February 26, 2013
Following the gargantuan success of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Blake Edwards acquired the freedom to develop his own projects. Typecast as a director of light comedies, he was eager to explore the stylistic opportunities offered by other genres. Experiment in Terror (1962) is the initial result, a thriller shot in stark B&W, in which Edwards tries out a dazzling variety of styles, from baroque expressionism to naturalistic location photography of San Francsico. The plot, about a bank teller forced to rob her employer, is a dry procedural that moves from clue to clue with Dragnet terseness. Its main job is to move the protagonists around the city, so Edwards can light them in flamboyant chiaroscuro interiors or at Candlestick Park. Experiment in Terror has the feel of a preternaturally talented kid playing with toys previously denied him. Twilight Time has released this bewitching oddity in a richly detailed Blu-Ray available through Screen Archives.
Edwards described that period of his life as one of “constant testing”. He wanted to “try something that was…away from the things that I was suddenly finding myself involved with.” The opportunity to do something different came when Columbia Pictures optioned the novel Operation Terror for $112,500, an astronomical sum at the time. The book and resulting screenplay were written by the husband-wife team of Gordon and Mildred Gordon, who spun Gordon Gordon’s experiences in the FBI (as a counter-intelligence officer during WWII) into crime fiction novels. This particular tale involves bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick), who is forced to steal $150,000 from her job or a wheezing goon named Red (Ross Martin) will kill her sister Toby (Stefanie Powers). Kelly is able to contact the FBI, and Agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) races against the clock to find the psycho before the money is lost or Toby gets snuffed.
The opening is a masterful bit of claustrophobic horror. To the strains of Henry Mancini’s wailing autoharp score, Remick pulls into the garage of her house near the Twin Peaks in San Francisco. With shadows of plant fronds splayed across the wall behind her, she pauses as if hearing a noise. The camera pushes in, and the static shadows become a moving one, the darkened figure of Ross Martin sidles over and slides his hands around her neck. His face in darkness, what follows is an extended monologue of sexual aggression in extreme close-up, as he slides his hands down her body offscreen and ticks off her measurements. This is profoundly disturbing, made even more so by Edwards’ refusal to diffuse the tension with a long shot.
Interiors become filled with grotesques, which Edwards forces in his frequent use of extreme closeups and canted angles, reminiscent of Orson Welles’ delirious Mr. Arkadin (1955). This motif reaches its climax inside the apartment of a mannequin designer and friend of the killer whose apartment is a necropolis of plastic appendages. When Red appears among this pile, he looks like just another mound of soulless molding. A creature more of sound than sight, his labored breathing is the only thing that identifies him as human.
The usual thriller mechanics would demand Remick be piled with stress until she snaps into hysteria, waiting to be saved by a male interlocutor. Instead she is spooked but self-assured, as inflexible as the FBI and as fiercely independent as any criminal. She is completely self-sufficient, with no romantic interests and a cold-eyed intensity at getting the job done. She is so self-confident it rather drains the film of tension – there is no question she will succeed. The interest in the film lies in the how, and in what lighting scheme.
Gradually the film moves from baroque interiors to naturalistic exteriors, all shot on location throughout San Francisco, as if Edwards flipped the channel from Welles to Rossellini. Along with his DP Philip Lathrop, whom he worked with on the TV series Peter Gunn, he captures the Twin Peaks neighborhood, the Fisherman’s Wharf and Candlestick Park with a mix of atmospheric long shots and handheld work. Outside the world is legible with nothing to fear. It is inside buildings and inside characters were there are stresses and manias and kidnappings.
Interiors and exteriors collide in the bravura final sequence at Candlestick Park, during a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the hometown Giants. While most films just use grainy stock footage of games, Edwards actually shot gorgeous footage on the field, and went to the expense of getting additional insert shots of the sweaty face of Don Drysdale before throwing a pitch (anticipating where network coverage was heading). While this is a boon to baseball nerds like myself, this extreme closeup is an indication that the claustrophobia of the opening sequence will reappear in this outdoor space. The climax occurs after the game ends and the crowd is filing out, the cover for Red’s takedown of Kelly and the money. The previous frames of looming faces and headless mannequins are here replaced by a mass drunken revelers. It is only when Glenn Ford can cut through this morass and empty out the film frame that the threat can be nullified. In the final shot a helicopter pulls up and away from Candlestick Park, out into nothingness.
Don Siegel pays homage to that final shot with his own in Dirty Harry, another story of a San Francisco psycho in which the camera pulls away from a blood-strewn stadium into the sky, as if revulsed by humanity. There are also a number of circumstantial echoes in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s landmark TV series Twin Peaks. The title is taken from the San Francisco neighborhood Lee Remick lives in, and Red’s full name is Garland “Red” Lynch. Perhaps tickled with the coincidence of sharing a name with the movie’s murderer, he also named a Twin Peaks character Garland (Major Garland Briggs) as well. So while the film is a compilation of Blake Edwards’ influence, his triumph of style over substance has had its own curious effect on the films that came after.
1 thought on “EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, EXERCISE IN STYLE”
[…] You could pull any frame from this B&W Blake Edwards thriller and nab an arresting image. Edwards followed up Breakfast at Tiffany’s with this downbeat procedural, in which a bank teller is blackmailed into robbing her employer. Pigeonholed as a director of light comedy, Edwards wanted to stretch stylistically, and this contains everything baroquely expressionist interiors, where every piece of set design reflects Lee Remick’s emotional state, to the docudrama realism of the exteriors, in which cop Glenn Ford tracks down the case. For sheer visual bravura, this is my disc of the year. My Movie Morlocks review is here. […]