Life is short and the art long. Decision difficult, experiment perilous.
That’s a loose translation of the words of Hippocrates, words first written over two thousand years ago and borrowed so as to be uttered by one of the characters in Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (1944). There’s truth in that quotation, as there is in so much of what has been passed down over the centuries from those great men of the ancient world. It could be seen to apply to the limited time the characters in the movie have to react and respond to the events that unfold around them. Looked at now in retrospect, it might even be said to act as a neat descriptor of the career of Jacques Tourneur himself. His fairly lengthy apprenticeship segued into the comparatively brief period of peak creativity, a period that could be roughly defined as starting from 1942 when he made the first of his stylish hauntings for Val Lewton with Cat People and running through to 1957 when he so successfully recaptured some of that sensibility in Night of the Demon.
Experiment Perilous is a classic Gothic melodrama with a hint of film noir drifting around it, perhaps in the vague dissatisfaction that colors the moods and attitudes of its principals as much as anything. All through the movie there is a suspicion of something not quite right, of a group of people hurrying about their business and their lives amid an almost permanent state of flux and turbulence. Much of the story takes place in appalling weather, with only the brief flashbacks to the past appearing to offer a glimpse of brighter and calmer times. The present, on the other hand, seems to lurch from one stormy tableau to another, presenting a background that is forbidding enough to drive the characters indoors for much of the time, seeking shelter from the elements without yet finding other more insidious threats lurking within.
It all begins on a train, carving its way east through the night and assailed on all sides by a raging downpour. It is that lashing handed out by nature that provokes a fateful encounter between psychiatrist Hunt Bailey (George Brent) and a fluttery and nervy woman sharing the same car. Both are headed back to the city, back to work in the doctor’s case while the lady is on her way back to see her brother and his wife after a long absence. She is a faded type, ethereal and quirky enough to pique his interest and sympathy. Were it not for a mix up with the luggage on arrival in New York, and then the fact he later overhears a throwaway remark about the woman’s sudden death, he would most likely have thought no more of the incident. However, there was something in the woman’s words and manner, and of course her unexpected demise, that arouses his curiosity and prompts him to take advantage of an opportunity to meet the relatives she spoke of.
Nick Bederaux (Paul Lukas) fits the stereotype of the turn of the century European sophisticate, cultured, moneyed and impossibly debonair. There is something a little “off” about him though, his charm and politeness bordering on obsequiousness. Bailey senses that on their first meeting and it is further heightened when he is introduced to Bederaux’s wife Allida (Hedy Lamarr). She is a delicate beauty, like an exquisite piece of Dresden china which Nick has procured and now keeps on display in his oddly oppressive brownstone. Bederaux takes the opportunity to confide in Bailey that he worries about the psychological state of his wife, and the effect it may be having on their young son. More suspicious than convinced by these pleas, the doctor agrees to examine Allida with the unstated intention of delving deeper into the secrets of Bederaux himself and the tragic past which may be impinging on the future of his wife and son.
Experiment Perilous came out the same year as George Cukor’s Gaslight (which was a remake of Thorold Dickinson’s British movie), exploring a very similar theme and with a plot that follows a very similar arc. This does not have the gloss and polish of Cukor’s film, but the director brings his own special touch to it. One of Tourneur’s defining characteristics was his subtlety, never overcooking a situation of overstating a point. I appreciate that quality – it is a stylistic fingerprint to be found all over his work for Lewton and is evident too in his other productions – and what appeals most to me about such an approach is the fact that it shows a sincere respect for the intelligence of the viewer. The plot of Experiment Perilous is relatively straightforward and there are few surprises yet the stylish way in which Tourneur guides us through it all ensures it never drags. There is a refreshing frankness about the relationships too and the dynamics that power them. While the production code of the time would never permit such a direct admission, Tourneur’s sensitivity and assurance means the motivation at the root of Bederaux’s jealousy is alluded to in such a way that the observant viewer is led to believe that the character is essentially impotent. It speaks volumes about the director’s skill that he is capable of weaving such themes into the fabric of the narrative, of blending in layers of maturity, without needing to resort either to crudity or falseness.
