SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen this film before, I will discuss elements of the plot. So you may want to watch the film before reading the review. This film is currently available for streaming on the Criterion Channel as part of their Columbia Noir collection.
As you might guess from the film’s title, Experiment in Terror is a film that relies on tension and a level of gritty storytelling that must have been unusual when it was released in 1962. From the film’s opening scene, we realize that this film is not going to hold back at all.
In that opening scene, Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick) comes home only to be assaulted by a man (Ross Martin) with a raspy voice and asthmatic breathing. The man holds her mouth so she cannot scream while he tells her that she must steal $100,000 from the bank where she works otherwise he will hurt her and her sister, Toby (Stefanie Powers). The man says that he has her home under surveillance, so she must not attempt to contact the police. It is a nightmare scenario.
However, she is able to reach out to the local FBI office, where agent John “Rip” Ripley (Glenn Ford) is put on the case. From here, the film’s basic plot is set, although there are many twists and turns along the way.
Remick gives a powerhouse performance, and her role is the main reason why the film is so successful. We feel for her in every way. We wonder what we would do in her situation. We rise and fall as she does. Ford also gives a fine performance as this noir film’s obligatory investigator. He brings the same level of gravitas that worked so well in The Big Heat, another classic Hollywood noir. Finally, as far as the principal cast goes, Powers gives an understated performance as Toby. She has a key scene late in the film that really raises the stakes. This film is all about how tension is built, and the actors do a wonderful job in that regard.
What is maybe most amazing about this film is that it was made by Blake Edwards - a director more closely associated with comedic films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This film was his direct follow-up to that light-hearted classic, and this film is a stark contrast in style. Edwards uses set pieces incredibly well here, especially the closing scene at the Giants game. Edwards, along with cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop, does a fantastic job of composing stylish visuals within the confines of this noir picture. As is often the case in noir films, light and shadow play a key part in the narrative. There are many striking shots - right from the very beginning as Remick is caught off guard by the asthmatic man.
One particularly eerie scene takes place in a mannequin shop, and it is as creepy as it sounds. I was really struck by some directorial choices like this that must have seemed rather odd in 1962. Today, we’ve become somewhat numb to shocking elements in film, so this one doesn’t seem so unique. But I wonder how it must have been received by those early audiences.
The film’s screenplay was adapted by Gordon and Mildred Gordon from their novel, Operation Terror. I’m always fascinated by how adaptations are brought to the screen, and you might wonder about having the authors adapt their own work for the movie version. But the screenplay seemed tight and well-written to me.
The music - from legendary Henry Mancini - is also one of the most memorable elements of the film. Though it is somewhat sparingly used, the theme song is especially effective at introducing the feel of the film. It is mysterious, with a dark quality to it.
The classic noir is such a great genre because it has a basic storytelling design. The story often revolves around a crime, and someone is trying to get to the bottom of it. There’s already built in tension, and the light vs. dark, good vs. bad elements are seemingly endless. The best noirs are the ones able to stay devoted to the key elements of their specific story, and this film does that very well.
There’s a special joy about going back and unearthing gems that you had previously never seen. I watched this through the Criterion Channel during their Columbia Noir collection, and I was instantly smitten. Though it isn’t as shocking today as it must have been more than 50 years ago, it is still captivating. The performances draw you in, and the artistry at work elevates the material. If you’re ever looking for a classic noir film, don’t miss this one.
Note on content: There are disturbing scenes, as the main villain attacks the female lead character and later holds another character hostage. In this later scene, he has the character remove her shirt. There is no nudity, but the scenes involving the villain may be too disturbing for young viewers. There is also a scene in a mannequin shop where the mannequins are nude, but the scene is creepy more than anything. A woman is shown after being murdered. She is hanging from the ceiling, and it is implied that she is nude though nothing is shown onscreen. There are threats of rape and violence in the film, but the actual violence shown onscreen is quite tame by today’s standards. It is a suspenseful movie that should be appropriate for most viewers, however the tension may be too much for young viewers.