Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"What You Need"

Steve Cochran and Ernest Truex

"What You Need"
Season One, Episode 12
Original Air Date: December 25, 1959

Cast:
Pedott: Ernest Truex
Fred Renard: Steve Cochran
Lefty: Read Morgan
Bartender: William Edmonson
Girl in Bar: Arline Sax
Woman: Doris Karnes
Hotel Clerk: Norman Sturgis
Woman on Street: Judy Ellis
Man on Street: Fred Kruger

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (Teleplay based on the short story by Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore)
Director: Alvin Ganzer
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: Joseph Gluck
Sound: Franklin Milton and Jean Valentino
Music: Nathan Van Cleve

And now, Mr. Serling:
"This is the season of gift giving, big gifts and little gifts, and expensive ones and not so expensive ones. Well, next time, the Twilight Zone gives you its own peculiar, oddball brand of gift giving. Mr. Steve Cochran and Mr. Ernest Truex combine talents to tell a story about a little man who has what you need, our next offering on the Twilight Zone."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"You're looking at Mr. Fred Renard, who carries on his shoulder a chip the size of the national debt. This is a sour man, a friendless man, a lonely man, a grasping, compulsive, nervous man. This is a man who has lived thirty-six undistinguished, meaningless, pointless, failure laden years and who at this moment looks for an escape, any escape, any way, anything, anybody to get out of the rut. And this little old man is just what Mr. Renard is waiting for."

Summary:
                An old man named Pedott pedals his wares, knickknacks lugged around in a portmanteau, on a particular block in an unnamed city. On that block is a neighborhood bar. The old man goes into that bar, bouncing from customer to customer, trying to interest the patrons in something from his collection of odds and ends. When a woman sitting alone wants to buy some matches, Pedott instead gives her a bottle of stain remover, telling the woman, "this is what you need." It is the credo of the episode, a resonant statement of Pedott's unique ability of insight into what people will need in their near futures. 
                Pedott provides another patron, a washed-up ex-professional baseball player with a lame pitching arm named Lefty, with a one-way bus ticket to Scranton, Pennslyvania. These items are taken from the old man with a certain bit of reluctance but, thinking the old man feeble-minded but essentially harmless, they take the items anyway. Shortly after these items are distributed, Lefty gets a phone call informing him that one of his former team managers has acquired Lefty a much-needed job, coaching a minor league baseball team in Scranton, Pennslyvania. Lefty asks the old man how he knew about Scranton and the bus ticket but the old man just shruggs it off and advises Lefty not to think about it or question it but to simply take advantage of the opportunity afforded him. It's good advice. Lefty complains about a spot on his only good jacket that he needs to get out in order to look professional for his new job and, coincidentally, is overheard by the woman earlier given the stain remover by Pedott. We are left with the notion that perhaps these two people may begin a change for the better, together. Pedott, meanwhile, has slipped out of the bar, not unnoticed by someone else.
                The seemingly simple magic that he has displayed has drawn the notice of a brutish loser at the bar named Fred Renard. Renard is a man always down on his luck. He has turned all the frustration and anger caused by this run of ill luck inward and has, by consequence, become a sulky, violent character, nearly devoid of all conscience and humanity, living only to scrape by and claw at any cure-all chance that presents itself. He sees his ticket out of his misery in the old man Pedott's uncanny ability. 
                Renard follows Pedott out into the street where the old man sets up his wares on a stand to offer them to passersby. Pedott knows, as unfailingly as he knows what people need, that Renard is an ill-meaning man. The confrontation turns violent when Renard grabs the smaller, more feeble man and demands that Pedott provide him with what he needs. Pedott gives Renard a pair of scissors. At first believing the old man to be playing a trick on him, Renard relents and stalks away. Later, while in a hotel elevator, Renard's long scarf is caught within the door of the moving elevator car. Unable to free himself and halfway choking to death, Renard remembers the scissors and cuts the scarf and lives through the harrowing experience. He laughs, almost maniaclly, at his good fortune, good fortune provided by Pedott's special talent. This, Renard sees, is the opportunity of a lifetime, an opportunity to fix all the mistakes he's made and to live the rest of his life with guaranteed good fortune. 
                 When Pedott returns home later that night, he finds an unpleasant surprise. Renard is waiting for him. The old man spills his items on the floor and Renard ridicules him and bullies him into a patnership, despite Pedott's unwillingness to enter into any kind of pact with the other man. Pedott, surely hoping to be rid of the bullying Renard, gives the younger man a leaky fountain pen which just happens to dip onto a newspaper listing the name of a racehorse. Renard runs off to place his bet on that horse.
                It wins him a couple hundred dollars but it's not enough. Men like Renard, once reaping the benefits of good fortune, resort to a vicious greediness. He accost Pedott once again, this time on the street, on Pedott's usual corner for setting up his items to sell. Pedott tells Renard that this cannot continue between them and that he, Pedott, cannot provide Renard with what the angry younger man truly needs, this being compassion, humor, an ability to laugh at oneself. Unsatisfied, Renard further threatens Pedott until the old man gestures to a pair of shoes that Renard greedily grabs and puts on. Pedott, meanwhile, has used this opportunity to pack up his items and begin to cross the street. Renard, confused as to the pertinence of the shoes, again threatens to hurt Pedott when Pedott informs him that the shoes are, in fact, what Pedott himself needs and not what Renard needs. Anger outweighing his reason, Renard begins to cross the street after Pedott only to slip on the slick ice that has formed on the street. A speeding car comes around the corner and wipes Renard out, killing him. 
                It was a hit and run and, moments later, the street is filled with curious people, an ambulance, and the press. Two sly jokes, one sweet, the other morbid, ends the show. Pedott provides a man roused from sleep and out into the street from the noise with a simple comb, that later proves useful to straighten out his unruly hair when the press decides to take his picture. We are left with the ambulance, sirens off, carrying the body of Fred Renard and the only thing left on the street at the site of his death is a pair of slippery shoes.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration: 
     "Street scene. Night. Traffic Accident. Victim named Fred Renard, gentleman with a sour face to whom contentment came with difficulty. Fred Renard, who took all that was needed. . . in the Twilight Zone."

