Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: EXPERIMENT PERILOUS (1944)

Like the more illustrious Gaslight (1944), Experiment Perilous (1944) focuses on a beautiful woman trapped in a sinister plot to destroy her sanity, with Hedy Lamarr as the lady in peril and George Brent as her aspiring protector. The film also features direction by Jacques Tourneur, but it falls short of his best work in classics like Cat People (1942) and Out of the Past (1947). In spite of its flaws, Experiment Perilous is a moderately entertaining thriller, largely because of Lamarr's irresistible charms and the suave menace of Paul Lukas as the dangerously possessive husband.

George Brent plays Dr. Hunt Bailey, who meets a timorous but kindly older woman (Olive Blakeney) on a train trip home to New York. When the woman suddenly dies on her return to her family's house, Hunt is left with her diaries and a growing urge to know more about the surviving members of the Bederaux family. Nick Bederaux (Paul Lukas) is a wealthy man, but his house's chief attraction is his lovely wife, Allida (Hedy Lamarr). Nick engages Hunt to assess Allida's sanity, but the doctor suspects that Allida is in very real danger from her manipulative spouse.

We never reach the hysterical pitch of Gaslight as this plot unfolds, perhaps because Nick Bederaux is a less sophisticated tormentor than Charles Boyer's sadistic villain. Nick is merely jealous and mentally unstable; he is more capable of murder than the slow, deliberate turning of the screws that really Gothic cruelty demands. Paul Lukas handles the role as well as possible, but his performance would have benefited from juicier sins to commit over the course of the film. Because Nick is less inventive as an antagonist, Hedy Lamarr has less to work with as the victimized Allida, although her delicate beauty suggests her vulnerability and justifies all of the masculine attention she attracts. George Brent more or less plods forward through his part as the heroic doctor; he's too solid and respectable to seem threatened, even when he realizes that he's being followed and then discovers that Miss Bederaux's diaries have been stolen from their hiding place in his own home. Hunt never believes Nick's claims about Allida, and he progresses from admiring her portrait to being in love with her with alarming speed.

The picture does offer some memorable visual moments, from closeups of Lamarr's impossibly beautiful face to a bank of fascinating aquariums that we never get close enough to inspect. The Bederaux home, with its strange hidden stairs and maze of rooms, invites mystery, and it provides for an explosive climax when Nick finally launches his homicidal endgame. These elements earned the movie an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction, but it's easy to imagine this setting filled with much more gripping suspense than we actually get. Tourneur creates that kind of hair-raising dread in his most important films, but it only breaks through in fits and starts in this production. The result is not a terrible picture but a mediocre one; dedicated Tourneur fans might want to see it just to expand their knowledge of the director's oeuvre, and others will find it worthwhile just for an hour and a half to admire Lamarr's incomparable looks.

Be sure to note Albert Dekker in a supporting role as Hunt's friend, Clag. For a really different perspective on George Brent in the thriller genre, see The Spiral Staircase (1945). Hedy Lamarr also stars in Algiers (1938), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), and Samson and Delilah (1949). Paul Lukas won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Watch on the Rhine (1943), but you'll also find him in The Lady Vanishes (1938) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). For more from Jacques Tourneur, see I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Flame and the Arrow (1950), and Night of the Demon (1957).