When I was a kid, my family used to take a bungalow in the Catskills for the summer. It was a wonderful place where I got to explore the woods surrounding the bungalow colony, play softball until my ears fell off, and hang out with my friends all day and all night, with almost no parental or other supervision—it was great, and one of the greatest things about it was the one evening per week everyone in the colony would assemble to watch that week’s movie. It’s startling, to realize what a thrill a weekly movie could be, because now I’ve got a universeful of every type of entertainment—movies, old TV shows, concerts, lectures, guitar lessons—at my fingertips, and it’s no big thing. Every few days, I preview the upcoming shows on cable and –ho-hum—decide which two or three of them I’m going to record on my DVR, and which ones I’m going to pass on, because who has that kind of time to watch all of this stuff? Most of the time, it just sits there, anyway, unwatched for months on end.
This week, I recorded a movie I hadn’t seen since I first saw it over 50 years ago, 56 years ago, to be as precise as I can, the summer of 1963. It was released in the summer of 1962, and filmed in the summer of 1961, but I’m quite sure we didn’t see first-run features while they were still being shown in movie theaters—we got them once they’d gone out of general release, six months or a year after they’d run in the theaters.
This one was called Experiment in Terror, and it was the creepiest movie I had ever seen. I was only ten that summer, so I hadn’t seen a lot of creepy movies yet, but this one stayed burned into my memory, probably because I’d seen it only that one time. Other creepy movies and TV shows and thrillers, like Hitchcock’s Psycho or Donen’s Charade or Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone or Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark, I’ve had many chances to view again over the years since I saw them as a boy, but for some reason, I never had a chance to see if Experiment in Terror lived up to my memories of it until this week.
A weird memory, so weird I didn’t fully trust it, was that the last sequence in the film took place during a Dodgers-Giants game in Candlestick Park—I was sure that this sequence was part of the movie but I thought my memory had blown it up from a small scene into a scary extended climax because I was just beginning to be a baseball nut that year, and it was exciting (and surprising) to find myself suddenly at a night game in Candlestick. I’d attended a day game at Yankee Stadium two years earlier with my dad, which was fun but not at all scary, and I’d seen a few games on TV, but, no. This Dodgers-Giants game, filmed in the summer of 1961, was shot for maximum suspense and it was a crucial segment that showed me how to read the entire film. Re-watching it in the summer of 2019, the baseball sequence was a very spooky final fifteen minutes—weird, jarring, disturbing, as the director, Blake Edwards, intended it to be.
IMBD gave the date of the game as August 18, 1961, exactly 58 years ago today, which was the date indeed shown briefly on the ticket in the film, (cost: $2.50, fourteen cents of which was taxes) and signed by Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham.
August 18th was indeed a Friday, as the plot specifies, but when I looked the game up on baseball-ref, I found some frustrating discrepancies, suggesting that the clips of the game didn’t reflect the actual game played that night, and featured some players who didn’t appear in it. In 1962, this sort of fact-checking would have been impossible, of course, so no one would have felt deceived, until right this second.
Edwards did use some actual clips of the game that was played that night, a 2-1 victory by the Giants in extra innings on an Orlando Cepeda walk-off HR off of Larry Sherry, but most of the baseball sequences came from different games or, even more strangely, were filmed separately using non-MLB actors. I find this odd, since it violated Occam’s Razor, the law of parsimony.
Parsimony dictates that since Edwards’ crew was filming in Candlestick Park on August 18th anyway (some clips were definitely taken from the actual game—crowdshots of thousands of spectators, a play or two from that night’s game, etc.) and since it is mindbogglingly complicated to arrange for an entire film-crew to set up shop inside an MLB game in progress, and since there is no connection whatsoever between the game as played and the plot of the film, Edwards literally could have intercut clips of any part of the August 18th game and the finished film. That would have far less complicated, much cheaper, and an all-around saver of numerous migraines for everyone on Edward’s crew.
