EXPERIMENT PERILOUS(director: Jacques Tourneur; screenwriters: Warren Duff/based on the novel by Margaret Carpenter; cinematographer: Tony Gaudio; editor: Ralph Dawson; music: Roy Webb; cast: Hedy Lamarr (Allida Bederaux), George Brent (Dr. Huntington Bailey), Paul Lukas (Nick Bederaux), Albert Dekker (Clag), Carl Esmond (Maitland, artist), Olive Blakeney (Clarissa ‘Cissie’ Bederaux), George N. Neise (Alec/Gregory), Margaret Wycherly (Maggie, maid), Stephanie Bachelor (Elaine); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Warren Duff; RKO; 1944)
“Elegant mystery melodrama.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Jacques Tourneur (“Berlin Express”/”The Leopard Man”/”Out of the Past”) seamlessly moves up from B pictures to A pictures with the prestigious Experiment Perilous. Writer Warren Duff bases this elegant mystery melodrama on the 1943 novel by Margaret Carpenter, but is seemingly more inspired by the psychological thrillers Gaslight, Laura and Rebecca.
It’s set, in 1903, at the turn of the century in the wealthy sections of New York, where the residents rode in horse-drawn carriages and the streets were lit by gas lamps. The film’s narrator and hero, the famous psychiatrist Huntington “Hunt” Brailey (George Brent) recalls a chance meeting with a fragile elderly spinster, Clarissa “Cissie” Bedereaux (Olive Blakeney), who is returning to New York after five years from a stay at a Midwestern sanitarium for health reasons on the same eastbound train and how she sat next to the kindly doctor because she was frightened by a storm. She tells of writing a biography about her wealthy philanthropist socialite younger brother Nick Bederaux (Paul Lukas), who lives in a mansion on Murray Hill with his much younger beautiful wife of ten years Allida (Hedy Lamarr). The Austrian-born Nick is a possessive, domineering and jealous man who has a tight hold on the Vermont raised Allida, someone he met while on an outing in rural Vermont and ushered her off to Paris for some culture. Brailey says after his meeting with Cissie, that it began the strangest days of his life. When Cissie unexpectedly dies while having tea with her brother, the young shrink becomes intrigued with the mysterious family and accepts an invitation wangled by his sculptor friend Clag (Albert Dekker) some days later to meet Allida and her husband at a reception in their place. When Nick asks Brailey to give his fearful wife professional help while he pretends to be treating their five year old boy Alec for bad dreams, he gladly accepts and soon falls in love with her. Because of a mixup in luggage, Brailey comes to possess Cissie’s and will thus read her eye-opening manuscript on Nick. Since she mentions her brother has already killed for his wife, Brailey senses Allida’s in peril from her unbalanced hubby and begins to make plans to save her life. The shrink uncovers things about Nick’s traumatic childhood (mom dying at childbirth and dad a suicide a year later) and hints at his sexual inadequacy problems making him into such a monster, as it leads to a violent climax.
Tourneur’s psychological costume melodrama is a minor work that’s filled with Freudian characterizations and an old-fashioned sense of mystery, which it exploits rather well through its deliberate pacing, sharp acting (might be Hedy’s best role ever) and delivering the required suspense. What it lacks is a sense of freshness, as its formulaic plot seems like old hat.
REVIEWED ON 10/24/2008 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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