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Light and Shadow:
Quint crosses over into The Twilight Zone!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a bit of an experiment. A month or more back the Definitive Collection hit Amazon’s Gold Box at a price I couldn’t refuse and I picked it up without a second thought. I grew up watching re-runs of Rod Serling’s seminal show, but I haven’t revisited the series in years, aside from an odd episode I’d catch while flipping through channels late at night. For those of my generation there were no seasons of Twilight Zone, just what happened to run on TV and most of those were the same two-dozen episodes. So, I figured if I was going to finally crack this box set I’d take note of my impressions of each episode as I went from pilot to final episode and open up a discussion here on the site for what could arguably be the high water mark of genre television. Those who followed along on my run of A Movie A Day might find a twinge of familiarity with this series. I do plan on returning to A Movie A Day at some point (in fact, I have all the movies picked, each one connected to the one before like last time), but that is a much heavier undertaking and requires a bit more planning and free time. I might try some experimentation with the first few stories, but I think I’m going to break it down into articles covering three episodes apiece.

1.1 – “Where Is Everybody?”
Directed by Robert Stevens
Written by Rod Serling
Original Airdate: October 2nd, 1959

The place is here, the time is now, and the journey into the shadows that we’re about to watch could be our journey.

This pilot episode stars Earl Holliman as a man with no memory wandering a country road who comes upon a deserted diner and, later, an even more deserted town. There is evidence of population… a coffee pot bubbling on the diner stove and a burning cigar in an ashtray at the town’s police station… however no one can be found. Holliman has a tough job here as the only actor onscreen for 95% of the episode, which means a whole lot of talking to himself. But the dude is charismatic, carrying with him an everyman “aw, shucks” personality that helps bridge that gap of logic, making the leap we have to take easier. It’s nearly impossible to talk about the ins and outs of this episode without going into plot details, so fair warning if you want to keep pure. I don’t figure it’s a big deal considering it aired some 51 years ago, but if you don’t want to know, then don’t continue on. Like most Twilight Zone episodes written by Rod Serling there’s a cleverness to it, layers of detail that you don’t find in most episodic TV writing, especially of this time period. The big twist is that this town is all in his mind. He’s a pilot that has been pushed to the breaking point in isolation as his superiors look on, studying the effects of one man living alone in a small container. Turns out he’s an astronaut being trained for a one-man flight to the moon (keep in mind the moon landing happened a decade after this episode aired) and part of that training is testing his mental ability to handle the pressure of extreme isolation. At one point, thousands of hours before we jump into the story, he knew he was in a box, being observed, so when he cracks and his mind creates this open world for him a lot of that is repeated in his subconscious. For instance, there’s a moment when he hears a phone ringing and when he runs to the booth to answer it the door closes behind him, trapping him. He struggles, but can’t get out. The door opens eventually, but the iconography is repeated when he visits the police station, looking for any living person, and finds himself in a jail cell. The barred shadow of the door slowly closing causes him to panic, stopping it before it can latch shut and imprison him again. There’s also a lot of “being watched” symbology… from a stark eye on an optomitrist’s window to these “near misses” as he finds evidence of someone observing him. From the left cigar to a movie theater’s projector turning on when he’s in the seat to recently used razor and shaving cream in the jail cell. Also take note of the repeated imagery of the timer he knocks over at the beginning of the episode. He picks it up among shards of glass and when we see him hooked up to electrodes in his steel box he’s hitting a gauge with the same position of the clock arms, glass broken around it. Like I said, smart. I also found it fascinating to watch because of the different feel. This pilot episode is shot considerably better than the rest of the series, the black and white in high contrast, feeling more like a high budget Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney gangster flick than a TV show. Especially at the end of the episode when we leave Holliman’s mind and re-enter the real world. Another striking aspect is the legendary Bernard Herrmann’s score, which can be listened to on its own isolated track should you choose it (I did, in fact that’s what has been playing in the background as I compose this). It may not be as classic as his Hitchcock work, but the man knew how to put notes together. Also pay attention to the deserted town. It should look very familiar to anybody who grew up watching the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies or has taken the Universal tram tour at Universal Studios. This is the first and only TZ episode to shoot on the Universal backlot, the rest of the series being shot at either MGM or on location. Solid starter. Not as fantastic or supernatural as my personal favorite episodes, but a great 25-ish minutes of television history.

1.2 – “One for the Angels”
Directed by Robert Parrish
Written by Rod Serling
Original Airdate: October 9th, 1959

Street scene: Summer. The present. Man on a sidewalk named Lew Bookman, age sixtyish. Occupation: Pitchman. Lew Bookman, a fixture of the summer, a rather minor component to a hot July; a nondescript, commonplace little man whose life is a treadmill built out of sidewalks. In just a moment, Lew Bookman will have to concern himself with survival, because as of three o'clock this hot July afternoon he'll be stalked by Mr. Death.