The game was simply filler—its events are meaningless. It would have made exactly as much sense to feature shots from August 18th as it does with the baseball clips he did include.
So I wondered why he chose to film some extra scenes (the non-MLB players aren’t very convincing, and in places embarrassing) when he could have just used clips from the actual August 18th game, and not bothered hauling his entire film crew out for a second or third night of shooting. Now, I think I understand Edwards’ thinking, at least a little, in the context of the entire film Experiment in Terror but I’ll need to backtrack a bit and discuss what I think he was doing generally before I can make sense of his use of baseball.
The plot of the film, which scared my hair white (OK, it was white already, blond and further bleached by the sun all summer), was very flimsy. Several commenters on IMDB have noted that the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, and the closer you scrutinize it, the less sense it makes: a young, exceptionally pretty bank teller is threatened in her home’s garage by an asthmatic man who orders her to embezzle $100,000 from the bank, or else he will kill her and maybe her younger sister. She goes straight to the FBI, who inform her boss at the bank. Furious that she tattled to the FBI, the asthmatic man continues phoning her with further threats, finally abducting the younger sister. Along the way, he kills another woman for reasons not clear to me, but he also helps yet another young woman whose child is in the hospital. (None of his motivation for any of this behavior is ever explained.) There are all sorts of other sub-plots: the asthmatic man has a confederate helping plan his escape from the U.S. after getting the money, but the confederate gets killed in a gun battle with the FBI, simultaneously riddling with bullets a newspaperman who feeds his private information to the FBI, but all these sub-plots and minor characters are dead-end diversions from the movie’s main plot, and totally extraneous to it.
Even the sequence where the bank teller steals the money is absurd: she must sneak big bills into her handbag, which she does slowly with all the other bank employees watching—but why? The bank wants her to play along, the FBI knows she isn’t really stealing anything, and she could just have walked into the bank manager’s office where he would have handed her some marked bills. But no. The whole thing gets a full, Psycho-style buildup, about ten minutes’ worth, accompanied by jangly Henry Mancini music. (Psycho had come out the year before, with Tippi Hedren doing the embezzling, and Bernard Herrmann suppling the violins.) Then she takes a cab, where she learns she is supposed to drop the money off in Candlestick Park.
Her cab-driver hands her another package, which he was given by the man who ordered him to drive her to Candlestick, and in that package is her abducted teenaged sister’s sweater. Among other oddities, the FBI has no interest in interrogating the cab-driver, who at the very least may be the first person from whom they could get solid information about the asthmatic man and his interactions with him, and who, for all they know at this point, is his knowing partner in the whole abduction/embezzlement scheme. But they let him continue on his route, as far as we can tell, after he drops her off at the ballpark.
The embezzlement scheme itself makes very little sense, certainly after she has gone to the FBI, which the asthmatic man knows she has done. (He has been surveilling her every move and phone call—how, is never explained.) Part of the film’s creepiness is the omnipresence of the G-men, who keep a multi-man, 24/7, surveillance on both Kelly Sherwood (the teller, played by Lee Remick) and her sister Toby (played by a teenaged Stephanie Powers). Every few scenes, one of the sisters makes eye-contact with one of the many anonymous agents in plainclothes—a man loitering near her, another man drinking coffee at a nearby café, a vendor at Candlestick, etc.—just to establish how closely they are under armed guard at all times. If this very clever crook knows anything about the FBI, it’s that they have the manpower to maintain expert, armed surveillance as long as a crime is in progress, but he goes through with his original plan nonetheless—she embezzles 100 grand and gets it to him, or else.
