Batman 1.17 – True or False Face

One summer afternoon in the mid-1970s, I wandered through the kitchen of my parents’ home. We had two TVs then, the big one in the den and the smaller one in the kitchen, where my mother would watch her favorite soap opera, Days of Our Lives. I never paid attention to this program, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw something absolutely baffling and utterly terrifying, and watched in horror that began as mute and quickly escalated into full-throated shrieking.

Will Marshall, who, just a few days previously, I saw trapped in the Land of the Lost as he always was, was unconscious on Mom’s TV screen. That was indisputably Will Marshall. And he was in amazing danger. He was in a barn that had caught fire. The flames rose higher and higher and… the show faded to black and the credits rolled.

This was really no way for a kid of about five to be introduced to the concept of a cliffhanger, or to the idea that characters on television programs are played by actors who take different roles. That wasn’t really Will Marshall, Mom explained after I stopped screaming, but an actor we later identified as Wesley Eure, and some TV shows are continued in later installments.

After I calmed down, I found this knowledge quite fascinating, and when, perhaps that fall or the following year, Batman started running in the afternoons, I was able to read and understand that the Riddler was played by a guy named Frank Gorshin, and the Penguin was played by a guy named Burgess Meredith, and False Face was…

…well, that was not just weird, it was plain unnerving. In a wonderful case of little kid logic, I concluded that the people who made the Batman show had no idea who False Face was.

I didn’t like that. Maybe he wasn’t an actor. Maybe he really was a bad guy.

The episode continued to unnerve me as a kid, as poor Chief O’Hara gets abducted and False Face, with his phenomenally creepy plastic mask – more on that next time – impersonates him. He and his associate Blaze, played wonderfully by Myrna Fahey, who deserved co-billing as a character every bit as integral to the plot as the main baddie, lead our heroes into a trap in an abandoned subway station. First, she asks Batman to buy her a candy bar from a vending machine, and then she blows her knockout powder right into Robin’s face and then Batman gets a puff from the machine…

You know what this is? It’s nightmare fuel. Pure, unadulterated nightmare fuel. Thanks to some completely bizarre trick photography, False Face appears to be simultaneously inside the machine and reflected as standing in front of it. I couldn’t make sense of it as a kid, as Batman falls out of frame just after slowly growling his enemy’s name, and that villain appears to grow enormously as he laughs, his face unmoving under that hideous solid mask, the screen lit up in red.

Watched from the cold light of adulthood, it’s still a good episode. It was written by Stephen Kandel, who’s probably best known for co-creating the recurring character of Harry Mudd in the original Star Trek, but he also wrote for lots of intricately-plotted series like Mannix, Mission: Impossible, and MacGyver, so he knew how to construct something with lots of twists and turns. I think the only thing that dulls this episode is that the so-far-anonymous actor playing False Face isn’t given the chance to be as distinctive as his predecessors, particularly with Stafford Repp playing the character for several minutes and Myrna Fahey taking the spotlight in two major scenes. And while the bizarre shot of Batman being overcome with the red powder didn’t alarm Daniel quite the way it did me, he did worry as our heroes are taken to the subway tracks to be crushed by the oncoming express train. Tune in tomorrow…

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