The curious and eccentric erudition of Jacques Tourneur's 1944 thriller, Experiment Perilous, is demonstrated by the film's title -- in the picture, the protagonist, a medical doctor, quotes Hippocrates: "The art is long, life short, occasion urgent, experiment perilous, decision difficult." The film stars actors that you will recall from watching old black-and-white movies on TV late at night -- instantly recognizable figures with curious British-inflected or European accents, neat little mannequins with carefully groomed pencil-thin moustaches wearing dark, immaculately tailored suits with folded handkerchiefs in their breast pockets, all of them perfectly familiar but, essentially, nameless because these actors were, at once, dependable effective and wholly inconsequential. (Experiment Perilous features George Brent as the physician protagonist, Hedy Lamarr as the damsel in distress, Paul Lukas as the villain, Nick Bederaux, and Albert Dekker) The picture is elegantly made and directed, crammed with oddities, a strangely dreamlike suspense movie that is without any real urgency at all -- rather, the film is limpid, atmospheric, and exploration of certain moods that are very difficult to describe in words.
Experiment Perilous begins with a bravura sequence: a passenger train traverses a dark landscape in the pouring rain. The train seems to be plowing forward against the tempest on a kind of dike over which torrents of water are pouring. The people in the train are jostled by the storm and fearful. An oddly panicked middle-aged spinster, all white with a halo of light-colored hair, approaches the doctor, clutches his arm, and asks that he reassure her of their safety. Lightning flashes and a great cascade of water pours over the track, flooding them. But the train is not derailed and the woman tells the doctor her story, an account that is very elliptical, scattered, and difficult to understand: it involves someone named Nick, terror, and an unhappy marriage. the narrative is presented in a way that makes it completely mysterious -- we can't understand what the woman is saying although she is obviously very fearful. But, perhaps, this is because she has been, until recently, an inmate of an asylum or sanitarium. Both travelers are destined for New York City and the rest of the film takes place in the richly appointed drawing rooms and snowy streets and sidewalks of that city, a place that is imagined as the decadent fin-de-siècle metropolis of Henry James: the ambience of the film is vaguely like a late story by James, something like "The Jolly Corner". The spinster from the train dies under mysterious circumstances, the physician meets Nick Bederaux and his wife, Allida -- quickly enough, he intuits that Nick is some kind of vicious sadist, that he is tormenting his beautiful wife and his small son, and that his own observations are, perhaps, not reliable because he has fallen in love with Allida Bederaux. (Hedy Lamarr's beauty is shocking, inert and passive, and abstract -- for some reason, she has little or no sex appeal despite her astounding face and compact and perfect figure; she is, in fact, chilly and marmoreal a point made by the film when it shows that several artists -- including an alcoholic sculptor -= have successfully portrayed her.) It turns out that a portrait painter fell in love with Allida while he was painting her -- Nick Bederaux killed his rival and exiled his sister, the spinster on the train, who suspected his perfidy to a sanitarium; he is, now, "gaslighting" his wife to drive her mad and torturing the child with tales of menacing witches (clearly alluding to the little boy's mother) because he suspects that the boy is the son of the painter that he has murdered. Gradually, the physician deciphers Nick's plot and the film climaxes with the violent confrontation between the two men. The movie is principally an exercise in style and Stimmung -- until the last ninety-seconds of happy ending, the film is entirely shot in dense darkness, a kind of luxurious opulent gloom: the streets of New York are frighteningly cold with ice and drifted snow -- people track one another through strangely deserted metropolitan intersections; overhead shots show the snow on the streets and sidewalks striated with marks made by the wheels of carts. The villain's mansion is an interior space of the kind the Jacques Rivette might imagine -- it consists of odd interlocking spaces, a great aquarium where fish lurk in luminous panels of glass, dark paneled rooms that open on strange hidden doorways accessing gloomy spiral staircases: there are sinister-looking portraits and weird sculpures and heavy beds like mortuary equipment everywhere. The doctor hero is fundamentally amoral -- he loves Allida and rescues her only so that he can possess her himself. People speak in weird aphorisms and the film's principal effect is powerful but indefinable --the movie seems to belong to a genre that doesn't exactly exist and evokes moods that can' really be accurately described. There is a lavish, but impressionistically disarticulated fire and explosion scene at the end of the movie that features one of the most bizarre and impressive shots that I have ever seen -- the explosion knocks the glass out of the aquarium resulting in a great flood of water and fish pouring toward brilliant, chest-high gouts of flame. That image alone makes this stylish little film worth watching.