A Successful Experiment in Terror

The opening moments of Blake Edwards’ Experiment in Terror almost don’t belong in the early 1960’s. It’s more than 50 years later and the initial meeting between Kelly Sherwood, a unsuspecting victim, and Red Lynch, a psycho with a list of criminal charges too long for this review, is still unsettling, effective and uncomfortable.

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Kelly Sherwood? It’s time to meet your mouth-breathing creep of a psycho.

The film, based on the 1961 novel Operation Terror, quickly identifies itself as a not-so-nice suspense thriller with an emphasis on police procedure. The immediate involvement of the FBI and Agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) give cause for conflict outside of the immediate encounter. And despite some far-fetched elements, Experiment in Terror is a realistic and jarring approach that goes beyond the dark depths most film noirs, a style which Edwards employs into the 1960’s, managed to cross in the 20 to 30 years before this film

Lynch, who remains unidentified for about half the film, wants Sherwood to rob the bank she works at. He uses threats, fear and intimidation, as well as Sherwood’s (Lee Remick) younger sister Toby (Stefanie Powers) as his main negotiation tactics. What makes the initial encounter so frightening, aside from the suffocating visuals, is Russ Martin’s sheer on-screen demeanor that, even though you can’t see his face, is so off putting. He dominates from a distance as Red Lynch for most of the film. His awkward speech impediment, deep breaths and laboring asthmatic delivery are chilling.

Ross Martin's asthmatic delivery as the psycho Red Lynch is chilling.

Ross Martin’s asthmatic delivery as the psycho Red Lynch is chilling.

Because Experiment in Terror is ultimately a police procedure film built on noir tendencies there’s a lot of running around, a lot of phone calls being made, a lot of tips being given and a lot of other similar moments that, luckily, Edwards breathlessly directs and organizes into a quickly paced but still intensely dramatic film. Without it, we might be bogged down in a bore. Edwards also makes great use of his black and white and shadows, using them to frame key moments between Sherwood, Lynch and Ripley.

But I find myself directing attention back to the performance of Martin and the Red Lynch character. Two years before this film’s release an at least equally and perhaps creepier Norman Bates, from Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho, was thrown at American movie-goers. To me there is something so much more real about Lynch. Both are violent against women, both employ dressing in women’s clothing to at least advance their plot and both are generally downright disturbing. Still, I view Experiment in Terror as being an almost anti-Psycho, the opposite of what Hitchcock directed, for better or worse.

Hello, Kelly.

Hello, Kelly.

I’ve always been in love with these types of films that make use of their locales. Like The Naked City did for New York, Experiment in Terror does for San Francisco. In fact, Dirty Harry‘s serial killer investigation might owe a thing or two to this masterpiece. The film’s conclusion takes place at Candlestick Park during a Giants/Dodgers game, and as Vin Scully’s legendary voice graces our ears, we’re welcome to an edge-of-your-seat type of finale.

Speaking of influences, I think there’s a lot of other similar films, some more modern, that owe a lot to Edwards effort. One that comes to mind is David Fincher’s Zodiac. Both are masterpieces of manipulating suspense, albeit in different styles, that isolate characters close to the central conflict and discuss and evaluate motives. They both contain a number of elements far beyond their shared city of San Francisco.

I knew nothing of this film before reading a review of the recently-release Blu-ray from Screen Archives Entertainment and now that has saddened me. I don’t know of many contemporaries of this film that are as bold as this one. And to think, Edwards directed this dark foray right after Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Framing. Execution. Blake Edwards is on top of his game with this film.

Framing. Execution. Blake Edwards is on top of his game with this film.

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