Monday, April 11, 2011

"Mr. Denton On Doomsday"

Dan Duryea as gunfighter turned town drunk Al Denton
“Mr. Denton on Doomsday”
Season One, Episode 3
Original Air Date: October 16, 1959

Cast:
Al Denton: Dan Duryea
Henry J. Fate: Malcolm Atterbury
Dan Hotaling: Martin Landau
Liz: Jeanne Cooper
Pete Grant: Doug McClure
Charlie: Ken Lynch
Leader: Arthur Batanides
Man: Bill Erwin
Doctor: Robert Burton
Peter Grant: Doug McClure

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Allen Reisner
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and William Ferrari
Set Decoration: Rudy Butler and Henry Grace
Assistant Director: Edward Denault
Casting: Mildred Gusse
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franlin Milton and Jean Valentino
Music: Stock
 
And now, Mr. Serling
:
“Next week we invite you to take a walk down a western frontier street at the elbow of a doomed gunman, whose salvation lies in nothing less than a magic potion and a colt .45. Mr. Dan Duryea stars in ‘Mr. Denton on Doomsday’ next week on The Twilight Zone. We hope you’ll be able to be with us. Thank you, and good night.”
 
Rod Serling’s Opening Narration
:
“Portrait of a town drunk named Al Denton. This is a man who’s 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 time: 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 Mr. Al Denton his second chance.”

Summary:

Henry J. Fate (Malcolm Atterbury)
     The place is a desert town in the Old West, the last vestige of the dried gulch that is the American frontier. In a town where dreams have died and turned to hopeless prayers, Al Denton may be the last dreamer in this forgotten place. Once a legendary gunslinger, a quick-draw specialist whose reputation was challenged daily by young men with guns on their hips, each one eager to test Denton’s skill and claim the prize of a killer’s reputation, Denton is merely a shadow of his former self: weak, broken, pitiful, and enslaved by the bottle. He draws the attention of Hotaling, a gunfighter that takes sadistic pleasure in ridiculing Denton for the price of a drink in the local saloon. Denton draws the pity of a concerned woman and a sympathetic bartender but it’s not enough for him to rise above the sad hole he’s fallen into.
    Then comes a day when a traveling salesman rides into town with the name of Henry J. Fate painted across his covered wagon. This peddler of wares makes his first order of business to place a six-shooter in the hand of the downtrodden Denton. With gun in hand, Denton is unwittingly backed into a showdown with Hotaling. By the guiding glances of Henry J. Fate, which have an almost telepathic effect, Denton pulls off two impossible shots and disarms the sadistic bully. Word travels quickly and Denton knows that soon more young gunfighters will be riding into town to challenge his reputation. Denton tells the sympathetic woman the story of why he’d put gun fighting behind him in the first place. Once upon a time, he took the life of a sixteen year old boy in a duel, a boy who’d rode into town with the intention to kill him simply because Denton was known as the best. Now, Denton fears, the vicious cycle that brought him to that point will begin again.
     After Denton is visited by a couple of tough cowboys informing him of the impending visit of one Pete Grant, a sure-handed gunfighter eager to do away with Denton and make a reputation as the fastest gun around, Henry J. Fate’s covered wagon draws Denton’s attention. Fate tells Denton that he, Fate, stocks a potion that, when a gunfighter drinks it, will make that man unbeatable, the fastest and truest shot anybody’s ever seen. The catch being that the potion is only effective for ten seconds after it is ingested. After giving Denton a demonstration of what the potion can do, Fate passes on a second dose free of charge but with a little advice. Denton’s already made a date to meet Pete Grant later on in the local saloon. Fate advises Denton to drink the potion the second Grant comes through the doors.
     The showdown comes when Pete Grant rides in and makes his way to the saloon where he calls out Denton. Grant is barely more than a kid with his curly blonde hair and cherubic face, but Denton knows that Grant isn’t leaving until the two of them draw down on each other. Without a choice, and doubting his ability to be as good with a gun as he once was, Denton drinks the potion Fate gave him only to look across the saloon and see Pete Grant doing the exact same thing!

     A moment later, the two men draw on each other. Each is as fast as the other, with both men landing a wounding shot to the other’s gun hand, ending their gun fighting days for good. Denton tells young Pete Grant that this is a blessing, that the young man has been saved from the hard life that Denton has endured. The episode fades out on Henry J. Fate riding his covered wagon out of town.
 
Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:

“Mr. Henry Fate, dealer in utensils and pots and pans, liniments and potions; a fanciful little man in a black frock coat who can help a man climbing out of a pit, or another man falling into one. Because, you see, fate can work that way, in The Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:

Martin Landau
      “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” is one of Rod Serling’s “loser” episodes, where the main character is on the wrong side of luck, struggling daily, and dangling at the end of a metaphorical rope. Then something “magic” comes along, something unbelievable that intrudes upon the character’s unfortunate reality, the effect of which forever changes their life and their outlook upon the future. In every one of these stories, however, there is a pivotal choice which must be made by the character. The magic is never free and never without the need of human action as catalyst. “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” exemplifies this theme. Serling’s scripts of this type establish the theme by presenting a main character possessed of a singular flaw that is the root cause of all their misery. Some of the most commonly used character flaws are alcoholism, seen in episodes such as "A Passage for Trumpet" and "Night of the Meek" (and of which the character Al Denton is a central example), the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, seen in episodes like "King Nine Will Not Return" and "The Arrival," or an inherent cowardice or other self destructive tendency, as in "Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room" and "The Last Night of a Jockey."
      This thematic treatment often required Serling to rely on stereotypes and, because of the amount of scripts he was contractually required to provide for the first season, Serling found it all too easy to fall back on this type of story. The first season in particular is littered with them, from "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" and "The Lonely" on through "A Passage for Trumpet" and "Mr. Bevis." Though there are some very good episodes that deal with this theme, there are just as many that are hackneyed works that feel tired and familiar. “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” is too much like the episode which immediately preceded it, “One For the Angels," to be truly effective. The basic structure of the episode also recalls other Serling efforts that recycles the material in many ways, most notably "The Big Tall Wish," “In Praise of Pip,” and “Mr. Dingle, the Strong.” 
     “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” finds its identity, in everything from structure to character to setting, in its relationship to the tall tales centered around the American frontier. Like the folklore it emulates, its simplistic nature is the very thing that betrays its flaws. It is a structure which cannot support the complexity and the layered explorations of theme and character which are the hallmarks of the great segments from the series. It also does not have an effective twist ending, that other quality of the series which seems to draw viewers back to an episode. 
     Much of the first season is uneven in quality and theme partly because Serling did not quite know what he wanted the show to be. Fantasy is a large umbrella for an anthology series to live beneath, leading to the less diverse nature of the storytelling in the early output of the series. In preparation for having to churn out so many scripts, Serling poured over countless genre book anthologies and magazines of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories in an attempt to familiarize himself with the standard treatments of each genre.* As the show moved along, Serling and company produced a treatment for nearly every type of generic story found within these genres, particularly science fiction. It is interesting to point out that Serling created The Twilight Zone in large part so that he could make statements of political and social commentary without suffering the wrath of the sponsors and network executives, but that few, if any, of the very early episodes attempted this goal in any degree. Though Serling's humanistic concerns were always discernible in his efforts on the series, it is not until episode 22, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," that we see the beginnings of Serling's political and social concerns filtered through the show's fantasy construct. That episode also happens to be Serling's first masterpiece for the series. Serling concerned himself with establishing a recognizable identity for the show before delving into the multitude of issues that he fervently addressed in later episodes.
     Along with the aforementioned high quality episodes written by Serling in the early portion of the first season, the entrance of writers Richard Matheson, with “The Last Flight,” and Charles Beaumont, with “Perchance to Dream,” greatly helped the show establish a diverse identity for itself, and propelled Serling toward realizing his own strengths when writing fantasy. By the second season, all three of these principal writers for the show had diverse and identifying characteristics in their styles and subject matter. This gave the show a great variety and yet also constructed a thematic bridge across the episodes. 
     The most positive aspects of “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” are the moments that elevate the episode to a high emotional pitch. Nearly every episode Serling wrote has at least a short moment of this emotional pitch; the best of his episodes carry it all the way through. Though “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” does not quite carry the emotional weight of Serling’s best efforts, it does bear a good deal of weight, and the majority of the credit for the emotional intensity of the episode goes to Dan Duryea’s weary performance as Al Denton.
     Duryea enjoyed a fruitful film career throughout the late 1940's and the 1950's. In his prime, he was an incredibly magnetic actor who made his name playing villains in a number of well-regarded films, mostly in the smoke and fog shrouded land of film-noir offerings such as Criss Cross (1949) and Too Late for Tears (1949). Duryea had a villainous role in the western Winchester '73 (1950) and a memorable role as a Nazi spy in Fritz Lang's 1945 film Ministry of Fear, one of three Lang films to feature Duryea. Duryea landed the occasional heroic role as well, such as that of a drunken songwriter out to prove his friend innocent of murder in the 1946 film Black Angel, an adaptation of the 1943 novel by Cornell Woolrich, which featured a theatrical release poster that screamed: "Duryea! . . . That fascinating tough guy of Scarlet Street." Duryea moved into television by the late 1950's, working with Twilight Zone producer Buck Houghton on China Smith, a series co-written by Rod Serling's Night Gallery producer Jack Laird. He worked right up until 1968, the year of his death from cancer at age 61. 
     The villain of the piece is not Duryea, of course, but rather versatile actor Martin Landau, making the first of two memorable appearances on the series (the other being Rod Serling's unusual spy thriller "The Jeopardy Room" from the fifth season). Landau is likely best known for his role on the television series Mission: Impossible as well as for his Academy Award-winning performance as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994). Landau also appeared in episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Space: 1999, the 1980's revival series of both The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and two highly regarded episodes of The Outer Limits, "The Man Who Was Never Born" and "The Bellero Shield." 
     What works against “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” are the moments when the tension is killed by hammy dialogue or stilted action. It is quite unbelievable, for instance, that both gunfighters’ hands are injured so badly that they will never be able to shoot a gun again and yet they appear to be all but unharmed, needing no real medical attention, just a bandage wrapped around an unclean wound. It was also ill-advised to attempt levity with naming the magic man in the story Fate. Though Serling was clearly trying for the feeling of a tall tale, it feels like too mournful and melancholy of an episode to inject that sense of broad humor. 
     Whatever faults lie in “Mr. Denton on Doomsday,” it is a still an enjoyable episode and a viewer is not to be discouraged from watching it. There are far less enjoyable episodes than this one. The Old West setting is enjoyable and, despite the fact that it’s a somewhat overly sentimental episode, it works well as a quick-punching, two-act morality play. The acting is fine and, if nothing else, the episode manages to pull the viewer very quickly into an immediately recognizable dramatic situation.

