DIGGING INTO THE WARNER ARCHIVE: EXPERIMENT PERILOUS and THE TALL TARGET

September 29, 2009

experiment perilous

The Warner Archive is murdering my bank account. The latest culprits are Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (1944) and Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target (1951). After my first purchase, documented here, I’ve tried to stay away from the service, what with its un-restored prints and overpriced DVDs ($20 is a lot for a burned disc), but they are pumping out an endless array of rare goodies that would tempt even the cheapest cinephile. I couldn’t stay away for long.

I was drawn to Experiment Perilous because of the praise of Chris Fujiwara, who in his definitive study of the director, The Cinema of Nightfall, described it as “one of Tourneur’s most personal and beautiful films.” It’s also one of his most unknown, at least from my perspective, having not heard of it until it popped up on WB’s release schedule. It’s most famous, perhaps, for containing a mesmerizing performance from Hedy Lamarr, her own favorite, as she relays in her decadently titled autobiography, Ecstasy and Me.The print used on the DVD contains adequate sharpness, but has suffered a decent amount of wear and tear over the years. There is a consistent amount of scratches and dust marks, but nothing terribly distracting. It’s watchable, if nowhere near pristine.

In 1944, Tourneur was coming off the lower budgeted success of his Val Lewton horror films, having churned out the remarkable duo I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man the year before. Handed an A-picture budget from RKO, he delivered Experiment Perilous, a Victorian age psychological thriller often compared to Gaslight, which was released the same year. It’s an adaptation of the novel by Margaret Carpenter, which screenwriter Warren Duff altered by moving the setting from the present day to the turn of the century. It was rumored that Hedy Lamarr’s request to wear period costumes necessitated the change, but Fujiwara reports that it was more of  narrative decision:

Executive producer Robert Fellows offered a more reasonable explanation: ‘It was felt that the slightly archaic quality of the heroine, who appears in the book as a cloistered and frustrated orchid, would lend itself to a clearer expression on the screen if presented against a less realistic background.’

Hedy Lamarr’s Allida is not just a “cloistered and frustrated orchid”, but is quite possibly mad. Or at least her older husband Nick Bedereaux (Paul Lukas) seems to think so. He employs Doctor Bailey (George Brent) to look into her curious peccadilloes, which include sending herself daisies and then denying doing so, and hallucinating that she is being followed.

Tourneur opens the film with a train ride, in which Bailey is introduced to Nick’s bird-like spinster sister Cissie. In a voice-over, he opines that Cissie herself might be insane, as she clucks at him about her home and family like he was an old friend. Tourneur frames him against a mud-spattered window, and then captures their mottled shadows on his suit jacket (see right). This minor contact with the Bedereaux family has soiled him, and this mark dooms him to further entanglement in their sordid story.

Once home, he joins a fashionable dinner party, admiring a snake-haired female statue his pal Clagg unveiled. Tourneur emphasizes Bailey’s connection to this image of the Medusa, joining him first in medium-shot, then pushing into a close-up. Clagg’s attempt to demonize womanhood through his art speaks to Nick’s impotent attempt to harness Allida’s sexuality, and Bailey’s low-key Perseus is here to slay that demonization.

 

Tourneur lavishes most of his attention on the Bedereaux home, in the stunning set design of Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey. This vision is of an accumulation of knickknacks and rooms within rooms, a gilded prison to keep Allida busy and away from the prying eyes and more virile bodies of possible pursuers. Fujiwara notes:

The incredible profusion of bric-a-brac in the Bedereaux house not only makes us aware that Allida is merely another piece – albeit the centerpiece – in Nick’s collection but also creates a stifling atmosphere that correlates with Allida’s panic.

Just inspect the image I started the piece with. Allida is in the right foreground, arguing with Alec, a young poet-admirer, who stands askance at the fireplace. Nick is reflected in the far left-hand side of the mirror, blurred and indistinct. Alec, paired with Nick by the mirror, is simply another man trying to impose his vision of Allida onto her. Alec’s vision is romantic, but it is still controlling and allows Allida no voice of her own. Shunted off into the far corner of the frame, Allida is alone and increasingly fragile, the painting in the background a subtle rhyme to the mens’ artistic, almost directorial designs on her.

It’s a densely visual film – any frame I grabbed would be rich with symbolic significance. Tourneur’s narrative strategies are as oblique as his images are direct, as he obscures motivations and elides major events (the two murders which drive the plot are never shown), repressing them into Hedy Lamarr’s dewy-eyed stare and Paul Lukas’ skittish motormouth. It all adds up to a dreamlike reverie on sexual obsession and death, richly upholstered.

***

The Tall Target will always have a special place in my memory as the first (and so far only) film I saw at the Cinematheque Francaise. There was an Anthony Mann series running during my (only) trip to Paris, and viewing this historical noir in a the finely appointed theater (not the same place as the New Wavers sat, but the recent Frank Gehry-designed space) was a damn near transcendent experience. The inky blacks of Paul C. Vogel’s Alton-esque cinematography seemed to melt out of the frame (the Warner Archive disc captures these deep blacks remarkably well.

This counterfactual bit of history has Inspector John Kennedy (Dick Powell) attempting to thwart an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln before his inauguration, on a train ride from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. The pacing is unnaturally taut, the performances, from Adolphe Menjou’s sickly sweet Colonel to Ruby Dee’s resolute slave, are stellar across the board, and Mann wrings incredible tension out of a scenario we already know the conclusion to (spoiler: Lincoln doesn’t get assassinated). Utilizing low-angles to convey a sense of cramped intimacy, he often frames the figures against the ceiling of the train.

This strategy leads to an astonishingly subtle tracking shot that turns Powell from predator to prey in the brief flash of his pupils. Entering a train car, Powell is in search of a gun, as he’d already been targeted by a Confederate goon. In a long shot, he waltzes in, keeping his eye on the pockets of the passengers. He espies a revolver in the pocket of a passed out schlub, and he casually sits down on the adjacent armrest. Mann cuts in to a medium shot of Powell, and then a close-up of the gun. The man rolls over onto it, making it impossible for Powell to grab it.  He winces, stands up, and continues on his way.

Mann then pushes in to an extreme low angle close-up, framing Powell’s head tightly against the lamps above his head. It is a smoothly disorienting shot, eliminating the passengers and focusing on Powell’s increasingly strained and wrinkled forehead. Then, in a flicker of his eye to the left of the screen, almost indecipherable upon first viewing, Powell registers fear. The camera arcs around him to the left, settling onto a close-up of a gun pushing into his back, ending the sequence on a note of symmetrically grim irony. It’s a 1 minute sequence of incredible grace and narrative economy, introducing Kennedy’s ruthlessness and the motif of exchanging guns, which leads to perilous consequences later on. This minor Mann would be a major work for any other artist.

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