Experiment Perilous
Reviewed in January 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Jacques Tourneur. Cast: George Brent, Hedy Lamarr, Paul Lukas, Olive Blakeney, Albert Dekker, George N. Neise, Carl Esmond, Margaret Wycherly. Screenplay: Warren Duff (based on the novel by Margaret Carpenter).

Photo © 1944 RKO Radio Pictures
I've heard Jacques Tourneur's Experiment Perilous described as a more intricate and more pervasively paranoid complement to the same year's Gaslight remake from MGM, but despite the linking motif of connubial brainwashing, it's hard to imagine fans of Ingrid Bergman's high-gloss disintegration migrating with perfect ease or enjoyment into this rougher, more centripetal exercise. Moreover, as much as Tourneur enthusiasts are bound to enjoy his mannered and fitfully inspired approach to the potboiler material, I wish that the strongest passages of Experiment Perilous were more representative of the film's overall achievements. It's practically an essay in the boons and the perils of starting off wonderfully. George Brent, never the most exciting actor, has an unbidden dining-car conversation with a fretful middle-aged woman, indelibly etched by Olive Blakeney, that hinges upon a complex family history, a dangerous diary, and various imperiled relatives. The unusual blends throughout this opening sequence of voice-over narration and direct exposition, often unfolding at the same time, activates an exciting gap between what people say or remember and what is actually happening. In this respect and others, the rhythms of Experiment Perilous already feel restless and crowded from the get-go. Simple touches like the huge, mud-splatted window that fills the background of all of the master shots of Brent and Blakeney testing each other out do an expert job of giving these perfunctory scenes of story-construction a charged life of their own.

In general, the Oscar-nominated production design is the most consistent reason to keep paying attention, even as the story of Experiment Perilous gets somewhat tediously overcomplicated and the postponed appearances of leading characters played by Hedy Lamarr and Paul Lukas fail to generate the kind of emotional interest or psychological claustrophobia that you sense the script wants to uncork. Tourneur seems engaged by some scenes and aloof in others, possibly even bored, and as often happens to Lamarr, her bulb-eyed performance of a terrorized, manipulated wife radiates little of the intelligence or the precision for which the actress herself was so famous in other endeavors. The mystery plot throws up some memorable obstacles in its way, as when one of Brent's nimble attempts to outwit the villainous husband is badly undone by a drunk friend's inability to play along with the improvisatory ruse, simple though it is. The pastoral, daisy-filled ending is too compulsory to judge the movie against, since nothing else in the film feels quite so perfunctory. Nevertheless as an emblem of how this interesting, erratic movie wends its way from such a promising start to such a rote and diffuse ending, it will do. B–

Academy Award Nominations (1945):
Best Art Direction (Black & White): Albert S. D'Agostino and Jack Okey; Darrell Silvera and Claude E. Carpenter

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