The bank’s role in foiling this dastardly scheme is pretty loopy, too: there’s a scene devoted to the bank manager explaining to the agent-in-charge (played by Glenn Ford, wearing the doofiest haircut since Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor—combed straight forward, Julius Caesar-style, with a little flip up at the very front, almost a Doctor Zaius look) that, while he would like to approve the $100 grand as bait, the bank’s trustees unfortunately would not, so he suggests that they substitute a dummy package of cut-up newspapers or some such. Miss Sherwood promptly points out that Mr. Heavy Breather will certainly examine the package closely before letting her go, and will as certainly act on his threat to murder her if she delivers a bagful of yesterday’s Chronicle, almost exactly as if the bank manager couldn’t figure this out without being told. Glenn Ford: “We’ll take care of that situation when we get to it,” though we are never told how this critical plot-point gets resolved. Miss Sherwood is next seen surreptitiously and redundantly slipping bills into her handbag, as if banktellers have routine access to six figures’ worth of currency at all times.
I’m not sure, btw, when a bank teller would have been naturally addressed as “Miss Sherwood” by her boss, with her referring to him as “Mister Burkhardt” rather than using first names, especially in private, but this would seem a quaint practice in only a few more years. By the late 1960s, certainly by the early 1970s, when I entered the work-force, people were first-naming their bosses and co-workers routinely. Calling people “sir” and “ma’am” simply dropped out of all business relationships except the most strictly formal, but it’s in full force here—just a side-observation about social changes that jump out at you if you look for them.
Another creepy plot-point in the film are all of the extraneous women-in-jeopardy (I’ll take “Wide-eyed, Frightened Ladies” for $200, Alex) aside from Miss Sherwood, especially the ones seen in their underwear, which is a recurring motif in the film, and one that had a certain visceral appeal to ten-year-old boys, as I recall. Stefanie Powers, about 18 years old, is asked to remove her clothing as soon as she’s abducted, which she naturally is reluctant to do, until Mr. Asthma (played brilliantly by Ross Martin, later of Wild, Wild West renown) tells her “Take off your clothes. You want me to take them off for you?” She removes her skirt and sweater. We get to see her for an extended shot pulling her sweater over her head and standing in his shadowy hideaway wearing only her bra, scared to death of what his next move will be.
Cut to: the FBI conferring in an office somewhere.
Earlier in the movie, there is a different brassiere scene that’s even more extraneous to the plot than the one featuring Stefanie Powers. By “extraneous,” I mean that it doesn’t actually contribute to the plot’s development—it, and the entire character of Stefanie Powers as the kid sister, for that matter, is a false clue. The plot could proceed perfectly without either brassiere-clad character, or several other characters (almost all women), and it would be a tauter, swifter, more efficient movie if all of these characters had been excised from the film’s script entirely, at least as far as the plot goes. So what’s their function here?
The previous brassiere scene features a mysterious woman named Nancy Ashton (played by Patricia Huston, no relation to John or Anjelica that I can tell, though the facial resemblance is there) who bears some shadowy relationship, never explained, to Mr. Wheezerd. Apparently eager to spill what she knows to the FBI, she is murdered before she can do so, in her home by someone (guess who!) who, unknown to her, has been lurking in her apartment as she phones the FBI asking them to pay her a visit. Before they arrive, however, and after she hangs up the phone, she removes her blouse and parades around the house in a black brassiere for a few minutes, then (off-screen) meets her wheezy fate.
Now, at the age of ten, I needed no rationales for looking at attractive ladies in their undergarments—I would describe that as one of a ten-year-old boy’s prime directives: Look at ladies in their underwear every chance you get. But none of these alluring moments lead anywhere—as best as I can dope out, Nancy Ashton knows Mr. Audible Respiration well enough to be in on his plans (she keeps Kelly Sherwood’s name and address in her purse), though his plans don’t really need a conspirator, especially one who might rat him out to the authorities, as Miss Ashton tries to. Her function in the plot seems to be to divert the audience’s attention away from the central theme, and to make the plot (both that of Blake Edwards and of Red Lynch, which is the villain’s real name) seem more complicated than it needs to be. Red Lynch, in other words, is really Red Herring.
