[Reprinted from Hey, Did You Ever See the Movie...?]
Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick) arrives home, parks her car in her garage and is immediately assaulted by a man who keeps to the shadows. He knows that she works in a bank and he demands that she rob her employing institution of $100,000—or he will kill her and her teenage sister, Toby. If she goes to the police, or tells anyone about him, he will, again, rain down harm and death upon the Sherwood sisters. Unbelievably shaken, Kelly summons the courage to contact the FBI and gets John Ripley (Glenn Ford). The bureau gets on the case, watching Kelly and Toby, waiting for the man to strike again. Soon, they learn his name—Red Lynch—and learn his record of statutory rape, robbery, assault, but they just can’t seem to find him. Time and again, he eludes them. He calls Kelly over the phone, taunting her, terrorizing her. He stalks Toby at the pool. Ramping up his tactics, Lynch murders a seemingly-unconnected woman who knows something about the plot, then begins donning disguises, threatening Kelly in person—most bizarrely, he follows her into a rest room dressed as an old woman. The closer Ripley and the bureau get to Lynch, the more mysterious he becomes. Eventually, it comes down to tried-and-true police procedure to get the job done.
Based on the novel Operation Terror by husband and wife writing team Mildred and Gordon Gordon (who also wrote the novel “Undercover Cat”, the basis of Disney’s That Darned Cat!), Experiment in Terror is Blake Edwards only “real” foray into the suspense thriller. Many reviewers, in retrospect, have beaten up on this movie for what they consider its tedious pace, claiming that Edwards drew out scenes for suspense the same way he drew out his Pink Panther set-pieces for laughs, doing the atmosphere more harm than good. I can’t say that I completely disagree, either, as some scenes do seem to take a long time to go nowhere. Subplots also come and go—particularly aggravating is the “witness”, played by Patricia Huston, who works in a mannequin warehouse. She’s unconnected to Kelly in every way, but still knows what Lynch is up to. Lynch, in typical villainous fashion, is watching Huston’s character as well, and waits until the very last minute to kill her and string her up among the plaster people she creates. Both the scene in which Lynch is revealed standing motionless among the statues and the manner in which Ford finds her body are both terrific set pieces, but seem to belong to a different movie. Huston’s “witness” has so little bearing on the story that it’s difficult to figure out why she’s even there—so ambiguous is her presence that you start to think you might have missed something earlier on.
More successful is the way Edwards stages the action so that Lynch’s face isn’t fully revealed until he appears in drag during the restroom scene. We hear his labored, asthmatic breathing via close-ups of his mouth pressed against phone receivers. We see bits here and there in the shadows and we even seem him in the daylight in his own apartment, but he never quite turns his face directly to the camera—either his arm obscures it while he struggles to awake, or he is positioned just so, and the viewer actually cranes his neck to see this villain. Until the almost too-ludicrous drag scene, this frustrating obfuscation is almost all the tension we need. (Indeed, the charade goes on well past the final frame of the film as Wild, Wild West’s Ross Martin isn’t identified as Red Lynch until he is finally apprehended at Candlestick Park! And only then, he’s relegated to a single title card as the camera cranes up.)
Ford and Remick are both in fine form, particularly Remick who plays bravery through abject terror all the way through the film. Remick makes Kelly so strong, yet so vulnerable, you can’t help but worry for her safety—especially when it seems like the FBI is doing little more than just hanging around waiting for Lynch to show up, rather than hunt him down—this is particularly aggravating during the lead-up to the rest room scene, again, as the very obvious Lynch-in-drag shuffles right past two of our nation’s finest law enforcement officers.
So not without its flaws, obviously, Experiment in Terror does have some good, tense moments scattered throughout. The DVD is out of print, but it’s not too hard to find and it is available via Amazon’s On Demand services. The cinematography by Phillip Lathrop and Henry Mancini’s character-in-and-of-itself score more than make the movie worth the attention.