This one is by far my favorite of these first three and currently ranks as one of my favorites of the series. In watching this first disc of the massive Definitive Edition set I was surprised that I hadn’t seen one of them. I knew I hadn’t seen every episode, but I was kind of shocked at how ignorant I seemingly am of this series. Hell, I didn’t recognize the first season opening credits, which lacks the famous Twilight Zone jingle and flying door. One for the Angels is one of those heart-warming Twilight Zone episodes, an anti-Tales From the Crypt in that it’s not about sticking the knife in and twisting, evil winning and the unjust coming out ahead. Optimistic is the word. The episode follows the awesome Ed Wynn (you’ll remember him as the laughing Uncle Albert who just can’t get off the ceiling in Mary Poppins) as a lonely pitchman… the type that has a suitcase that folds out into a stand and opens up so he can hock his wares on a street corner. In the opening scene we get a nod to Forbidden Planet as Wynn sells toy robots, the biggest of which is the famous Robby. Poor Wynn lives alone, has no wife, no children and, seemingly, no friends aside from the neighborhood kids whom he pampers, sneaking them toys when he gets off of work. So when a man in a black suit pops up unexpectedly in his apartment it is a considerable shock to him. And it was a shock to me, too. The man in the suit was Mayor Vaughn from JAWS, Mr. Murray Hamilton! I love that guy’s voice and his personality, but haven’t seen much of his work outside of the first two Jaws movies and the original AMITYVILLE HORROR. Of course, the man in the suit is Death alerting Wynn that he has until midnight to get his affairs in order. The bulk of the episode is Wynn pushing for clemency or at the very least a reprieve from his final deadline. These two are great together and I love that Serling wrote Death as a kind soul. Hamilton plays him as a guy doing his job… hell, he could be a repo man taking Wynn’s TV instead of his life. With a “heard it before” look on his face he allows Wynn to plea for an extension. The only consideration Wynn could possibly take advantage of is one in which Death can choose to grant a reprieve if there is a significant unfinished life goal. Wynn convinces Hamilton that he’s never had one great moment in his life. He could be satisfied and ready to move on if he could have one fantastic pitch. A pitch that would make the heavens open up, he says… “One for the Angels.” This moves Hamilton and he agrees. Of course, Wynn does what most of us would do… he shows Death to the door and then pretty much goes, “Gotcha, bitch! I’m never going to pitch anything again!” Now, this is Death, so that probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but it’s a Death who honors his word. However, he can’t return without someone filling in for Wynn. That someone is one of the kids in the neighborhood, a particularly cute little girl that Wynn has a fatherly connection to. Wynn immediately tries to take her place, but Death is bound by the deal and unless Wynn can give the best pitch of his life, one that will open up the heavens and be one for the angels, then the girl will be taken at the stroke of midnight. I loved the pacing of this episode and the players involved. I loved Death played as a kind man, Hamilton putting real caring behind his eyes. I love that Wynn goes from pleading to trickery to gloating to selfless sacrifice, finding it within him to be great for the sake of an innocent. Serling does better character work in his script for a 25 minute television show than most modern day screenwriters can pull off in a 2 hour long movie. This is an all around fantastic episode, one I’m glad I took the time to discover.

1.3 – “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”
Directed by Allen Reisner
Written by Rod Serling
Original Airdate: October 16th, 1959

Portrait of a town drunk named Al Denton. This is a man who has begun his dying early; a long agonizing route through a maze of bottles. Al Denton, who would probably give an arm or a leg or a part of his soul to have another chance, to be able to rise up and shake the dirt from his body and the bad dreams that infest his consciousness. In the parlance of the times, this is a peddler, a rather fanciful-looking little man in a black frock coat. And this is the third principal character of our story. Its function? Perhaps to give Mister Al Denton his second chance.

According to Martin Landau’s commentary on this episode this was the second Twilight Zone episode shot, but the third aired. That feels right as this episode is much more in tone with “Where Is Everybody?” As you can probably tell from Serling’s introduction above this is one of the “Second Chance” stories where fate steps in (and in this case literally steps in) and gives a down-on-his-luck a chance to pull himself up. In this episode it’s Dan Duryea (a great noir star from flicks like SCARLET STREET and CRISS CROSS) the town drunk in this old west-set tale. We first meet him as he begs for booze from the town bully… in a film this role would have been played by Lee Marvin. Here it is played by one of my favorite character actors Martin Landau. It’s a scene right out of RIO BRAVO (which came out this very same year, by the way) and a traveling salesman with the curious name of Henry J. Fate (Malcolm Atterbury) takes pity on him, seeming to summon a Colt .45 revolver and manipulate it like a Jedi in the astonished drunk’s hand. Duryea doesn’t kill Landau, but stands up to him, putting the bully in his place and regaining a shred of dignity, but also regaining his previous reputation as a fast gun, which draws other men wanting to prove themselves in a quick draw. Mel Brooks has a lot to answer for because Duryea’s backstory is almost word for word the backstory for Gene Wilder’s The Waco Kid in BLAZING SADDLES… minus the young kid shooting him in the ass. But a famous gunslinger that is challenged on a daily basis until finally a young teen shows up and falls before his guns causing the gunslinger to trade in his pistol for a bottle… yeah, pretty close there, Mr. Brooks. Of course Duryea is challenged to a showdown by an eager young gun (an early appearance by ‘70s cheese-movie star Doug McClure), but without Mr. Fate’s help he’s as good as dead. Fate steps in once more before the big showdown and offers up an elixir that, for 10 seconds, will make the drinker the fastest gun in the world. When McClure shows up, Duryea drinks and turns to see McClure downing his own elixir. Again, if this was an EC Comics story or something more cynical this situation would end horribly, but there’s an optimism in these early episodes that is clear and the episode ends just as it needs to; fate helping not just the town drunk find some control and purpose, but also the young hotshot learn that there’s more to life than killing. Of the first three this episode is my least favorite, but that’s not a slam against it. The performances are great, the message is solid and it’s really fun to watch however it falls short of the layered intricacy of “Where Is Everybody?” and the fantastic character work and storytelling of “One for the Angels.” How do you guys like this so far? I can’t promise much, but the initial idea is to run through every episode and recount them here with my thoughts. There are 156 episodes. At this rate that would equal 52 articles, which is a lot of my yammering. If you guys dig it, I’ll keep it up. If you have any thoughts, good or bad, let me know! Either way I’m determined to watch all these Twilight Zones. Who knows, if this column takes off I may follow it up with a similar run of articles the ‘80s Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents. -Quint Follow Me On Twitter

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