There's an old saying, which I think was first spoken by Bugs Bunny (I may be wrong about that) that says "Be the change you want to see in the world". It's a wicked cool idea, in theory. You want people to be nicer to you? Be nicer to them. You want people to recycle better? Show them how? It's a lead by example kind of thing, reminding us all that we have power within us to change the lives of others.
There's a flip side to that idea, the yang to its yin, that can be used for other means. In the sports world, coaches call it "imposing your will" on others. After all, if the change you want to see in the world is the opposite of what others want to see, you have to fight against their will to meet your needs. And that's the struggle at the heart of Experiment in Terror, a 1962 thriller with an aggressor who's ahead of his time psychologically.
The film opens with a simple sequence that sets the tone for the next two hours. An attractive female San Francisco bank employee - played by Lee Remick - returns home one night, only to be surprised by a man who is hiding in her garage. This man uses the shadows to his advantage, taking physical control of the young woman from behind and holding her as a hostage in her own home while he tells her just how dangerous he is to her and her teenage sister. We can't see the man yet either, all we know is that he's got a deep voice and a problem with his breathing that creates a sinister wheezing throughout the scene. But we can tell that he's getting the effect he desires from his victim, mostly because Remick's bright eyes become wider and wider with fear as the scene goes on.
What follows is two hours of Ms. Remick looking defeated and abused - all because this man brought his will into her home and shook her from the norms of her calm existence. Some might expect the actress to oversell this fear, but I really do think there's a natural truth to her response to this attack and the ongoing relationship with this insistent man - who even ends up surprising her in a women's restroom! - throughout the film. This man is truly imposing his will upon the woman. Some might argue that he really hasn't done anything that meets movie standards of violence to her for much of the film - he doesn't sexually threaten her or pull a weapon on her - but the people behind the movie knew that they didn't need to sensationalize the assailant to justify this woman's fear.
The catch, as you might have expected from his voice, is that this attacker is not a powerful man. In fact, he's a frail man who struggles with crippling asthma. A telling seen near the half hour mark of the film shows him struggling to deal with his affliction as he wakes up in the morning. After a coughing fit that gives the camera a chance to show his thin frame, the man immediately goes to the phone and calls up his victim, threatening her once more about the $100,000 he wants her to steal from her bank. It's a key look at the mental state of this character, because it reveals to the viewer that he's not a physical monster. He's just a man who thinks he can control a woman by sounding tough.
The film doesn't go all the way to empowering this woman as she deals with her assailant - she relies heavily on the FBI, led by an agent played by one of my favorite actors of all-time, Glenn Ford - but the moments when she takes control away from her antagonist are very welcome. After his attempts to meet the woman at a local club are thwarted (unintentionally) by an everyday sleazeball who picks her up, she reacts with a loud anger to his telephonic threats. These moments are a blueprint for how the situation can be best dealt with, because the viewer realizes that this man's only power comes from his ability to act strong and bully others (including his past victims and a on-and-off girlfriend who gets caught up in the plot) around.
The film is directed with flair by Blake Edwards, a well known comedic director who fills this thriller with shades of Hitchcock. The black and white photography accentuates the plot perfectly - I don't believe there's a way that the opening sequence in the garage could have possibly worked in color - and Edwards uses the city of San Francisco as a beautiful backdrop to the plot. Perhaps the experiment runs a little long - the scenes involving the FBI and the subplots about the villain's identity feel like filler at times during the two-hour film - but the sequences between Remick and her assailant (played with terrific creepiness by Ross Martin of TV's Wild Wild West) are more than enough reason to see this well-framed thriller.
It's always been common for films to portray women as terrified, but there are few thrillers that go as far to make that fear seem justified as Experiment in Terror does. The psychological trappings of the film go a long way toward elevating this otherwise standard thriller, long before actresses like Angelina Jolie and Jodie Foster took on dark roles to show their ability to stand up to bullying men. I wish Experiment in Terror had taken a little bit more of a feminist standpoint - I love "Glenn Ford is here to save the day" movies, yet this one could have given Remick a little more of an edge - but the example it shows of men trying to scare women sets a great example for future thrillers. I think we could all learn a little from the fantastic conflict at the center of Experiment in Terror.