Commentary:               
Illustration by Williams

                Although it is an adaptation of an existing piece of short fiction, this serviceable but undistinguished episode feels more like a Rod Serling original than an adaptation of someone else's work. Much like the previous episode, "And When the Sky Was Opened," Serling used little except the basic concept from the source material. Henry Kuttner's and C.L. Moore's original short story described a scientist who invents a machine able to predict an individual's future and prescribe what was needed for that individual. Serling scrapped nearly everything and created his standard cast of (mostly) lovable losers, including Pedott (Ernest Truex), the meek old man with the ability to see a person's future and give them what they need to face that future, and the bullish villain, Renard (Steve Cochran) who attempts to use the old man's talents for his own reward. This episode is a good example to display to reiterate the idea that the series was really not interested in science fiction in the same manner as The Outer Limits, a series it is often compared with. Given the chance to adapt a story with strong science fiction elements from two of the creative pillars of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Serling chose to scrap all evidence of science fiction and instead craft an urban fantasy tale with strong elements of film noir.
                One thing the episode does have going for it is the quality of the two main leads. Ernest Truex was touring local stages in Missouri by age nine and made his Broadway debut in 1908. He grew into playing distinguished, aristocratic parts as he matured and worked on the stages of London for most of the 1920's. Film work began in 1913 but was sparse. Truex instead found steady work in television dating from the infant days of the medium. In his twilight years, Truex made a career out of playing the meek old man, a role he later used to perfection in the excellent third season episode, "Kick the Can," from writer George Clayton Johnson. 
               For the villain, casting director Mildred Gusse went to one of the all-time most effective bad guys, Steve Cochran. Cochran made his name playing slick gangsters and crooked cops in film noir of the 1940's and 1950's, including the 1954 film, Private Hell 36, in which Cochran played a crooked cop who's stolen money off a dead gangster and descended into a whirlwind of paranoia and blackmail. Playing partner and forced confidant to Cochran's dirty cop is Howard Duff ("A World of Difference") who gets a bullet for his trouble. Ida Lupino ("The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" and director of "The Masks"), the top billed star of the picture, played a nightclub singer and Cochran's girlfriend. Lupino produced and co-wrote the film as well. Private Hell 36 also featured Dean Jagger ("Static") in a supporting role. Cochran had other bad guy roles in such films as The Chase (1946), alongside Robert Cummings ("King Nine Will Not Return") and Peter Lorre; a film nominally based on film noir favorite Cornell Woolrich's 1944 novel The Black Path of Fear. Cochran also played James Cagney's right-hand man in the 1949 film White Heat. 
                Like far too much of the show's output, "What You Need" is really just a gimmick plot servicing a twist ending. Although Serling attempts to give the script some dimension of character, the paper thin plot is really what makes the episode unremarkable. The concept is not particularly fresh now and wasn't at the time of filming. Kuttner and Moore's short story had initially appeared in the October, 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and been collected in the authors' 1950 collection A Gnome There Was (Simon & Schuster) as well as their 1954 collection, Line to Tomorrow (Bantam). Groff Conklin included the story in his Omnibus of Science Fiction (Crown, 1952), which was also a selection of the Science Fiction Book Club. The story had previously been adapted for the anthology television series Tales of Tomorrow on February 8, 1952. In other words, the story had seen a fair share of exposure before its appearance on The Twilight Zone. 
           