Hedy Lamarr was of course a famous beauty but her acting ability should not be discounted. The role of Allida Bederaux called not only for vulnerability on her part but a degree of gullibility too. Bearing in mind what an intelligent and accomplished woman she was outside of the movie business, it’s all the more laudable how she managed to successfully essay the helplessness of her character – I guess that characteristic catch in her voice helps some. Anyway, her performance contains a lot of warmth and credibility. George Brent was a good choice for the lead, bringing his own brand of humility and empathy to a character who is not written as an especially interesting figure. Perhaps that was one of Brent’s great strengths, his knack for portraying essentially bland characters and investing them with a humanity it was easy to relate to. He was a solid and reliable presence in many a movie (I felt he was exceptionally good opposite Barbara Stanwyck in Curtis Bernhardt’s My Reputation) although he did not always appear to be the most exciting, which seems slightly odd if you stop to think that here was a man whose real life exploits saw him forced to leave his native Ireland during the War of Independence with a price on his head. Paul Lukas co-starred with Brent in two other movies – of those, I have Temptation lined up for viewing at some point in the future. There is great precision about his playing, an economy of expression if you like, that suits the buttoned up nature of Nick Bederaux so well. Of the supporting cast, Albert Dekker gets the mix of passion and dissipation just right as Brent’s artist friend, while Olive Blakeney is sweetly neurotic in her relatively brief screen time.
Experiment Perilous is not the hardest movie to access these days, having had DVD releases in the US (via the Warner Archive), the UK and France, and probably other territories too. As a long time fan of Jacques Tourneur’s work I consider it an easy recommendation.
37 thoughts on “Experiment Perilous”
A few not at all random thoughts about the film and review. I like George Brent, a lot, as you seem to do, and Hedy Lamarr is okay in her part, as is Albert Dekker in support. As for Paul Lukas, highly regarded in his time, but take him away from me. I enjoyed the film so much I tracked down the novel and it is not at all the same; beginning on an airplane, not a train, and therefore is set in contemporary times. I was done on the third page.
Final thought, throw away observation. Jacques Tourneur is highly regarded nowadays, but many of his films, Night of The Demon most of all, were less than indifferently received by the public. Me included. What a bore, a talkathon about nothing.
I’m fine with Paul Lukas, he’s not someone I’d track down a movie to see because he was in it but his presence wouldn’t discourage me either. I think the last movie I watched which he played in was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and I thought he was well cast in that and gave a fine performance.
You really didn’t like Night of the Demon? OK, we all respond to different things, but I can only say I first saw it on TV long ago when I was a boy, back when I knew nothing of the director or whether he had any reputation. I’m not even sure I would have been all that familiar with Dana Andrews at that stage. Anyway, it captivated me at the time – it would have been a late night viewing. In fact, the wonder that is the BBC Genome tells me it was 10:30pm on the night of Saturday June 28 1980. Even then, when I came to the movie cold, I was taken by the creepiness of it, the quiet dread it exuded. That never left me and what I later came to understand as Tourneur’s subtlety similarly drew me in to the earlier work he did for Val Lewton. Frankly, I adore those films.
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Regarding Paul Lukas, in the right part, I like him as well. Kim cast him correctly, and Victor
Saville made a wonderful film.
I haven’t seen that movie in well over 30 years so I can’t comment on specifics but I know I thought it a good piece of filmmaking overall.
I like Val Lewton too, but without Dana in Demon, there was not much to hold my attention, which does not mean some scenes did not work, they did, but the central premise and its execution left me cold. I saw it four times trying to find my way into it, but nothing happened. Young people seem enamored of The Demon, and it’s Night but not at the time of release.
