We watched a pretty entertaining little slice of Cold War paranoia written by Rod Serling this afternoon. I picked this one because Martin Landau is in it. He plays a Soviet defector who’s been tracked down by a dandy of an assassin played by John Van Dreelen. Landau’s trapped in a shabby hotel room with a bomb somewhere in it, and a sniper across the alley ready to gun him down if he tries to flee. This is a fun little game of psychology and desperation, and our son really enjoyed wondering along with Landau where the bomb could be.
We paused early on to give him a little more to understand, since we picked up on the context of the accents and the wardrobe and the character names. We did get one bit quite wrong, though. I thought Landau was playing a spy; the defection angle hadn’t actually occurred to me before the adversaries actually meet face to face!
From a heavier-than-usual episode of Young Indy to a heavier-than-usual episode of Zone, once again we had a little more cause to talk about the world with our son. Rod Serling’s “I am the Night – Color Me Black” features a stellar cast, including Michael Constantine, Ivan Dixon, and Paul Fix, in a story about a town so full of hate and rage that on the morning of an execution, the sun literally doesn’t come up.
It’s a village seething with racial resentment. The murder victim is said to have been a “cross-burning psychopath,” but also the only one in the town willing to be open about his bigotry. His killer has been railroaded; the town’s high and mighty squashed evidence and perjured themselves on the stand to ensure that there wouldn’t be any chance of acquittal. It’s not an execution; it’s retribution.
So yeah, this was a very heavy half-hour, and one we paused twice to ensure our son could follow the narrative. At least he got his questions about the mechanics of hanging answered a couple of weeks ago so he could focus on this, and we could agree that the only way to dispel the creeping, terrible darkness that threatens towns like this is through love and kindness. Fortunately, things will be a little lighter tomorrow night.
Sometimes, it’s fair to say that Rod Serling’s prose could get very purple. In “The Masks,” he never uses two words when ten would do. Almost all of the story’s weight is placed on the shoulders of the family patriarch, played by Robert Keith in his final screen role. He died almost three years after this first aired in March of 1964. The story is structured so that almost all of the exchanges are variations on Keith telling his awful family “You’re all terrible people,” and the ungrateful kin politely replying “Please don’t say such awful things.” They have to be polite. They’re in this for his money.
So I was pleased that our son was able to follow along no matter how florid the language became, and he laughed at the insults. It helped that the rotten children and grandchildren were so obviously rotten, drawn in absurdly broad strokes to make the twist work. I think this one could have benefited from being made in the previous season as an hour-long episode. With more time available, the characterization could have been more subtle and the twist more delicious. At least these jerks deserved their fate, which isn’t always the case in this show. As with many other stories we’ve watched, this one got a pronouncement of “creepy!” I think our kid enjoyed it more than he has many others.
I was interested to see that “The Masks” was directed by Ida Lupino, who had starred in the memorable Zone installment “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” back in season one. She was doing lots of television directing in the mid-sixties, on shows as disparate as The Fugitive, Gilligan’s Island, and Honey West, when she wasn’t acting.
Three points come to mind about tonight’s very interesting episode. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was unlike everything else made for The Twilight Zone, as it was a short film made in France by the director Robert Enrico, based on the influential short story by Ambrose Bierce that has caused several generations of high school students to throw their textbooks at the wall because comic books had long before taught us that “gasp! it was all… a DREAM!” is a bogus ending. I don’t know very much about French new wave cinema, but I have seen seven or eight films by Truffaut, and while Enrico does not appear to be listed among the directors usually credited as part of the French new wave, this beautifully-photographed film is nevertheless just about the most early sixties French thing I’ve ever seen.
The second point is that this one didn’t resonate with our son at all, mainly because he was so baffled and intrigued by the mechanics of the hanging that he never got past it. Imagine watching this whole thing and asking “Now, why were they trying to hang him?”
The third point is that one day in the fall quarter of 1990, some publicity company or marketing crew brought a preview copy of the Adrian Lyne film Jacob’s Ladder to UGA for an advance screening. When it ended, I went “Ha! Owl Creek Bridge!” and everybody else in the theater threw their metaphorical textbooks at the walls. It remains the only time I’ve ever seen a movie and the audience boo it. I swear I was the only person in that crowd who didn’t boo it. My date booed it. Then she booed me for defending it. Jacob’s Ladder was a box office flop, in large part because everybody had either read crappy comics or watched “Attack on Cloudbase”.
For what it’s worth, though, Enrico’s gorgeous film went on to win the Best Live Action Short Film at the 1963 Oscars. It may have been dated hokum in 1963, but it looked amazing.