Experiment in Terror, incidentally, seems to have had quite an effect artistically, on the director David Lynch. The coincidence of names aside, the film’s setting is explicitly in the Twin Peaks area of San Francisco, and all of the brutality, the threatening of women, the FBI’s straitlaced assurance of their safety, and other plot points were central to much of David Lynch’s later work.
The setting of San Francisco generally contributes to the film’s mood—all the hilly cityscapes, the isolated hilltop houses, Fisherman’s Wharf, the fog, Candlestick itself—and one of the more interesting San Franciscan elements is the way the film uses Asian actors, not as ethnic oddities, as stereotypes, flatter than Caucasian actors. When the FBI looks for a woman who may know Red Lynch’s whereabouts, for example, they interrogate their waiter in a Chinese restaurant, whose dialogue has none of the servile, semi-literate clichés of Chinese waiters—both the FBI-men and the waiter speak to each other in normal, conversational English. This was slightly unusual for its time, the most typical rendering of the usual treatment of Asian characters being Mickey Rooney’s over-the-top racist performance in the previous year’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, also directed by Blake Edwards, who later regretted both the casting and the characterization:
Blake Edwards said that when the movie was made, he didn't think about the implications of casting an actor of European heritage, Mickey Rooney, in a role as a Japanese person, but "looking back, I wish I had never done it... and I would give anything to be able to recast it." (from IMBD’s BaT Trivia page).
Rooney’s performance was just excruciating, as subtle as a percussive fart in a Quaker Sunday service. The whole movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s was, to my mind, a disaster that subverted the entire theme of Truman Capote’s subtle, moving novella. (I used to teach a course in “Movies that Fucked Up Their Source Novels Totally,” though we called it something else, I think, and BaT was Exhibit A.) But Edwards learned a lot from it quickly, and EiT was skillful in ways BaT was dreadful.
The FBI is interrogating the Chinese waiter because they’ve learned that Red Lynch frequently consorts with Asian women (still called “Orientals”) and they finally locate one of them, a Miss Lisa Soong, who is protective of Lynch, denying even knowing him at first, and hostile to the FBI’s aims even after they tell her that she herself may be in mortal danger. Miss Soong, played by Anita Loo, is a completely three-dimensional character, perfectly articulate in conversational English, deeply conflicted about her loyalties to the law and to Lynch. Mysterious and sullen, but not in any stereotypical Asian way, she’s just another San Franciscan providing a diversionary plot point from Red Lynch’s scheme. We never find out the true nature of her relationship with him, which is complicated: she has a six-year-old boy in the hospital, and it’s implied that the monstrous villain has a soft side for her child, possibly committing his crimes in order to pay for his many medical procedures and operations. But this explanation is only implied, and barely so. Aside from the fact of her ethnicity, and that of her hospitalized child, she could have been played by an actress of any race for all the importance of her ethnicity in the story. (Incidentally, Glenn Ford tosses off one line in Cantonese, completely out of left field, when Miss Soong is phoning her Chinese lawyer in that language—conveniently, the lawyer lives across the street from her, and is available on a moment’s notice, though the part he plays in the plot, like so much else, is totally irrelevant other than to create another dead-end plot development. He crosses the street, and mostly remains silent throughout Ford’s character’s interrogation of her.) I have no idea what Ford says in Cantonese, or what the point of his linguistic dexterity is, but if anyone ever asks you if Glenn Ford spoke Chinese in an otherwise all-English-dialogue film, you have the answer.
Anyway, the final 15 minutes or so of the film has Miss Sherwood sitting in the Candlestick grandstand, clutching the $100,000 and her kidnapped sister’s sweater, as the baseball game is underway, intercut with scenes of the FBI raiding the shop where Lynch has stashed the younger Miss Sherwood, unharmed although sweater-less.
It’s never explained why the sisters are living together without parents. In an expositional scene, Lee Remick discusses her sister: “Toby and I are very close, and she’s a very intuitive young lady.” It would have been nothing at all to insert words like “since our parents died two years ago” between those two sentences. The novel on which the movie is based does explain the parents’ absence in that way—weirdly, the novel was written by a married couple, Gordon and Mildred Gordon (yes, his name is Gordon Gordon) whose credit is “The Gordons.”
