Rob Harmon’s Picks 04/01/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksROB HARMON’S PICKS 4/1/14

Join us as we search this week for… Buried Treasure at Best Video!

Experiment in Terror (dir. Blake Edwards, 1962)

If you are in the mood this week for a nifty, classic thriller with tinges of noir, one sufficiently overlooked as to be – well – criminal, than my recommendation is to look in the Blake Edwards section of Best Video. “What?!” you are probably thinking. “You mean the same director responsible for such comedy classics as THE PINK PANTHER, A SHOT IN THE DARK, THE PARTY, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S and 10?” Could this be an April Fool’s joke or some indication of the confusion going on during Best Video’s current renovations? Not in the least.

EXPERIMENT IN TERROR opens with beautiful black-and-white night-time views of San Francisco, as frequent Edwards collaborator Henry Mancini’s score swells, the credits roll, and the camera follows the homeward journey by car of Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick), via the Golden Gate Bridge. Upon arriving home in the—ulp!—Twin Peaks neighborhood and parking her car in the garage she is accosted by a man (Ross Martin) whose face is shrouded in shadow. He informs Kelly in his asthmatic wheeze of a voice that she is going to help him rob the bank where she works as a teller, or else he will kill both her and her teenage sister, Toby (Stefanie Powers), and—furthermore—that he has already killed twice before. After the intruder has left Kelly takes a risk and phones the FBI, in spite of his warning, and is connected with agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) briefly before the line is cut. What ensues is a wonderfully twisty cat-and-mouse game between Kelly, Ripley and the FBI, and the psychopathic antagonist as he attempts to pull off the daring heist.

The film features two memorably eerie set pieces: one, the opening sequence in the garage where Kelly is held from behind by the unseen assailant and which takes place in close-up and (mostly) one startlingly-long take, with a few brief cutaways. Second, there is an extended sequence where the killer stalks a woman… in the shadowy interior of a mannequin studio! (Why not?)

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Edwards’ direction is sure, unadorned, and marvelously economical, as one would expect from a filmmaker who had cut his teeth in the early days of television, on shows such as Mr. Lucky and Peter Gunn: from a greasy stool pigeon who spends his days in a moldering movie palace watching the Keystone Cops, to a noisy nightclub—overflowing with seedy revelers and undercover G-men—where Kelly is supposed to rendezvous with the antagonist. Experiment in Terror is stylishly baroque and filled with unexpected little details and flourishes, while the film’s overall atmosphere remains palpably perverse and nightmarish.

Remick and Ford are both solid in the leads and Martin makes for a memorably demented psychopath: his campaign of terror is icily effective and believably enacted.

Many iconic San Francisco locations are utilized and the city’s sleazy, decadent characterization is memorable, likely influencing later film classics such as BULLITT and DIRTY HARRY. Mancini’s score is one of the most distinctive ever composed, all throbbing electric bass line and the sound of two autoharps (an instrument similar to a zither), one jangly and out of tune and the other playing shimmering glissandos: one of the rare themes in movie history capable of searing itself into the brain after only a single listen. It manages also to compactly express the mood of Edwards’ film: a beautiful surface sheen – as befitting a picture made during the Camelot era – but one which covers over a dangerous, ugly reality and lurking menace. In spite of its title this is no mere “experiment”: Edwards proved early in his career—and before it would be defined by the madcap antics of Inspector Clouseau—that he was a versatile filmmaker worthy of note.

(And for further proof, also check out the tender and heartrending DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, which Edwards made the same year.)