Blake Edwards is best known for his Pink Panther films, and the Bo Derek vehicle, Ten. These winky farces seemed dated even when he made them, like your father showing up in a ‘70s disco suit, leering at your girlfriends. Before that, Edwards directed Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Experiment in Terror, a stark, paranoiac cop thriller, shot in moody black and white and featuring a great, schmaltz-free Henry Mancini.
Here the leering is balanced with sympathy for a working girl heroine, Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick), who is without boyfriend, husband, or even a budding romantic relationship with the FBI agent who protects her. Her vulnerability is the crux of the film, which burns with the low level sense of her constant peril.
Her trouble begins as Kelly drives home one night to her San Francisco suburban house. In her garage, she is accosted by an unseen, asthmatic male suspect (Ross Martin, of Wild Wild West fame), who issues longwinded instructions about embezzling $100,000 from the bank where she works, or he will kill her younger sister, Toby (Stefanie Sherwood). The initial undertone here is uncomfortably erotic; Kelly seems, at times, almost turned on by the situation, as if nearness to a man is so unfamiliar to her that her body reacts despite the obvious threat. But when the scene should either progress or end, it just keeps going. The assailant, whose name is Red, repeats his instructions, wheezing on and on. A feeling of suspense gives way to a feeling of impatience.
When Red finally leaves, Kelly quickly phones FBI Agent Ripley (Glen Ford), with whom she arranges to meet covertly at the bank the next day. The FBI then begins an elaborate round-the-clock watch of Kelly and Toby, all the while looking for Red. Like in the above mentioned garage scene, the subsequent scenes of staking out, stalking, and general unease all seem to go on longer than needed. Edwards has said that his comedy style involves stretching scenes “past the breaking point” of audience endurance, to push gags so far they become surreal (Peter Sellers plainly loved this approach). Edwards made Experiment in Terror two years before he would team with Sellers for 1964’s A Shot in the Dark, but the films share a penchant for agonizing, prolonged suspense. Scenes go on forever and ultimately go nowhere, though they do push at that “breaking point.” Red herrings and cases of mistaken identity creep by, and a subplot about Red’s Asian girlfriend, Lisa (Anita Loos) comes and goes, introducing a maguffinish stuffed tiger into the story.
Through it all, our faith in Ripley and his FBI team is never strong; time and time again, they pursue the wrong man, or let the killer move freely through their undercover midst, or frighten Kelly. They are less of a comfort than an additional source of anxiety. In one scene, he manages to accost Kelly while she’s in the ladies room of a diner. Even with a dozen agents outside, help just a shout away, Kelly lets him just walk out the door. It’s as if she doesn’t entirely trust them to be competent, or perhaps Blake just needs to keep the anxiety ball rolling. Prolonged suspense seems to have lost its appeal in our current cinema, perhaps due to the unceasing anxieties of our age. Remember that 1962 was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis: fear of institutional disintegration in the face of unpredictable assailants was all the rage. In addition to Experiment, 1962 saw the release of Cape Fear and The Manchurian Candidate, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents was going strong on TV.
Most of these domestic invasion tales still held that the government or the cops would protect the populace. That is, until the Vietnam War era, when Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson had to go up against psychos on their own, and procedure only got in their way. Into the 1970s, suspense films audiences could endure only so much; then they needed a giant shark or a chainsaw to cut the tension. But such bloody payoffs weren’t part of the 1962 formula. Suspense was just an extra long wait for the cavalry to come. In fact, the primary forward-looking element in Terror is the presence of the single white female protagonist, unmoored from romantic attachment, at the mercy of the ugly world, a film device to keep our concern on overdrive.
The post-Marion Crane heroine knew never to take a shower in a strange hotel. Thus the “sexless,” victimized heroines like Kelly, forerunners to the Clarice Starlings and virginal slasher film survivors of the decades to come. They are working girls, orphans who had to grow up fast, but who maintain their virginity, their sign of innocence. Kelly starts and ends Terror manless.
Neither Red nor Ripley pursues her sexually; the closest she comes to romance is in the car belonging to man she lets drive her home from a nightclub, mistakenly thinking he is Red, with further instructions for her bank heist. The driver is drunk, oblivious that she has mistaken him for someone else. For him, her fear is normal, just sexual nervousness, a signs she’s not yet deadened to the cold mechanics of the swinging lifestyle.
The scene at the club where she meets this man is easily the film’s most powerful. Set in a noisy, swinging nightclub, it’s the only time where Edwards’ suspense tricks create any kind of interesting subtext. Kelly, shaken and scared, has come to the club following the killer’s orders to meet him, but she still doesn’t know what he looks like. Undercover feds are everywhere in the crowd, but she doesn’t know what they look like either. Kelly is instantly sized up as fair game by every louse in the joint. Meeting their gazes, she is unsure whether they are cops, the killer, or just men on the prowl, all potentially dangerous.
This scene uncovers a sad truth: Kelly’s adventures are more a eulogy for an unrecoverable pre-terror state than an experiment in terror. When the smoke clears, when the villain’s dead and the feds go home, Kelly, Toby, and Lisa will still be adrift in a world of strange, hostile males, all waving their missiles at any attractive target who happens by.