*This may also account for the varying degree of quality in the source material chosen for the series. Consider the selection of justly famous works such as Lucille Fletcher's "The Hitch-Hiker" and Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" (works which were famous before their adaptation on the series) juxtaposed with more obscure works such as Paul W. Fairman's "Brothers Beyond the Void." 

Grade: C

Grateful acknowledgement to:

-Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir by Eddie Muller (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998)

-"Starring Dan Duryea" by Paul Gaita (TCM.com; accessed 3/24/2017)

Notes:
--Rod Serling originally pitched the idea for this episode on the promotional footage that accompanied the screening of “Where Is Everybody?” held for potential sponsors. At that time the episode was titled “Death, Destry, and Mr. Dingle.” Serling scrapped Mr. Dingle for Mr. Denton but later used the former character name for a second season episode in which Burgess Meredith played “Mr. Dingle, the Strong.” Mr. Dingle, in his original incarnation, was scripted to be a schoolteacher that daydreams of gun fighting and adventure only to be falsely rumored as a deadly gunslinger (he is, in truth, terrified of violence). Serling also previously used the character name Denton, the real life name of a childhood acquaintance, for the role of a sheriff in the Playhouse 90 production of “A Town Has Turned to Dust.”
--Director Allen Reisner also directed two episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, "The Nature of the Enemy" and "Brenda," the latter being scripted by Zone director Douglas Heyes under the pseudonym Matthew Howard, and based on the story by Margaret St. Clair. 
--Radio and television towers can be seen in the background as Henry J. Fate first rides into town on his covered wagon.
--"Mr. Denton on Doomsday" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Adam Baldwin.
--Martin Landau also appears in the fifth season episode "The Jeopardy Room."
--Producer Buck Houghton previously worked with Dan Duryea on Houghton's first job producing a television series with the early 1950's series China Smith. The series was co-written by Rod Serling's Night Gallery producer Jack Laird. 

--Jordan Prejean

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