Perhaps it comes down to how one responds to that kind of story in general. Long after I first saw the film I sought out the M R James story it’s based on – Casting the Runes – and I enjoyed it immensely too. Later still, I found myself fascinated by the tales of mystery underpinned by a kind of crawling unease that John Dickson Carr excelled at writing, and of course he was a great fan of M R James. There is something about that style of storytelling that just appeals to me.
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I like that traditional British style of ghost story. I love M.R. James and Sheridan le Fanu’s ghost stories are great as well. Crawling unease – yes that sums it up well. That’s why I also like Chinese and Japanese ghost stories, and Chinese and Japanese ghost story movies. They’re not horror as such, just tales of the supernatural that can be unsettling.
You can count me as a fan of Night of the Demon, although it’s not as good as the movies he made for Val Lewton in the 40s.
My knowledge of Asian cinema is woefully inadequate so it’s probably not any surprise that I’m similarly ill-informed about literature from that part of the world.
On the subject of Gaslight, I prefer the original British version.
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I’ve come across a fair few people who feel that way. Personally, I only saw the original British version once and I didn’t enjoy it as much as Cukor’s remake. Perhaps I’d feel different if I’d seems Dickinson’s movie first. Perhaps. As it is though, I found it a bit flat and uninvolving.
I saw the remake first and only came to Dickinson’s original thanks to the National Film Theatre. I enjoy both but, like Dee, prefer the British film.
Colin, I haven’t commented on “EXPERIMENT PERILOUS” (yet anyway) because I have a copy awaiting watching.
Dickinson’s film generally appears to be well regarded so I expect I might be in a minority in preferring Cukor’s version. I’ll give the original a try again some time to see if my reaction has changed any.
The BFI has released the 1940 British Gaslight on Blu-Ray (in fact it’s a combo pack so you get the DVD as well which makes more tempting from my point of view.) The BFI usually load their releases with extras but I have no information on the extras included in this release.
The full specs are available here.
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I enjoy Experiment Perilous but can’t really put my finger on the reason why. It’s not a great film, nor does it pretend to be, but what is there is quality. Now I’m really curious about the British Gaslight. I wasn’t aware the Cukor film was a remake!
The story draws you in, I think, even if it’s fairly clear from early on where it’s all headed. The leads are sympathetic too, and Tourneur was on form at around this time. Put all that together and we really ought to be on to a winning formula.
As for Dickinson’s movie, it’s not so hard to access now. It ought to be available online somewhere and there is a good British Blu-ray/DVD combo.
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The British film was made 4 years earlier. When MGM filmed it in 1944 the studio attempted to destroy all prints of the original film (what vandalism!). I am not sure when a copy of the original came to light but I saw it in the 1970s at London’s National Film Theatre and I seem to recall the accompanying notes making much of the previous rarity of the original.
Both films are very good and can be enjoyed individually.
Yes, leaving aside personal preferences, it’s always good to have all extant versions of stories available to compare or, as you say, appreciate on their own terms and for their own strengths.
Another solid write-up my good fellow. While I have not seen the film, I do have a copy here in one of my storage boxes. While rooting through said boxes today I came on a DVD of the Duke film, LEGEND OF THE LOST from 1957. Have had the DVD for years but have yet to watch it. The Henry Hathaway film also stars Sophia Loren and Rossano Brazzi. The one and only time i saw this was in the late 1960s while I was in grade school. So needless to say, I do not recall much of the story. What is the opinion here with you good people of the film?
I’m not sure when I Iast saw it myself. I did think about giving it another look earlier in the year but other stuff came up and shunted it down the list of priorities. I will get back to it at some stage though. All I remember now was a good looking production, slightly odd pairing of Loren and Wayne, and a disappointing Brazzi, someone whom I find I rarely warm to on screen.
