The absolute ultimate in sensual shuddering suspense—see, hear and FEEL it for yourself!
A woman who paints and repairs manikins for a living walks around her semi-dark work room, feeling uneasy as she prepares for bed. She has already consulted an FBI agent about a man who has threatened her. An unsettled and unsettling solo piano on the music track wanders aimlessly over the keyboard, adding a further tone of anxiety. As Philip Lathrop’s sly camera moves among the silhouettes of hanging manikins, one dark shadow doesn’t seem to belong. And it moves.
This scene occurs relatively early in Experiment in Terror, and the actress (Patricia Huston), who, yes, soon will be found dead, is not the leading lady. The anchor of the film, Lee Remick has already, from the opening scene, been threatened herself by the same psychotic killer and must endure a number of hallowing experiences at his hands. Her fear is indeed vividly conveyed, and she makes the terror compelling.
Somewhat inexplicably ignored in its genre, the movie is well crafted, with fine acting from all concerned. The effective Henry Mancini score is properly restrained in its sinister undertow—this is not a bloody slasher, exploitation film—and, as well, is generally devoid of the jazz and pop traits that made the composer famous.
Blake Edwards, who directs with a relaxed yet tense control, directed the same year The Days of Wine and Roses; Remick received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and Mancini a win for his title song. In the next two years Edwards and Mancini would join talents in the first two of the Peter Sellers/Clouseau films, The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark. In 1978 came the last of the official zany detective movies—certainly the funniest—The Pink Panther Strikes Again: “That is not by dog.”
As one of the key signatures of this stylish film, the full face of the asthmatic killer, played by Ross Martin, remains hidden throughout much of the plot. At best, only his eyes stare out from the shadows—and always, always, the sound of his heavy breathing and the deep, raspy voice. Gradually, tantalizingly, more of his face is revealed, but not until he stretches out on a bed, half way through the movie, is his entire face seen for the first time. He threatens Remick again in the ladies’ rest room disguised as a stooped old lady in black coat, drab hat, wig and dark-rimmed glasses that exaggerate his eyes. Remick, in a panic after he leaves, is seen in an overhead shot, cowering in a corner of the room.
Although “Red” Lynch has warned Kelly Sherwood (Remick) not to go to the police, she seeks out FBI agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford). The actor delivers here a typically strong performance, his character like so many he has played—straightforward, seemingly unexcitable, undeterred by any problem, confident, in this case, he will get his man.
Despite Ford’s many quality films, including five with Rita Hayworth, time has done this versatile actor an injustice, and his being one of the best actors of the ’50s and ’60s is now generally unappreciated. His finest films include Gilda (1946), with Hayworth, The Big Heat (1953), with Gloria Grahame, The Blackboard Jungle (1955), with then new-comer Sidney Poitier, 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and certainly Experiment in Terror.
He began an array of Westerns early in his career, making perhaps even more of the genre than did James Stewart mid-career. Ford’s best Western is possibly 3:10 to Yuma. As captured criminal Ben Wade on his way to trial, he is guarded by Van Heflin, the two waiting in a hotel for a train, with Wade attempting to psych out his chaperon.
In stark black and white with glaring car headlights, Experiment in Terror begins as Kelly drives at night across the San Francisco OaklandBay Bridge to her suburban home which she shares with her sister Toby (Stefanie Powers).
Mancini’s music here is neither especially tuneful nor an omen of trouble, primarily the neutral beat of a drum and the sparkle of light percussion, as Kelly parks her car in the garage. The music abruptly ends to allow for other sounds—the noise of the engine before she shuts it off, a dog barking in the distance.
As she walks from the car, she is startled by the rumble of the closing automatic garage door, which she didn’t initiate. Then faint but heavy breathing. “Is anyone there?” she asks, her eyes wide with mounting fear. The sudden return of the music anticipates by seconds a gloved hand clamped over her mouth. (A move more startling without the anticipatory music?) A deep voice wheezes, “Nothing’s going to happen unless you do something foolish.”
Lynch plans for Kelly to steal $100,000 from the bank where she works as a teller. He will kill her if she goes to the police. When she does contact Ripley, he assures her that she will be all right, that he will get this man, that he will play it cautiously and wait for him to make the first move.
In the meantime another woman, Nancy Ashton (Huston), contacts Ripley for advice about a friend’s part in a serious crime. Ripley suspects the “friend” is the woman herself, and his discovery of the link between Ashton and Kelly comes too late when Ashton is found murdered in her manikin workshop.
In a subplot, Lynch’s girlfriend, Lisa (Anita Loo), cannot believe he is guilty of statutory rape, assault and murder because he is paying the hospital bills her six-year-old son’s (Warren Hsieh) operation. Despite the apparent dead-end, Ripley gleans a few leads on his killer.
Lynch calls Kelly and arranges a meeting in a night club/game center. This further adds to Kelly’s apprehension, though the viewer can easily tell that the man who approaches her is not Lynch, and Ripley had suggested Lynch might send an accomplice with instructions. Still it is a tense episode. Since Kelly has never seen her tormentor, she accompanies the man (Al Avalon) who drives her away in his car. Only after the man’s confusion and her relief is it revealed that he had mistaken her for a pickup.
In pursuit of his quarry, Ripley enlists the help of a bald-headed con man and informant for the police, “Popcorn” (Ned Glass, memorable as one of a quartet of crooks in Charade ). “Popcorn” says he knows where a man lives who is arranging for Lynch’s flight from the country. In the stakeout, shots are exchanged and “Popcorn” is accidentally killed.
Lynch phones Kelly once again. She has to steal the money now and must deliver it to him at Candlestick Park—its sad demolition came in 2015—during a night game between the Giants and the Dodgers. (The ticket Lynch sends her costs $2.50!) The bank theft is overseen by both the bank and the FBI. As insurance, Lynch has kidnapped Toby and locked her in an abandoned apartment building.
The climax of Experiment in Terror is the film’s pièce de résistance. During the game, tension building, Kelly watches and waits from her seat. She is not contacted. (Several Dodger players, including pitcher Don Drysdale, make cameo appearances.) It’s only after the game, as Kelly moves through the exiting crowd, followed at a safe distance by Ripley and his men, that Lynch, wearing a hoodie and sunglasses, grabs her.
Ripley seizes Lynch from behind. Without the money, he breaks free and fights his way through the crowd and on to the playing field. Coming from down the aisles of the now deserted stands, the agents surround him. He fires at the helicopter hovering a few yards above him, then is shot by Ripley. Spread-eagle on the pitcher’s mound, Lynch gasps his asthmatic last.
Experiment in Terror ends with a gradual aerial pullback until the entire stadium fills the screen. Denied a place in the main title, Ross Martin’s name now appears for the first time in a single credit line as having played “Red” Lynch. Like the neglect of the film, Martin, so menacing here as Lynch, is one of the great, unrecognized villains of the screen.