Friday, 8 July 2011

Review: THE TWILIGHT ZONE, 1.8 – 1.15

Friday, 8 July 2011

I reviewed the first seven episodes of classic anthology series The Twilight Zone a short while ago, so here's the next eight episodes of that iconic show's first season, appraised in bite-sized format...

The show's first bonafide classic arrives with "TIME ENOUGH AT LAST", adapted from a 1953 short story by Lyn Venable. It concerns erudite Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith); a mustachioed bank clerk with bottle-top glasses who's in trouble because he's preoccupied with reading throughout his working day, and henpecked at home by a wife (Jacqueline deWit) who refuses to let him read in the house. In some ways she's the most frightening element of the story, given her irrational behaviour towards Bemis (she cruelly defaces his cherished poetry book). The halfway point of the episode signals the shift into The Twilight Zone, as Bemis survives a H-bomb while reading in a bank vault during his lunch-break, and realizes he's the lone survivor of a global nuclear war...

This is one of Zone's most famous episodes—certainly in terms of its ending (which has become a classic moment spoofed in shows like The Simpsons and Futurama)—so I have no problems dropping a spoiler. Having realized the positive of surviving doomsday is having all the time in the world to devour the contents of a library (tomes neatly stacked to last him his lifetime), poor Bemis is dealt a crushing blow when he breaks his glasses and the simple act of reading becomes impossible. It's a brilliant, tragic, simple, clever twist—working especially well because the first act's comparatively lighthearted, as you'd never guess the second half would get so bleak. It's just a shame act one's a slight piffle. / written by Rod Serling (based on a story by Lyn Venable) / directed by John Brahm / 20 November 1959

Rod Serling wrote the majority of Zone episodes, but his lieutenant was undoubtedly Charles Beaumont1, who adapted a 1958 story he wrote for Playboy in his debut "PERCHANCE TO DREAM". You can immediately tell this episode wasn't one of Serling's, as it has a very different fingerprints to what we've become accustomed to—and that's no bad thing. The premise is great, as insomniac Edward Hall (Richard Conte) goes to see psychiatrist Dr Rathman (John Larch), convinced that if he falls asleep he'll die. In extensive flashback, Hall reveals why he's reached this bizarre conclusion, which concerns his overactive imagination and serialized dreams that involve an alluring dancer at a carnival called Maya (Suzanne Lloyd) who intends to scare him to death...

This episode's a clear precursor of Nightmare On Elm Street (someone stalking you in a dream, eventually killing you) and even the more recent Inception (Serling's narration posits the idea that a half-hour dream can be conjured in a split-second of sleep), if nowhere as good as those later works. The idea is smart and the execution's good (love the eeriness of the carnival and its terrifying rollercoaster ride), but it's the twist-ending that really works. Beaumont's script is also more complex and modern than Serling's work can often feel, which was a nice surprise. / written by Charles Beaumont / directed by Robert Florey / 27 November 1959

1 As an addendum, it was rather tragic that Beaumont's life took a twist into Twilight Zone-esque territory, after he contracted a brain disease that accelerated his physical age. He sadly died at the age of 38, apparently resembling a man in his nineties.

Episode 10's "JUDGMENT NIGHT" was directed by John Brahm, who brought the same sense of cinematic quality to this episode as he did in "Time Enough At Last". It's a WWII tale set in 1942, aboard the S.S Queen of Glasgow, bound for the United States, where we meet a withdrawn passenger called Carl Lanser (Nehemiah Persoff), whom it becomes clear is suffering from amnesia. Clues to his identity point to the troubling possibility he's a German U-boat captain, but how did he come to be aboard the Glasgow? And how is he able to predict the tragic fate that awaits the ship at 1:15 a.m.?

This is one of those episodes where I appreciated the style more than almost everything else, even when the twist is revealed that Lanser's cursed to relive the fate of a ship he destroyed without fair warning. It looks pretty great (beyond a few incongruous archival shots of submariners), and there's a cold and foggy atmosphere that bleeds off the screen. I just didn't find it a particularly compelling story, although the action scenes towards the end were nicely handled for '50s TV, and the "time-loop" nature of the story ensures it ends in a manner that may inspire some later contemplation about the living hell of purgatory. / written by Rod Serling / directed by John Brahm / 4 December 1959

Much better is "AND WHEN THE SKY WAS OPENED", heralding the first partnership of showrunner Serling and renowned author Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), with the former adapting the latter's short story "Disappearing Act", published in a 1953 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Here, three all-American astronauts—Harrington (Charles Aidman), Forbes (Rod Taylor) and Gart (Jim Hutton)—return to Earth after piloting an experimental spaceship that vanished from radar during a test flight, only for Harrington to apparently lose his mind when he begins to believe he's being forgotten by his family...

