Friday, April 09, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Experiment Perilous (1944)

After watching SO EVIL MY LOVE (1948) last night at the Noir City Film Festival, we settled in to watch EXPERIMENT PERILOUS (1944), which I felt was the gem of the evening. This was a richly detailed, stylish film beautifully shot in gleaming black and white by Tony Gaudio. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur, whose credits include the classics CAT PEOPLE (1942), OUT OF THE PAST (1947), and STARS IN MY CROWN (1950).

EXPERIMENT PERILOUS has some plot similarities to GASLIGHT (filmed in Britain in 1940 and in the U.S. in 1944), yet it envelops the audience in its own unique mood. The story starts as Dr. Huntington Bailey (George Brent) takes a train ride on the proverbial "dark and stormy night." He comforts a fluttery older woman, Cissie Bedereaux (Olive Blakeney), not knowing that he will soon find his fate inextricably entwined with that of the Bedereaux family.

From these very opening scenes of the film, myriad details capture the viewer's eye: the warmth of the light inside the train as the storm rages outside; the way the shadows of the mud-splattered train windows play across Dr. Bailey the next day at lunch; the ghostlike way Cissie waves goodbye to the doctor at the train station.

Soon after his train trip ends, Dr. Bailey learns surprising news about Cissie from a mutual friend (Albert Dekker) and meets Cissie's brother, Nick (Paul Lukas) and Nick's incredibly beautiful but very shy wife, Allida (the incandescent Hedy Lamarr). Nick confides to Dr. Bailey that something is wrong with Allida; she is anonymously sending herself bouquets of flowers and complains that someone is following her. There's also the problem of their young son, who wails incessantly from an upstairs room found at the top of a curtained staircase... As Dr. Bailey gleans details about the family's history, he is determined to help Allida, even at the risk of his life.

This is a film which will bear repeat viewings to better absorb interesting bits of foreshadowing and other details. As R. Emmet Sweeney wrote a few months ago at the TCM Movie Morlocks blog, "It’s a densely visual film – any frame...would be rich with symbolic significance."

Fortunately, I have a recording made from Turner Classic Movies; it's also available on DVD-R from the Warner Archive.

Anyone who wants to claim Hedy Lamarr was simply a beautiful woman, but not much of an actress, has only to watch her eyes during the flashback sequence when Nick proposes, as noted in a thoughtful review by Glenn Erickson. (Note, Erickson's review is much more plot spoilerish than my own; those who care about such things might want to bookmark it to read after seeing the movie.) I was struck by how much she conveyed about what her character was thinking with very little dialogue.

My liking for George Brent continues to grow; as with Lamarr, it is fashionable in some quarters not to give him much credit for his role in a long list of excellent movies, but over the last couple of years I have found I enjoy him very much. He is just right for the role of the doctor, a substantial and intelligent man who dives into the potentially dangerous Bedereaux mystery with his eyes wide open.

The film's climactic action sequence, like the rest of the film, is remarkable from a visual perspective -- a bit involving a row of fish tanks caused us to gasp just as we had at the shocking end of SO EVIL MY LOVE. I'd love to know how it was done and if it was filmed in one take!

The supporting cast includes Margaret Wycherly, George Neise, and Stephanie Bachelor; Bachelor was a charming actress who appeared in two dozen films of the '40s.

An interesting bit of trivia mentioned by Alan Rode in his introduction is that Lamarr's singing voice was dubbed by actress Paula Raymond. Raymond's acting credits include the period film noir THE TALL TARGET (1951).

Lamarr's gowns were designed by Leah Rhodes, with Edward Stevenson handling the rest of the costume design.

The film runs 91 minutes. It's based on a novel by Margaret Carpenter.

The trailer is here.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy well-made "gothic noir."


Blogger barrylane said...

In the original story, a novel, Experiment Perilous takes place in modern or current time, meaning the mid=forties, and instead of a train, it opens on a passenger flight. I prefer the film's treatment.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Barrylane,

Catching up this weekend on comments which came in while I had a work crunch. Wanted to be sure to let you know I was most interested in that information on the setting of the novel. I had no idea!

When I think of the movie one of the images that always comes to mind is sitting in the dark theater the first time I saw it and the early sequence with George Brent on the train, including the mud-splattered train windows and the warm light. The visual setting really did a lot to help draw the viewer into the story. So interesting to think that wouldn't have been part of the movie if the film had retained the novel's original time setting.

Best wishes,

1:37 PM  

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