April 13, 1962, release date
Directed by Blake Edwards
Screenplay by the Gordons (Mildred Gordon, Gordon Gordon)
Based on Operation Terror by Mildred Gordon, Gordon Gordon
Music by Henry Mancini
Edited by Patrick McCormack
Cinematography by Philip H. Lathrop
Lee Remick as Kelly Sherwood
Stefanie Powers as Toby Sherwood
Ross Martin as Garland Humphrey “Red” Lynch
Roy Poole as Owen Bradley
Patricia Huston as Nancy Ashton
Ned Glass as Jim “Popcorn” Durgs
Anita Loo as Lisa Soong
Warren Hsieh as Joey Soong
Clarence Lung as Yung, Lisa’s lawyer
Clifton James as Captain Moreno
Al Avalon as the man who picks up Kelly at the nightclub
Gilbert Green as the FBI chief
William Bryant as Chuck, FBI agent
Dick Crockett as an FBI agent
James Lanphier as Mr. Cutter, Nancy Ashton’s landlord
Sidney Miller as the drunk
Frederic Downs as Welk
Sherry O’Neil as Edna
Mari Lynn as Penny
Harvey Evans as Dave
William Sharon as Raymond Burkhart
Don Drysdale as himself (pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers)
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Produced by Geoffrey-Kate Productions
Glenn Ford is one of my favorite noir actors—one of my all-time favorite actors—and I looked forward to seeing him in this neo-noir directed by Blake Edwards. And I wasn’t disappointed. Experiment in Terror is a very stylish adaptation of the novel Operation Terror by the husband-and-wife team of Gordon Gordon and Mildred Nixon Gordon. This story of a woman attacked in her own home and coerced into stealing money from the bank where she works is full of tension and suspense. When the DVD I was watching cut out exactly halfway through the film, I went to my local library to get another copy as soon as I could!
For viewers, the tension in the story starts right away after the credits. Viewers know nothing about Kelly Sherwood, not even her name, when she drives over the San Francisco Bridge and the credits roll. When the credits are finished, Kelly Sherwood pulls into her garage and turns off the motor of her Fairlane car. Her garage door closes, and she thinks she hears something or someone in the garage with her. She becomes more and more fearful because she hears a strange sound, something like ragged breathing. Then a man grabs her suddenly from behind. While he holds her by her neck, he threatens her and her sister Toby if Kelly doesn’t agree to steal money from the bank where she works. (The film was originally released in the United Kingdom under the title The Grip of Fear, which is also an apt title.)
The man knows a lot about Kelly Sherwood and her sister Toby. He’s the one who reveals Kelly’s identity and even some intimate details about her and her sister’s schedules and habits. He threatens to assault both of them and kill them if Kelly won’t steal $100,000. He threatens to kill Kelly immediately if she calls the police. Once he leaves Kelly in the garage, she enters her house and makes the phone call to the FBI anyway.
John Ripley is the FBI agent who answers Sherwood’s call, but the man is still in the Sherwood home and attacks Sherwood. He gives her only this one chance: If she calls again, he’ll kill her. But Ripley knows that the phone call was ended abruptly, and he and other agents in the FBI office start calling Sherwoods listed in the local phone directories (the film was made when phone directories were still printed and distributed to telephone company customers). One of the agents finds the right Sherwood, but Kelly is hesitant about talking; she doesn’t want the intruder to know that agents at the FBI office called her back. Kelly Sherwood is resourceful, however; she pretends to talk to someone who has lost a lighter so she can give out details about her workplace as a meeting place, a sort of lost and found where someone could retrieve a lost item. Ripley puts surveillance details on Sherwood’s house and on the bank where she works.
(This blog post about Experiment in Terror contains spoilers.)
Nancy Ashton comes to the FBI office to talk to an agent about a friend in serious trouble, and she is assigned to Ripley. She leaves without giving many details, but she calls the FBI office again and asks Ripley to come to her home to talk about the criminal trouble her friend is in. Another FBI agent, Owen Bradley, accompanies Ripley to Ashton’s apartment, but when they arrive, they find Ashton dead. Soon, the apartment is swarming with investigators, and an FBI agent finds a piece of paper with Sherwood’s name and address on it in Nancy Ashton’s purse. It appears that the cases are connected.
Experiment in Terror comes with some twists, and some of them lead nowhere, which is probably very realistic and the most common experience of any law enforcement officer. For example, the man threatening Kelly Sherwood leaves a note in her sister’s bag when the sister, Toby, is at a swimming pool with her boyfriend. He wants to scare both Kelly and Toby, and the move is effective because the note asks Kelly to meet him alone at the Roaring Twenties nightclub. She decides to meet him, and she leaves the nightclub with a man, a stranger, that she thinks is an accomplice. It turns out that he thinks Sherwood is a prostitute, and the whole incident provides nothing about the identity of the would-be bank robber or any clues about his plans.
The FBI tracks down enough information about the man to know that he is Garland Humphrey “Red” Lynch and already has a lengthy criminal record. He likes Asian women, and one of them is Lisa Soong, but she seems to be another lead that goes nowhere. Ripley and Bradley track her down and interview her. She says that she doesn’t know Red Lynch. When they press her, she says that she wants to talk to her lawyer before she’ll talk any more to Ripley and Bradley. Once the lawyer shows up and offers his advice, Lisa Soong admits that she does know Red Lynch, but she hasn’t seen him recently and doesn’t know where he lives.
Ripley and Bradley find it hard to believe that Soong has seen Lynch only a few times since they met two years ago, so they decide to put her under surveillance. They follow Soong to the Kaiser Foundation Hospital, where she visits her six-year-old son Joey. Ripley talks to the boy about what he knows about Lynch, but it isn’t much. Ripley then confronts Soong, who doesn’t believe Ripley when he tells her that Lynch is a rapist and a murderer. Lynch has been very good to her and her son: He pays for Joey’s costly medical bills. The film spends a lot of time examining this plot point, but viewers never learn why Lisa Soong is such an important part of the investigation. Perhaps the uncertainty is meant to add to the unease, but I still wanted to know more Soong’s connection to the case.
If I have any complaint at all about Experiment with Terror, it’s the length: I wish the film had been a little bit shorter. I found myself wishing some of the later scenes had been faster paced. They were a little too drawn out and didn’t always keep up the suspense of the first half of the film. The director chose to linger on some shots and on some scenes, seemingly to draw out the tension, but I just didn’t think it worked in the last half of the film. I was craving progress in the story and more detail, not shots that lingered.
The film is based on the novel Operation Terror, which I read after seeing the film. I thought it would fill in some of the gaps presented in the film. For instance, in the film adaptation, Nancy Ashton’s connection to Garland Lynch and to Kelly Sherwood is never made clear; Agent Ripley offers a guess that Ashton probably found herself in a position similar to Kelly Sherwood’s, but nothing more is said about her once she has been found murdered. Lisa Soong’s connection to Lynch seems to be based solely on the fact that he has a predilection for Asian women, but that doesn’t explain his willingness to pay for her son’s numerous and expensive medical bills. The film never offers a motive for Lynch’s victimization of women in general, although maybe that, too, is the point: Evil doesn’t always have an explanation. (I’ll have to write more about the novel Operation Terror in a future blog post.)