The great thing about this episode is how it's structured, with Forbes as the only person aware Harrington's been erased from existence and trying to convince a hospitalized GartFinal Destination movies, too. A good episode, performed with conviction by Taylor (did you know he played Churchill in Inglourious Basterds?), with exactly the right amount of discomforting atmosphere drizzled over it. / written by Rod Serling (based on a story by Richard Matheson) / directed by Douglas Heyes / 11 December 1959

"WHAT YOU NEED" returns to the magical salesman well Serling seems to enjoy, in a tale adapted from Lewis Padgett's 1954 short story in Astounding Science-Fiction. This is an enjoyable installment about a petty thug called Renard (Steve Cochran) who notices the extraordinary ability of a street peddler called Pedott (Ernest Truex) to intuit what someone "needs" to benefit their life. For example: the old vendor gives a bus ticket to Pennsylvania to a crocked baseball player, seconds before the man's offered a coaching job in that very state, etc. Like many Zone episodes, the mechanics of the story feel naïve and, owing to the fact audiences are so sophisticated now, you can't help feeling disappointed by most of Pedott's preemptive sales. Can't that baseball player have bought his own bloody ticket? The only predicted moment that works dramatically is when Pedott gives Renard a pair of scissors, that prove life-saving when his scarf gets trapped in the world's slowest-moving elevator.

What rescues this episode is Serling's decision to shake things up by having the ostensible lead be a villain. Usually, it's innocent and everyday folk who encounter Zone's "fifth dimension", mainly so the audience can empathize with them, but this episode benefits from having a scheming criminal at its heart (for an episode originally transmitted on Christmas Day, no less). The resolution to the story is also satisfying (ignoring a lame, jokey denouement with a comb) and overall "What You Need" ranks as a good episode spoiled by generally weak demonstrations of Pedott's power. / written by Rod Serling (based on a story by Lewis Padgett) / directed by Alvin Ganzer / 25 December 1959

The idea of basing a story around a disreputable man continues with "THE FOUR OF US ARE DYING", based on an unpublished story by George Clayton Johnson that was sent to Rod Serling for inclusion on the show. In this episode we meet Arch Hammer (Harry Townes), a conman with the exceptional ability to alter his appearance, which obviously comes in hand as a hustler. Hammer's able to impersonate a dead trumpeter called Johnny Foster, in order to woo his grieving girlfriend, before taking things to the next level by pretending to be murdered gangster Virgil Sterig and extorting money from the mobster who ordered his death. Naturally, things don't end well for Hammer, as his skill gets him into deep trouble while trying to escape from Sterig's men, particularly when he meets the aggrieved father of a notorious boxer he's forced to mimic while trying to evade capture...

It was refreshing to have an episode where an extraordinary event doesn't happen to an unassuming everyman. Hammer just has this supernatural ability from the start, and the story is about seeing the problems a shape-shifter may encounter if they used their ability unwisely. There are some fun in-camera tricks to sell the premise (actors in windows posing as mirrors, or literally replacing each other just out of shot), but I can't help thinking this was an episode that promised a more exciting and intelligent story than the one presented. And for the series as whole, it's notable how many stories have had unhappy endings recently. / written by Rod Serling (based on a story by George Clayton Johnson) / directed by John Brahm / 1 January 1960

Another adaptation of a Richard Matheson story arrives with the paranoia drama "THIRD FROM THE SUN", which focuses on scientist Will Sturka (Fritz Weaver), a man working on a military base building H-bombs for the government. Sturka comes to believe nuclear Armageddon is impending, so plots to evacuate his family and that of his friend/colleague Jerry Riden (Joe Maross) before the bombs fall. Unfortunately, his superior Mr Carling (Edward Andrews) is suspicious of Sturka's scheme to steal a spaceship to flee catastrophe, and the episode plays out in an atmosphere of mistrust as Sturka and Riden's departure date gets closer. This was a slightly tedious episode, although the edgy mood was established and maintained very well, and director Richard L. Bare's camerawork was inventive (there's a great under the table shot and great use of low angles), but everything's rescued by a twist-ending that's amusingly outrageous. / written by Rod Serling (based on a story by Richard Matheson) / directed Richard L. Bare / 8 January 1960

"I SHOT AN ARROW INTO THE AIR" is an episode spoiled by the fact modern audience are too sophisticated to swallow the premise that props up the twist-ending. A manned space flight crash lands, stranding four astronauts—Corey (Dewey Martin), Donlin (Edward Binns), Pierson (Ted Otis) and Langford (Harry Bartell)—on an unknown asteroid. As the men wait for rescue in the sweltering heat, Corey's pragmatism and selfishness gets out of hand, and he begins killing his comrades so their limited water supply will last longer. Quite why Corey thinks a few extra flagons of water's going to be of any help (after they even mention a rescue ship is four years away from even being built) is just one of this episode's many plot-holes. The basic idea of has some merit, but the details of the story are grossly naïve when viewed today. And the fun twist-ending (practically recycled for Serling's Planet Of The Apes script), has you wondering just what kind of nincompoops NASA were training if these men can't tell the difference between an asteroid and... well, I'm sure you've guessed. / written by Rod Serling (based on a story by Madelion Champion) / directed by Stuart Rosenberg / 15 January 1960