On the last thread you kindly asked me my opinion of TWO O CLOCK COURAGE and sorry to say I believe it’s the least of Mann’s Noirs-even calling it a Noir is a stretch-to me it’s more of a comedy thriller. Comedy was not Mann’s strong suit and here the comic relief is tedious and not very funny. The film looks more of a chore for Mann as opposed to a works in progress. The best I can say about the film is that it’s mildly intriguing. The opening is great and lovely Jane Greer raises the film several
notches-BTW Mr Maltin agrees with you regarding the Falcon comparison.
The earlier THE GREAT FLAMARION is far superior and I still am very keen to see STRANGE IMPERSONATION despite the spoiler mentioned on the last thread. Talking Pictures TV showed “Flamarion” recently and tomorrowthey are showing JOHNNY NOBODY which I believe we have discussed earlier. I’ve not seen JOHNNY NOBODY since I saw it in a spiffing double bill with THE HELLIONS in 1961.
I recall you mentioning some time back that you do not care for Lawrence Tierney and cannot find any of his starring roles in your index. However while searching for BORN TO KILL I came across your somewhat negative review for BORN TO BE BAD which I’ve been after for some time and despite cast and director it’s another one crossed off the list. It’s now relegated to the wait ’till it appears on TV list. BTW how’s your “to be viewed” list going-I think Jerry mentioned it recently-last time it was around 80 to 90 titles.
Anyway-back to Mr Tierney his short career as a Noir leading man was brief in the 40’s and his drunken brawling antics
proved too hot for Hollywood. Tierney is perfectly cast as the Homme Fatale in BORN TO KILL an A picture in fact and an ideal film to enjoy that Noir staple how physical attraction can be downward spiral to disaster. I also, recently enjoyed BODYGUARD which has Tierney paired with Priscilla Lane in her last picture and a long way from her Warner Bros glory days.
It’s a combo that should not work but it does, beautifully, and almost pre figures Mike Hammer with Tierney’s busted cop teamed with Lane as his plucky girlfriend/assistant. A very fast moving highly entertaining B with some striking location work. My advice-for what that may be worth-give Mr Tierney another go-at least from his prime years. Any other Tierney fans/non fans out there.
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Me, although Tierney is more of a curiosity than a star.
I really like Lawrence Tierney. Especially the tough guy roles where he personified the epitome of someone not to f… with. Those kind of roles left an indelible impression on me and made their mark during the era of film noir and crime drama.
Great news for Tierney fans that have been waiting for a better print of SHAKEDOWN 1950 to surface. It can now be viewed in vivid B&W (1080p HD) on YouTube. As for Tierney’s role, his screen presence is noticeably amplified, thus contributes well to the movie.
john k and Dee, I don’t know if it’s out on physical media.
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Yes, Scott, it is out on physical media (hallelujah!) and I have a copy. It now looks terrific!
As an add on to my Anthony Mann comments above, I live in hope that THE GREAT FLAMARION and STRANGE IMPERSONATION get released at some point. They are both Republic pictures now owned by Paramount and only Kino Lorber and Australia’s Imprint seem to be the only labels with access to the Paramount vaults-the two vintage Mann films would make a wonderful double bill.
I should imagine most RTHC readers would regard John Sturges pretty much equal to Mann as a director and certainly as a director of classic Westerns. There are several early Sturges films on the missing list especially two B Pictures for Columbia from 1946 namely SHADOWED and THE MAN WHO DARED. I am also very interested to see THE SIGN OF THE RAM (1948) the last film of tragic Susan Peters with a most interesting supporting cast. I’m sure online versions of these films are available but I do
admire and endorse Dee’s previous comment “if it’s not on physical media ; it does not exist “…………Amen.
I’m quite fond of The Great Flamarion. The print I saw years ago was pretty rough. Fine performances by Erich von Stroheim and Mary Beth Hughes.
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The Sign of The Ram turns out to be a dull picture. A Susan Peters curiosity.
Fair enough-it’s also got Ron Randell in it, who I like in anything-his career was all over the shop ‘though-his superb turn in Ray’s KING OF KINGS looked like it might have revived his career-sadly it did not. Several episodes of his TV series OSS were
directed by Robert Siodmak.
