Blake Edwards’s Experiment in Terror
Since its release in 1962, Experiment in Terror has inspired artists from David Lynch to Lana Del Rey.
Almost 60 years ago, filmgoers were introduced to Experiment in Terror (1962). The film opens with a beautiful woman driving a convertible across the San Francisco Bay Bridge at night to Henry Mancini’s moody score. After the woman turns onto her street, a sign for “TWIN PEAKS” looms in the right-hand corner. The sign, referring to a real neighborhood in San Francisco, is not a coincidence, but an indication of the film’s broad influence on the noir genre and its descendants.
Since its release in 1962, Experiment in Terror has inspired artists from David Lynch to Lana Del Rey. Sometimes considered a “neo-noir” due to its production several years after the film noir’s heyday, the movie represents a bridge between the classic noir period of the 1940s and the glut of serial killer content which started arriving in the wake of The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
Experiment in Terror forms an uncharacteristic entry in the catalog of director Blake Edwards, a filmmaker better known for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Pink Panther (1963), and a lengthy list of comedies (including seven Panther sequels). But with Experiment in Terror, which came between Tiffany’s and the Pink Panther run, Edwards went into darker directions made possible by the success of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) two years before.
In the film, a criminal named Garland “Red” Lynch (Ross Martin) demands that Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick), a young bank teller, rob her workplace. If she doesn’t assist in the bank job, Red Lynch will kill her—and her kid sister, Toby (Stefanie Powers). However, Sherwood enlists the help of trusty FBI agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford), who helps her negotiate with and resist the killer through a variety of schemes and encounters, culminating in an epic and climactic set piece—a chase and shootout during a Giants–Dodgers game at the then-new Candlestick Park. Adding to the film’s verisimilitude, the ballpark sequence features close-ups of Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale and play-by-play narration by longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully.
Taken as a whole, Experiment in Terror lives up to its name—decades later, it still scans as an experiment, but one that adopted Hitchcockian storytelling techniques and took them just a bit further, teeing up the neo-noirs that David Lynch, Ridley Scott, and Jonathan Demme made in the following decades.
The book from which Edwards’s “experiment” is adapted, Operation Terror (1960), has its own fascinating provenance. The book and its screenplay were written by husband-and-wife duo “the Gordons”—Mildred Gordon and Gordon Gordon (his actual name), who met and married after attending college at the University of Arizona. Many of their novels centered around the adventures of cool, confident FBI agent John “Rip” Ripley. Gordon Gordon was an FBI agent himself, serving as a counter-intelligence agent for the law-enforcement organization during World War II. According to Gordon Gordon, the theme of the “innocent person in the wrong place” usually informed their stories. “During our college and FBI days we encountered much of this and marveled at the innate courage and jaw-setting of even the quietest victims,” Gordon explained in an essay published in the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers.
After the couple realized the screenwriter who adapted their 1950 novel Make Haste to Live was paid 40,000 dollars by the studio, while they only received 5,000 dollars for the novel rights, they made sure to lobby for the screenwriting gig for any adaptations of their work.
Operation Terror, the basis for Experiment, was serialized in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1960. Given that the Gordons adapted their own novel, the screenplay follows the novel’s plot almost exactly, except that the setting of the story was shifted from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The novel’s hardboiled style is over-the-top yet well rendered, peppered with narrative interiority such as, “A man’s face, [Sherwood] thought, was like the dust jacket of a book. You could read a lot in it, and you could usually tell when the cover was designed to lead you astray.”
Occasionally, flashes into a character’s backstory are incited by banal triggers, leading to a style that at once feels calculated and perhaps unintentionally parodic. In one scene, after the detective learns about an informant named “Popcorn,” Ripley remembers that “he’d eaten plenty of popcorn in college. That had been his last year, when cattle prices tumbled and his mother almost lost the ranch.” That’s the entire flashback. Though the book has long been out of print, its narrative is spare, concise, and elevated by the humor (intentional or not) of these asides, setting an intriguing template for the movie.
Experiment in Terror’s relationship to Hitchcock was noted at its release. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote in 1962 that “Mr. Edwards is a youthful director who has obviously studied Hitchcock, Huston, Reed, et al., and who knows how to make the fast cut and the shattering assault upon the ear.”
More recently, New Yorker critic Anthony Lane described Experiment in Terror as “a movie about movies, a very early American reflection of the methods and moods of the French New Wave realized as a mainstream Hollywood film.”
As Lane elaborated, though the film relies on Hitchcockian camera angles and suspense elements, Edwards “empties the schema of key Hitchcockian elements in order to make the film his own. The first thing that he removes is psychology. Where Norman Bates in Psycho is suffering from a particular mental illness with a specific clinical cause, the criminal in Experiment in Terror, Red Lynch, is just a bad guy built of a batch of character traits, some nasty and some noble, that don’t add up or fit together.”
As a result, Experiment in Terror feels more like an exercise in style than an exploration of psychological themes, as so many Hitchcock films ended up pursuing. “Edwards isn’t so much interested in the way things work as the way things look,” Lane concluded.
But the way Experiment in Terror looks is masterful for a film of its time, and particularly influential to David Lynch’s body of noir-inspired work. Not only is there a “Twin Peaks” sign in the opening sequence that seems to have inspired the title card and name of his hit show, but the villain, Garland “Red” Lynch, says he’s “killed twice before,” a line memorably echoed by the supernatural Twin Peaks (1990–91) villain, Bob, when he declared he would “kill again” in season one, episode three. The archetype of a trustworthy and assured FBI agent (a type increasingly, and many would say rightfully, challenged by more complex crime dramas) anticipates the example of Kyle MacLachlan’s upstanding FBI agent character, Dale Cooper. In addition to the striking coincidence that Edwards’s villain shares a surname with Lynch, the Twin Peaks character of Major Garland Briggs might also be named in homage to the villain of Experiment in Terror.
Other Lynch projects bear significant resemblance. In Wild at Heart (1990), Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru grips and speaks to Laura Dern’s Lula Fortune in much the same way that Red Lynch clutches Kelly Sherwood in the opening sequence. Throughout the runtime of Experiment in Terror, Red Lynch is shown making phone calls in shots where only his lips and the bottom of his face are visible, a technique David Lynch used to unsettling effect in Mulholland Drive (2001).
Other scenes seem to have left an impact on the genre at large. A scene where a dressmaker (Patricia Huston) is found dead in an apartment full of mannequins seems to anticipate, or at least invoke, the trope of finding a dead body—or a killer—in a creepy space filled with mannequins, such as the storage unit in The Silence of the Lambs or the workshop of J. F. Sebastian in Blade Runner (1982). More problematically, a startling cross-dressing scene with Red Lynch makes him one in a long line of serial killer characters in film that have contributed to harmful transphobic stereotypes (including Norman Bates in Psycho, Robert Elliot in Dressed to Kill, 1980, and Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs).
And yet Experiment in Terror continues to be reinterpreted by other artists. In 2018, Lana Del Rey used the Mancini score in a set-piece to her “LA to the Moon Tour,” her mid-century aesthetic and onstage persona lining up with the Sherwood character.
Experiment in Terror showcases the potential of experimentation. Blake Edwards took risks and went outside his mainstay comedy genre for this project, and the result was a film with a long and influential legacy that helped define the trajectory of the neo-noir and its serial killer cousins. The closest modern parallel might be Todd Phillips pivoting from comedy to comic book crime drama with Joker (2019). Courage in storytelling, not unlike the bravery which the Gordons admired in their innocent protagonists, usually generates interesting results.