Experiment Perilous (1944)
What Is This Evil That Shadows Their Lives?
Experiment Perilous is directed by Jacques Tourneur and adapted to screenplay by Warren Duff from the Margaret Carpenter novel of the same name. It stars Hedy Lamarr, George Brent, Paul Lukas, Albert Dekker, Olive Blakeney and Carl Esmond. Music is by Roy Webb and cinematography by Tony Gaudio.
1903 New York and psychiatrist Dr. Huntington Bailey (Brent) is plunged into a psychological maelstrom when he enters the lives of Clarissa (Blakeney), Allida (Lamarr) and Nick Bederaux (Lukas).
I've been living in that diary tonight, living the strange distorted lives of Nick and his sister.
It's a grand title for a film, but one which is something of a bum steer since it conjures up images of Frankenstein type horror. Experiment Perilous comes from a Hippocrates saying and is quoted by Brent's good doctor during the unfurling of the narrative. The Carpenter novel was actually set in the present day but a decision was made to transfer the story to the early part of the 1900's so as to get some period flavours into the mix. A good move as it turned out.
Very much in the vein of The Murder In Thornton Square (or the remake Gaslight also released in 44), Rebecca, Suspicion et al, Tourneur's movie isn't up to the standard of those films, but that in no way means it doesn't hold many pleasures, because it does, especially for Tourneur fans. It's very much a slow burner, a talky picture that for the first hour nearly crumbles under the weight of too much exposition and cod psychological musings. Yet the visuals and alternating interior and exterior period settings set up by Tourneur and Gaudio are mightily impressive (the interior set designs were nominated for an Oscar). Story unfolds to a back drop of a steam train, snowy gas lighted streets and an imposing period Brownstone abode (good use of miniatures a bonus here as well), while the interiors veer from elegant dressings to gloomy rooms of shadows and a hidden away spiral staircase. These are tailored made for Tourneur who ensures the standard formula of plotting is given a kick by its surroundings.
Narratively it's made obvious to us that something isn't right with Lukas' shifty husband character and it comes as no surprise to see a romance begin to form between Brent's doctor and Lamarr's emotionally confused wife in possible peril. But these sign posted developments are well handled by the director, where flashbacks help and sinister additions such as a child hidden away upstairs and the Bederaux's back story keep things perched on the mystery/thriller edge. Cast performances are strong, with Lukas suitably suspicious, Brent unassuming and reflective and the beautiful Lamarr showing a fragile innocence that underpins the story. It all builds to a furious finale that involves fire, water and hopefully some race against time heroics?...
Some patience is needed to get the most out of the picture, but neo-gothic delights are within for those so inclined. 7.5/10