And so back to The Twilight Zone for six more stories, and boy, did I ever pick a great one. I hadn’t heard of Richard Matheson’s “Night Call” before, but since we’d seen Gladys Cooper in a couple of other Zone stories, I figured we might as well enjoy the hat trick.
“Night Call” is amazing. It probably started a flaming epidemic of kids making prank calls and quietly saying “…hell….oh…?” at two in the morning back in ’63, because it’s that darn good and that creepy. It shouldn’t be this way; it just sounds like pure hokum, an old lady getting increasingly panicked by a disembodied voice on her phone at all hours, but Cooper really sells both the panic and the character’s loneliness. Nora Marlowe plays the old lady’s home health nurse, and while long-suffering isn’t quite the right term, you’d think that her charge would listen to her very sensible advice to just hang up and leave the receiver off the hook.
Our son thought it was so creepy that he was grumbling and hiding before the commercial break. And he’s right. It’s just delicious. The twist was a terrific punch in the gut… and then Cooper decides to pick up the receiver and start talking to her caller. I about died. Mom had to lie down in bed with our son for a few minutes and cuddle him. If any of the next few we’re going to watch are half this good, I’ll be satisfied.
Related: You have seen The Phone, right?
This is really quite strange. I have no idea why I picked “Ring-a-Ding Girl,” a fifth season Twilight Zone written by Earl Hamner Jr., for our blog. I am unfamiliar with any of the actors, and the episode doesn’t seem to have any real fame or notoriety. I’m very glad I did, though, especially because after the last two disappointing installments, I was ready for a winner, and this was a good one.
The episode stars Maggie McNamara as a Hollywood starlet who comes roaring back to her small hometown after receiving strange visions from a ring that her fan club has mailed her. She seems to be showing off, acting like a stage brat – maybe “diva,” with all the negative connotations that word used to have – and suggesting that everybody cancel the annual picnic to come see her in the high school auditorium instead.
I didn’t see where this was going until very near the end. I was curious why she didn’t try to share her premonitions with her sister, but it all ends with a wonderfully inevitable finale. It reminded me of some earlier Zone installments that had their origins in old stories, like “The Hitch-Hiker” and “Twenty-two.”
I was sad to read that Maggie McNamara retired from acting less than a year after this episode aired. She moved to New York and worked as a typist in temporary jobs for another fourteen years while occasionally trying her hand at screenwriting. Sadly, she ended her life in 1978. That’s a shame, I really enjoyed her in this. She was in Otto Preminger’s 1953 film The Moon is Blue, which was extraordinarily controversial at the time and was banned in several cities because the characters used shocking, rude words like “virgin” in it.
That’s all from The Twilight Zone for now, but we’ll continue looking at a few more stories from season five in July. Stay tuned!
Speaking of MacGyver, here’s the actor who played his grandfather, John Anderson, along with James Coburn and John Marley, in a 1963 Twilight Zone written by Rod Serling from a story by Henry Slesar. It’s an agreeably bleak look at the grim, post-apocalyptic future of 1974, but the twist is so remarkably dated that this is the sort of story that can only have been told in old books and television. It’s fair to say that I didn’t see it coming; it’s difficult to remember how frightened people used to be of ordinary technology that Anderson’s character would want to keep it locked away from the rubes. Our son was absolutely baffled, and left only with a dislike of Coburn’s very “mean” character.
This wasn’t the first time that we went into a celebrated and famous installment of The Twilight Zone, this one written by Charles Beaumont, and I ended up loathing it. Yet again, it’s a trip back to the weird, stupid, and bizarre days when completely incompatible people got married for God-knows-why.
I started with a grain of sympathy for Telly Savalas’s character, because it’s strongly implied that he did not know that his wife had a daughter from a previous marriage, and his new(ish) wife deliberately hid this, surprising him with “two for the price of one.” He is apparently unable to have children, and she judges everything he does as resentment. But he’s far from sympathetic. That grain I had dwindled and died pretty quickly as his already aggressive and unlikable character descends into irrationality, and when he privately smiles when nobody can find his stepdaughter’s Talky Tina doll, which he’d thrown out, I was ready for Talky Tina to go all Chucky-from-Child’s Play on him.
There’s value in old TV like The Twilight Zone even when it doesn’t entertain. It’s a window to the awful world that the Greatest Generation and the Boomers perpetuated, where it was preferable to be miserable together than either happily divorced or “living in sin.” As fiction, it’s impossible for me to look at this as anything other than the story of two horrible adults getting what they deserve. As history, it’s another reminder that the “good ol’ days” were often incredibly rotten.
On the other hand, our son at least seemed to enjoy the amusing shock of the stepdad answering that telephone call at the commercial break…