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home > undercurrent > issue 7 > Blake Edwards > Experiment in Terror and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?  

about the writer

Chris Fujiwara is a writer, film critic, journalist, and editor. He is the author of Jerry Lewis (University of Illinois Press, 2009), The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (Faber & Faber, 2007) and Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) and the editor of Defining Moments in Movies (Cassell, 2007) and Peter Watkins (Jeonju International Film Festival, 2008).


[1] Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 121.

Notes on Two Blake Edwards Films
By Chris Fujiwara

Experiment in Terror
Experiment in Terror

Experiment in Terror (1962)

When the automatic garage door closes on Lee Remick in the first scene (after the geometrically beautiful credits sequence), the film sets out the primary conditions of a cinema screening: an artificial, mechanical sequestration in darkness. The encounter that follows between the terrorist and his victim changes the psychological and social meaning of these conditions, as the protagonist is moved from mastery to powerlessness (as happens so often when films represent on-screen the position of the viewer), from anonymity to detailed exposure (the terrorist enumerating all the things he knows about his prey and her daily routine). So does the scene still function as a metaphor for cinema? Yes, because the terrorist's acousmatic voice, in issuing a series of demands that outline what will be the plot of the film, proposes the film itself as a set of gestures that must be enacted and put on view in a certain precise way: in other words, a spectacle must be produced that answers to the wishes of someone who is both a kind of director and also a perverse viewer.

It's interesting that the terrorist, a Caucasian man, is said to have a thing for Asian women, or, as his FBI profile puts it (just after noting his fondness for movies), "he frequently establishes liaisons with women of Oriental descent." This clue leads to the criminal's undoing, so it is crucial to the narrative; but at the same time it is useless, a-signifying, it sticks out: it has the excessiveness of desire. Throughout Experiment in Terror, desire proves useless, leads to no acts except futile and abortive ones, transforms nothing in the rather drab world Edwards depicts.

Slavoj Žižek writes perceptively about the workings of "the melancholic, inanimate gaze" in Experiment in Terror: "first the gaze of the hanged woman hidden between the dolls, then the doll of a tiger with a sad face... constitute the same sinthome, the uncanny gaze which subverts the border between life and death." [1] This melancholy, which the narrative cannot contain and which it does not acknowledge, is the melancholy of viewing too late. Lateness is the mark of Blake Edwards' career: he came late, as a director, to a Hollywood system already aware of itself as aging and shortly to die but still clinging to the prestige of a certain way of constructing the universe as an aesthetic object. The sadness in the eyes of that tiger expresses a knowledge of the imminence of death and suggests an intuition of the inexorable loss of that belief on which the system depends: the tiger is a living tiger, if only in fantasy, as long as it is believed in, but it dies when it is no longer seen by a gaze that animates it with belief or with love.

This lateness haunts Experiment in Terror in other ways. Glenn Ford has never looked so old, so ordinary and unsupported (though this was the same year that he assayed Rudolph Valentino's role in Vincente Minnelli's remake of The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse); even his hair is not quite in place, as if he had been told to go get it cut at a random barber shop a month before production and then to let it grow out. Ford's unretouched, deglamourized aging, like the terrorist's asthma, signifies male vulnerability, whereas the women in the film are forceful and independent (a woman who will be murdered makes a brave pass at Ford; the killer's girlfriend is hostile and resolute; Lee Remick's character holds up well under every stage of the "experiment in terror" to which she is subjected throughout the film; even her teenage sister, as played by a mature-looking 19-year-old Stefanie Powers, shows unexpected resilience).

The film's abandonment of Ford hints at a danger more insidious than the killer's brutality: the danger of Hollywood glamour dissolving into the neutral everyday. This danger finds direct expression in the helicopter shots in the final sequence: the distance of the camera renders all the people, stars no less than extras, as mere instances of abstract humanity, numbers, statistics; there is no heroism, also no longer any personalized terror but only the terror (if it can even be felt as that) of the impersonal.

What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966)

What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?
What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?

American triumphalism, yes. But there is also something else: Hollywood as seen from far away, by someone who has escaped from it, a free man. War equals filmmaking: Carroll O'Connor, the general whom only two people know by his first name, is a studio head; Dick Shawn, the by-the-book captain, is the incompetent novice producer; James Coburn the seasoned and well-liked director. All this is set up well before the brilliant sequence in which Coburn, to make the metaphor explicit, tries to stage combat action in the little Sicilian town square in order to fool the American reconnaissance planes flying overhead (if in Experiment in Terror the overhead view is an irresistible and inhuman force of negation, in What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? it represents a stupid authority that can be tricked). But there is more than this; there is also the "intelligence officer" (Henry Morgan) who loses his wits wandering around in the catacombs beneath the town and spouts remembered snatches of movie dialogue and advertising slogans, mixed with political speeches, etc., a concrete poetry of the remains of American film and American history: the linguistic bones and dust of great enterprises.

What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? leaves nothing standing: from top to bottom (this is a systematically vertical film) all myths and illusions in the vicinity are dismantled; nothing that could support a belief in any great enterprise is permitted to remain upright. No particular sentimentality is attached to the relaxed cynicism that prevails among the Sicilians; theirs is simply "a way of life, like any other" (the title of Darcy O'Brien's great semi-autobiographical Hollywood novel) which Edwards and the visiting Americans view with pragmatic detachment. Even the on-screen director figure (Coburn) is only a benign but mainly ineffectual ringmaster, someone of no great distinction or ability; in the world of the film, to have an effect is always destructive, so it is better to do as little as possible, and this is the principle Coburn's character obeys.

The mise en scène resembles that of The Party: the calm orchestration of chaos happening at different levels and moving in different directions, setting up an elaborate structure of illusions, deceptions, and physical encumbrances that the film will knock down. All this happens, as much as possible, just by itself. The moments when and the sites where the ground will give way and characters will fall into the catacombs are unpredictable. The space for human will in the great machines of accident that Edwards builds is small; but the machine is still nothing, and humanity is everything: what matters is wit, enjoyment, improvisation, and above all the speed of transformation (see the wonderful grace with which Shawn's character adapts to the role he is forced to play, that of a woman being wooed by a German officer). When everything fails, one can still pretend to be someone else.

Chris Fujiwara




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