Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous may have one of the most magnificent titles of all the films noir. The 1944 picture is based on the 1943 novel of the same name by Margaret Carpenter and features a screenplay by Warren Duff, with Tony Gaudio’s cinematography working its way through the Oscar-nominated interior design.
For a Tourneur movie to find itself couched in psychology is not surprising and Experiment Perilous surely plays that hand, but it also works through other elements of noir. There is the “fateful” woman and there is something nefarious going on in the interminable halls of a murky mansion.
Dr. Huntington Bailey (George Brent) is on a train one rainy night when a woman named Cissie (Olive Blakeney) approaches seeking comfort. She claims to be nervous, but she soon reveals other motives as she discusses her brother Nick (Paul Lukas) and his beautiful young wife Allida (Hedy Lamarr). Cissie is on her way to visit Nick, but something’s not quite right.
Later, Bailey hears that Cissie passed away. He is encouraged to meet Nick and the enchanting Allida. He is predictably smitten by the woman, while Nick tells him that he believes his wife is not well. He has been keeping her sequestered in his mansion and Bailey senses something is wrong. He sets a plan in motion to free the damsel from the tiger’s clutches, once and for all.
Allida is the proverbial object of desire and it seems that she has drawn numerous men into her web. Flashbacks reveal circumstances in which fledglings try to woo the lovely woman, right in Nick’s sightline, and things do not go well. Nick has laid claim. For him, Allida is a possession.
Dr. Bailey, conversely, is in love with Allida and wants to rescue her. His belief in her sanity is but one of the keys to turn in her lock. But is it possible that the jaunty protagonist is just another in a long line of latent suitors? Brent gives his character more muscle, but it’s hard not to imagine history repeating itself.
Uncertainty is Tourneur’s ace in the hole, which makes for a compelling contrast because the audience knows the facts. There aren’t any Gaslight-esque misgivings about sanity and Nick’s plans for the daisy-loving Allida are clear. There is no mystery, even if the woman doubts herself.
But like the portrait of Allida that hangs in a museum and seems fraught with a whirlwind of hypnotic possibilities, there’s something to the static stare of familiarity. When Dr. Bailey meets her for the first time, she’s wearing the same dress as in the portrait. There’s torment in the cycle, a torment that is all too acute for the involved players.
Nick, for example, is a tortured soul. He is not a snickering villain. He loathes himself for what he’s become and has developed some rather conflicted feelings regarding his young son. He even tells him of the witches surround him, noting that the prettiest ones are the most dangerous. “Mommy’s pretty,” remarks the boy.
Experiment Perilous is not without more superficial delights, like a knock-out finale that features a blasted fish tank and an awful lot of explosive action. It almost seems out of place given the parlour tension, but Tourneur definitely provides the exclamation point for the whole sordid affair.