There are scenes of the younger sister attending SF’s George Washington High School (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055972/locations?ref_=tt_dt_dt ), although the film takes place in the middle of August, for example, and there are several scenes of the teenagers cavorting at country club swimming pool, among many other minor mysteries of the film’s premise, and I think all of these simple omissions, false plot-lines, investigative dead-ends, tie in to the inexplicable use of the climactic baseball game, which I’ll detail in a moment. I think it’s more important to Blake Edward’s purposes to create a deeply sinister mood than it is to tell a logical and orderly narrative—this mood is the “experiment” alluded to in the film’s title, far more than Red Lynch’s experiment.
As an astute IMDB reader has observed, Lynch isn’t actually “experimenting” with anything—he’s trying to pull off a complicated embezzlement/abduction caper with many illogical components, but the more we learn about his scheme, the less it seems like a deliberate well-designed experiment. He’s just an intelligent nut-job, murdering and kidnapping women who don’t seem to play any part in his objective of stealing $100,000. And if we stretch the definition of the word far enough to call his crime spree an experiment, his aim isn’t really to create a sense of terror. Sure, it’s helpful if the Misses Sherwood are scared enough to follow his orders but his plan actually works better the more rationally and calmly they behave.
The real experiment in terror is Blake Edward’s. He’s trying throughout this highly disjointed narrative to create a mood of terror that doesn’t rely on a coherent story to be effective. It’s as if he’s trying to scare the wits out of his audience while keeping them completely in the dark (almost literally) about the movie’s plot. The overall sense of creepiness this experiment achieves is gained through the very dark lighting, the quick cutting of extreme closeups, the weird camera angles (scenes are shot from way above the actors, and way below them, often in juxtaposition), the disturbing score. The effect is to disorient us, and ultimately to terrorize us, without any recourse to following the plot.
This occurred to me only after asking myself why the baseball game is so far removed from the actual game played on August 18th, when as I mentioned, Edward’s camera crew was filming that game.
The very first play we see, as the older Miss Sherwood gets to her seat after the game has started, is of a Giant batter hitting a two-run homerun. This is a problem, right off the bat, so to speak: in the August 18th game, there were no two-run homeruns hit by anyone. So we start off with a phony shot, and we proceed to other shots of 8/18/61 baseball, of shots filmed on other dates, and of yet other shots filmed separately. The next baseball scene is of Harvey Kuenn hitting a double off Don Drysdale, as he did in the first inning of the August 18th game, https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SFN/SFN196108180.shtml but immediately afterwards the next batter is announced as “Rightfielder Felipe Alou,” when actually Kuenn was the Giant’s right-fielder that night, and Felipe only got into the game as Kuenn’s defensive replacement in the 10th inning, never getting to bat (or to field, for that matter) and cergtainly not being announced in inning #1. The next hit is by Jose Pagan, who played that night, batting eighth, but did not get a hit.
The next announcement is of Drysdale’s opposing pitcher, Mike McCormack, who also didn’t play in that night’s game. (The Giants pitchers were starter Billy Loes, and relievers Billy O’Dell and Stu Miller.) But there are several shots of McCormack on the mound, in medium close-up, so that the field behind him can’t be seen. These shots, like others of Drysdale, catcher Johnny Roseboro and Wally Moon, were shot separately, probably in a studio of some kind, with a dark backdrop simulating the field at Candlestick Park. The only relation I found between these studio shots and the rest of the film is when an FBI agent, looking for Red Lynch, nods solemnly “Yes” in extreme closeup to someone’s question, whereupon we cut immediately to Drysdale nodding solemnly “No” to Roseboro’s pitch selection. Roseboro is probably the most extreme closeup in the film, his face occupying the entire screen, unless a shot of Wally Moon’s hands, and then his face, including his famous monobrow, is even more closeup.
