world.

Lee Remick had followed the route of many actresses in the 1950s by starting out in television before she moved on to movies.  She stood out in her first two films, A Face in the Crowd and The Long, Hot Summer, but her fourth film, as a wife who may have been raped in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, was what made her a star.  As Kelly she was vulnerable at times, but could also show a steel backbone as she fought back against being compelled to steal.  The next movie Remick did was the alcoholic wife in The Days of Wine and Roses, also directed by Edwards.  Sadly, cancer claimed her in 1991, when she was only 55.

The movie was enhanced by an evocative score by Henry Mancini.  The composer started in Hollywood doing mostly uncredited work, even composing music for Abbott and Costello meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  He did get credit – and an Oscar nomination – for adapting the music in The Glenn Miller Story.  He burst out of the background by doing the score for Peter Gunn, which began a life-long collaboration with Edwards.  For Experiment, he used a slow, hard bass line, a slightly distorted piano and then strings for the melody and random glissandos as if a fingernail was drawn across piano strings.

Interestingly, the movie’s trailer mirrored the one for The Devil Wears Prada a few years ago.  They simply showed a slightly cut-down version of the first few minutes of the movie (described in the third paragraph above) and then challenged the viewer to come see the rest of the movie.

It can be hard to find a DVD of this movie to watch, but it is worth the search.

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