Through the end of this month the Music Box is devoting its Saturday-Sunday matinees to the films of Jacques Tourneur, a French director who came to Hollywood in the mid-1930s, worked steadily and unobtrusively for 30 years, and then returned home without anyone in America taking much notice. Since the 70s, however, his reputation has grown steadily, and rightly so. Tourneur worked in a variety of genres—horror (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, Night of the Demon), western (Canyon Passage, Wichita), film noir (Out of the Past, Nightfall)—but his movies were so allusive, so quietly but densely psychological, that they always seemed to linger at the margins of any given commercial category. What his best movies shared was an extraordinary sense of tone—the most elusive quality in cinema. In a sense, they were all mysteries, if you define mystery not as some narrative puzzle to be solved but as an irreducible aspect of human experience.
Experiment Perilous (1944), which screens this weekend, is probably the least known of Tourneur’s major films; it’s available on DVD only as a custom-burned disc from the Warner Archives site, and as far as I can determine, it hasn’t been screened here in at least 16 years. Produced by RKO as a vehicle for Hedy Lamarr, it certainly qualifies as a mystery in the generic sense: there are unexplained deaths, concealed motives, tantalizing clues, and a climax that finally exposes one character in all his wickedness. But even after the last shot, when the puzzle’s been solved and the hero and heroine stroll off into a field of daisies, there’s a strange residue of uncertainty, a feeling that people can never really be known, even to themselves.
Adapted from a novel by Margaret Carpenter, Experiment Perilous opens in 1903 on a New York-bound passenger train that’s passing through a horrendous storm; an establishing shot shows the locomotive roaring across the frame and, in a striking effect, sending a spray of water droplets hurtling toward the camera. Inside the train Dr. Huntington Bailey (George Brent) awakes from a nap to find a middle-aged woman staring at him. “I wondered vaguely if she were mentally ill,” he recalls in voice-over. A kind, fluttery thing, she introduces herself as Cissie Bederaux (Olive Blakeney), and although she seems sane, there’s something weird about her. She’s returning to Manhattan after many years to visit her brother, Nick, but she seems rather afraid of him; after learning that Bailey resides in a Manhattan hotel, she announces she’s going to stay there too, and she asks if she can have her bags sent there along with his.
Not long after they part at the train station, Bailey attends a party where, quite coincidentally, he hears Nick Bederaux mentioned and learns that Cissie has died suddenly of a heart attack. Through a friend, Bailey arranges to meet the tough, wealthy Bederaux (Paul Lukas) and his frail, stunning young wife, Allida (Lamarr), but out of discomfort he conceals the fact that he’s met Cissie and heard all about them. Another coincidence pulls Bailey even deeper into the Bederauxs’ personal lives: the hotel mistakenly gives him one of Cissie’s bags, and in it he finds a biographical sketch of Nick that Cissie was writing for Allida that reveals a great many family secrets. The doctor learns that Nick’s mother died giving birth to him, that his father committed suicide a year later, and that Nick has grown up feeling responsible for their deaths.
Tourneur was known around Hollywood as a director who’d take any halfway decent script he was offered, yet Experiment Perilous was a story with considerable personal resonance for him. His own father, film director Maurice Tourneur, was reportedly a hard man, very much like Nick Bederaux. As film scholar Chris Fujiwara reveals in his book Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, Jacques was neglected by his parents and grew up in the shadow of his withholding father (who employed him first as a script clerk and later as an editor and assistant director). In the movie, Nick and Allida have a five-year-old son who suffers from night terrors, claiming there’s a tiger under his bed. When Nick consults Bailey about this problem, the doctor replies, “In a sense, we all have tigers of some sort under our beds, haven’t we? In the boy’s case and in ours, the tiger represents something we don’t understand, or something or someone we fear.”
The focal point of the movie is Allida, an incredible beauty who bewitches every man in her orbit, including Bailey. “There’s something fateful about her,” says his sculptor friend Claghorn (Albert Dekker), who confesses that he once fell under her spell. (His latest work is a giant head of Medusa, and at one point Tourneur frames Bailey with the sculpture peering over his shoulder.) As Bailey learns from the secret manuscript, Nick met Allida while vacationing in Vermont and persuaded her father to let the innocent teen accompany him and Cissie to Paris, where he made her over into a woman of culture and then proposed. In a flashback to the proposal, Tourneur inserts a close-up of Allida’s face reflected in a pond, an image she destroys by sweeping her hand across the water.
Upon its release, Experiment Perilous drew comparisons to George Cukor’s Gaslight, a box office hit earlier that year; both films were period mysteries in which a husband conspires to drive his wife mad. In Experiment Perilous, Nick tells Bailey that he’s begun to fear for Allida’s sanity: she’s been sending herself bouquets with love notes supposedly signed by a young suitor who died under mysterious circumstances. (In fact the flowers have been orchestrated by Nick.) Yet as Fujiwara notes, Experiment Perilous operates on a completely different narrative principle from Gaslight: whereas Cukor tries to keep us guessing throughout his movie, Tourneur never really entertains any doubts about Allida’s sanity or Nick’s villainy. Experiment Perilous is the sort of story in which every secret revealed—and though you may think I’ve completely spoiled the movie by now, that isn’t the half of it—only makes you more uncertain about everything else.
Later in his career Tourneur recalled an incident from his childhood that reveals a great deal about his filmmaking. When he was four, his family lived with the French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. “His studio was a big mysterious room that filled me with fear,” Tourneur said in a studio press release. “It was there that on Christmas Eve, my parents would put my gifts, and they would say to me, ‘Go find them yourself.’ There was a very long corridor, completely black, and I could make out in the distance the white spots that were my presents. I walked forward all alone, torn between desire for the toys and fear that almost made me faint, especially as the toys in their packages started to take on a phantom-like appearance.” Experiment Perilous ranks with Tourneur’s best work because it so artfully exploits that tension between fear and desire as we approach the unknown.