Drysdale, Roseboro, and Moon are credited on Imdb.com, suggesting again that these closeups were shot in the studio, and added to the game sequence—certainly the clips of Mike McCormack pitching had to be shot separately since he didn’t appear in the August 18th game.
There are a bunch of odd plays added to the game (which is narrated in voice over by Vin Scully, presumably doing the “away” feed on the Dodgers’ radio network). According to Experiment in Terror, which as we know ended on Cepeda’s walk-off HR in the top of the 10th inning, this game ended with Tommy Davis, uniform #12, and looking every bit like Davis in long shot, with a full array of fielders, signifying that this was shot at an actual baseball game, hitting into a double-play against Mike McCormack. According to BBRef, https://www.baseball-reference.com/play-index/batter_vs_pitcher.cgi?request=1&submitter=1&batter=davisto02&min_year_game=1961&max_year_game=1961&post=1&throws=L&c1gtlt=gt&c2gtlt=gt&orderby=PA&orderby_dir=desc&orderby_second=Name&orderby_dir_second=asc, Davis did bat against McCormack 11 times that year, but never hit into a DP, and certainly not in this game. Except for the long shot of Davis hitting the grounder towards the Giants’ shortstop, this entire scene is fictional: Blake Edwards must have paid some players, not MLBers as far as I can tell, maybe just athletic actors, to perform discrete bits of baseball: after the grounder is hit, there is a closeup of the shortstop, whose number is barely visible and who is probably not an actual SF Giant, throwing the ball to the Giants’ second baseman, also not a real Giant, and then there’s a very phony game-ending putout at first base.
I say it’s a put-up job because somehow the batter, a dark-skinned Tommy Davis wearing #12 when he hit the ball, has transformed himself into a Caucasian wearing number 55 by the time he gets down to first base. Worse, the Giants’ first baseman is wearing a uniform that ends (or just is) a “7” which no Giant first baseman wore that season. Besides which, he is also a white man, which neither of the Giants playing first base that night, Cepeda or Willie McCovey, will ever be mistaken for.
But the worst is the positioning of the ump who makes the final “OUT!” call at first base—he is standing directly in the runner’s path a foot or so behind the first base bag, making the Dodger runner turn into foul territory to avoid a collision. All this makes me more than sure that none of the personnel were employed by MLB, since anyone who’s ever seen a game would have re-positioned the umpire at the very least. It’s like a training film for umpire school: “Where Not To Stand,” maybe or “Basic Positioning for Boneheads.”
I could go on, but figuring out how much of the baseball was real and how much was fake got me started thinking about all the other fake stuff in the film, the unnecessary plot elements, the illogical decisions by all of the major characters, the inexplicable raising and dropping of characters’ motivations. Since it would have been so much simpler to include bits of the actual August 18th game without including all the extra shots of players on the bench that night, I think Edwards took that trouble to make a point.
He was experimenting with seeing how little a film needs to make sense and still terrify its audience. I suspect Blake Edwards may even have come up with this idea immediately after seeing Psycho, and wondered about Hitchcock’s dreadful tag at the end of that scary film, where shrink intones pompously about the psychopathology of Norman Bates for five or six minutes, as if anyone really cares about Bates’ motivating forces. We just wanted to have the hell scared out of us, and I think that was what Edwards was shooting for, to see if he could scare people with an incoherent plot. I think the sequence of the baseball game played 58 years ago today represented just that little bit of extra trouble Edwards took to make the story that much less coherent.
I’ve got all sorts of illustrative screen shots from the film (taken off my TV) but posting photos here is hard, and I want to get this article up on the actual anniversary of that baseball game. I will try to edit the article to include the screen shots after it goes up. Thanks for reading—I’m kind of rushed to get this posted today, so if I’ve made more than my usual number of typos, I’ll try to get to those as well.