Lots of stuff raised today, John. So, just to pick up on a few points:
Thanks for getting back and sharing your thoughts on Two O’Clock Courage. Now it’s been a while since I last saw it but I had a good enough time with it overall. I tend to like Tom Conway, so that probably helps, and I also enjoyed Ann Rutherford in the movie. No it’s not really noir, although it does prowl around the periphery at times. I think I knew what to expect going in so it didn’t let me down, and that’s something that should never be underestimated.
On the other hand, I recall going in to Born to Be Bad essentially blind and I wasn’t best pleased when I found the movie wasn’t the film noir I’d convinced myself it would be. I want to give that one another chance at some stage jut to see if I feel any better towards it now that I know what it’s not.
As for The Sign of the Ram, I found it quite absorbing and would be happy to buy a cleaned up copy if it were to make its way onto the market in the future.
Finally, and running contrary to my usual approach to such matters, I find it hard to separate Tierney’s screen work from what I have learned of his after hours behavior. It’s as though I can always sense some of that whenever he’s on view and I find it very off-putting. I know it’s foolish, but there it is. I will probably view Shakedown sooner rather than later though, so it’s not a matter of my avoiding the guy completely.
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Thanks for pointing me to your review of SIGN OF THE RAM-it’s one I certainly will get if it turns up on disc.
Tierney’s career as a leading man only lasted a few years and I feel that the films that he made during those years were very good indeed. I don’t know much about him apart from the fact that he was a boozer and brawler.THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE is a model B Movie and DVD Beaver’s review of the 2012 Spanish DVD release of the film states that rights issues are holding the film back from an “official” release. I took a chance on the Spanish DVD and can disable the subs not from the disc menu but from my players add on features. Tweaking the brightness/darkness from my TV remote and my players settings I’ve managed to come up with something quiet watchable. It’s a great little B that deserves a really good Blu Ray edition.
BTW how’s that “To Be Watched” pile going ?
The ‘to be watched” pile is a profoundly stubborn creature, John, and resistant to all efforts to tame it. Every time I think I’ve made inroads and pared it down, some other stuff gets added and I find it on the ride again.
Yes, and it’s interesting to see Mann working with Duryea
for the first time.
Sadly there are most certainly pristine prints of THE GREAT
FLAMARION and STRANGE IMPERSONATION lurking in
A box set of Republic B Noir would not go amiss either.
Yes,and it’s interesting to see Mann working with Duryea for the first time. There are almost certain to be pristine prints of
THE GREAT FLAMARION and STRANGE IMPERSONATION lurking in Paramount’s vaults. A box set of Republic B Noirs would not go amiss either.
I am all with you 100 % on a release of a box set of Republic B Noir. In particular, a set of director George Blair’s work. Hard to go wrong with the likes of, END OF THE ROAD -44, GANGS OF THE WATERFRONT – 45, SCOTLAND YARD INVESTIGATOR – 45, THE TRESPASSER – 1947, DAREDEVILS OF THE CLOUDS – 48, POST OFFICE INVESTIGATOR- 49, UNMASKED -50, FEDERAL AGENT AT LARGE -50, EXPOSED – 47, INSURANCE INVESTIGATOR – 51, SECRETS OF MONTE CARLO -51, WOMAN IN THE DARK-52 and the superb, LONELY HEART BANDITS -50.
What a set those would make!
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I have seen a number of those titles you list, Gord, and really enjoyed them. I was really put onto them mostly by John K and yourself so Thanks Guys!
George Blair is also a director I’m familiar with for those rather fine Rex Allen westerns at Republic.
The Republic Library seems to have been given the loving care that it deserves-I should imagine the films Gordon mentions are all in pristine condition lurking in Paramount’s vaults. Gordon is not alone in his admiration of George Blair- Mark (now so sadly passed away) of the superb Noir blog Where Danger Lives was a big Blair fan not only of his movies but more importantly his technique.