Experiment in Terror / The Grip of Fear (1962) ****

For a modern audience any film that contains mention of “Twin Peaks” and “Tarantino” either shows amazing prescience and/or an indication of what is to come. This classy thriller does not disappoint. Part police procedural, part portrait of a killer, part clever heist and part women in peril, it has you wondering why director Blake Edwards did not stick to the genre. Set in San Francisco in an era when the F.B.I. was generally considered a good thing rather than the paranoia-inducing entity it would become a decade later.

Bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick)  is terrorized by an unknown assailant into helping him carry out a audacious $100,000 heist. F.B.I. agent Ripley (Glenn Ford), aware of the prospective theft, is drawn into the diabolical web as is Sherwood’s younger sister Toby (Stefanie Powers). The only clue to the thief is his asthmatic voice. Levels of forensic detection set a new bar with the F.B.I. employing telephone, personal and even aerial surveillance, commandeering of television cameras to scan a crowd, and analyzing a telephone conversation to identify the criminal.

Released in Britain as “The Grip of Fear,” exhibitors tried to pull a fast one on the public by using as the support “Operation Mad Ball,” a Jack Lemmon number from 1957, in a bid to convince moviegoers that this program would repeat the successful pairing of Remick and Lemmon in “Days of Wine and Roses.”

There are red herrings aplenty. Tension is racked up so adroitly that any character entering the frame automatically arouses suspicion. Edwards takes a leaf out of the Hitchcock suspense book by finding constant ways to remind Kelly – and the audience – just what is at stake, Ripley promising her a “reign of terror” and not, as you might expect, lying to her about the threat she faces.

As Ripley digs further into the robber’s past, he uncovers not only a catalogue of crime including rape and three murders, but also an unusual personality. Yes, as you might expect, a control freak, but also a guy capable of affection and of lavishing thousands of dollars on those worse off than himself. And, of course, he is exceptionally good at planning crime, outwitting the F.B.I., and picking the kind of vulnerable victim susceptible to intimidation. Every time, the F.B.I. thinks it is closing in, he remains one step ahead. Eventually, the F.B.I. has amassed so many clues, including his identity, a photograph and previous lovers, that you think it’s impossible for him to escape – until he does.

Kelly is so on edge, in following instructions, that she picks up the wrong man in a bar, the police so antsy they mistake a drunk for the assailant. Drenched in atmosphere and rich in subsidiary characters, there’s scarcely a dull moment, from a mannequin repairer (Nancy Ashton) with a roomful of dangling inert bodies, a karate class with (ironically) a woman well able to defend herself, to a small boy desperate to see a G-man’s weapon, an informant (Ned Glass) with a penchant (as did director Edwards) for silent comedies, and a bank manager who promises Kelly a promotion even if she has to steal the money.

On top of this there are some genuine creepy moments that up-end our expectations. What Ripley doesn’t tell Kelly is that she’s also bait and clearly has little concern that she might end up collateral damage – anticipating at the very least she will have a nervous breakdown when it’s over, if, in fact, she survives – in his bid to snare the criminal. A terrified  kidnapped Toby strips down to underwear in front a man we know is a rapist. And the movie touches on the woman-who-loves-a-killer motif, a theme very much in the contemporary vein.

Blake Edwards (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) delivers a directorial tour de force. The criminal is hidden for most the picture, drip-fed to the audience in glimpses, his mouth here, his back there, other times in disguise. Edwards establishes the F.B.I. as such a “very efficient organization” using the most up-to-date methods and involving a vast number of staff plus police that it seems impossible to fail – until it does. And there is an absolutely brilliant six-minute sequence at the outset, milking the best of film noir lighting, when the criminal surprises Kelly in her garage and spells out in detail her vulnerability and the basics of his plan. By keeping the criminal in the shade, and what little available light there is covering her face, Edwards makes the most of Lee Remick’s eyes – every bit as iconic as Audrey Hepburn’s outfits in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – and her acting skill.

Remick (Sanctuary, 1961) is superb, trapped by emotion as much as terror, placing her trust in an F.B.I. that lets her down time and again. This is an edgier role for Glenn Ford (Fate Is the Hunter, 1964) as he steps up from the trustworthy guy-next-door to reveal a more ruthless streak. Stefanie Powers (The Warning Shot, 1967) does well in a small role and there is sterling support from Ross Martin (The Ceremony, 1963), Patricia Huston (Synanon, 1965) and Clifton James (Live and Let Die, 1973). Gordon and Mildred Gordon wrote the screenplay based on their novel Operation Terror.

“Twin Peaks” in case you are wondering is the district in which Kelly lives. There’s a sign towards the end for Tarantino’s World-Famous Cocktails.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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