     Considering all the previous exposure given to the story with the reprints and the adaptation and such, perhaps it was necessary for Serling to scrap the science-fiction trappings of the story and turn it into something of a film-noir meets fantasy episode in order to bring any sort of freshness to the idea. The "fantasy noir," where crime meets the supernatural, was a type of story at which the show would continue to excel across the length of its entire run, with such examples as "The Four of Us Are Dying," "Execution," "Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room" and "In Praise of Pip," to name a few. Even though we recognize, even this early into the series, Serling's familiar characters (the washed up man who once had promise, the lonely woman looking for something but not knowing what, the angry man who's certain all his problems are someone else's fault), the character of Pedott is a nice creation and Ernest Truex gives a memorable performance. The character of Fred Renard, despite being guided by the talented Steve Cochran, is too heavy-handed and is the kind of one-dimensional villain one doesn't normally see on The Twilight Zone. 
            It's unfortunate that this is the only piece from either Kuttner or Moore (or both in tandem, as the couple almost always collaborated once they married) that Serling or producer Buck Houghton optioned for the show. There was initially a desire to adapt material from a wider range of science fiction and fantasy writers, with deals between Cayuga Productions and writers such as Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick eventually falling through. Catherine L. (C.L.) Moore was an influential, and, for the time (1930's), progressive author of fantasy and science fiction. Before meeting husband Henry Kuttner in 1938, her most influential works consisted of her Edgar Rice Burroughs-inspired science-fiction series detailing the adventures of Northwest Smith (including the innovative vampire story "Shambleau" from the November, 1933 issue of Weird Tales), and the Jirel of Joiry stories featuring the first female hero of the fantasy sub-genre commonly known as sword-and-sorcery. Henry Kuttner is still remembered today for his first professionally published story, the creepy classic "The Graveyard Rats" from the March, 1936 issue of Weird Tales. The two writers achieved their greatest creativity and success, however, once they met and later married. From this point on the two wrote nearly everything in collaboration under a number of pseudonyms, including Lewis Padgett and Laurence O'Donnell. Even the most astute reader will find it difficult to tell where one writer stops and the other begins. Together they produced many memorable novels and stories, including "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" (1943; filmed in 2007 as "The Last Mimsy"), "The Proud Robot" (1943), "No Woman Born" (1944), "Vintage Season" (1946), "Private Eye" (1949), and the oft-reprinted novel Fury (1947), the latter of which originally appeared under the pseudonym Laurence O'Donnell but has since been published under Kuttner's name alone. 
            Kuttner was particularly important as a literary mentor to and influence on two writers who contributed to The Twilight Zone, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson. Bradbury has stated on numerous occasions Kuttner's importance to his early writing career. Bradbury later selected and introduced a career retrospective of Kuttner's best short stories for the Science Fiction Book Club, The Best of Henry Kuttner (1975). Matheson dedicated his most famous novel, the oft-filmed I Am Legend (1954) to Kuttner. His influence, and the influence of his collaborative work with Moore on subsequent science fiction writers, is profound. 
                 Sadly, what we get with Kuttner's and Moore's sole appearance on the series is a rather lackluster and somewhat predictable outing that feels more like a "filler" episode between two really good offerings. It is worth seeking out the two writers' works, however, for most fans of the show will find their subject and style appealing.

Grade:C

 Notes:
-"What You Need" was originally published in the October, 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction under the joint pseudonym Lewis Padgett. 
-Ernest Truex also starred in the exceptional third season episode "Kick the Can."
-Alvin Ganzer's other directing credits for the show include "The Hitch-Hiker," "Nightmare As a Child," and some sequences of "The Mighty Casey," all from the show's first season.
-"What you Need" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Bruno Kirby. 
--Jordan Prejean

3 comments:

  1. A good, offbeat early entry in the series, its modern urban setting and production values make it feel, early on, like it could be an episode of Peter Gunn or Mr. Lucky. One of Rod Serling's better intros, too. This is TZ noir, and it's first rate in presentation, very well acted by Steve Cochran, who projects real menace (real life feeling, I mean) atypical of the series. Ernest Truex is fine also, as a man the literal opposite of Cochran. The nocturnal setting lends it the air of a nightmare.

    Alas, the story doesn't unfold as well as it might have, and poor Mr. Renard really needed a break. He's in a position similar to the ones Jack Klugman would often find himself in in other TZ entries, but without Klugman's innate niceness, his sympathetic-empathetic personality. Cochran's character is dangerous, and he plays it that way. What You Need plays like a dark, non-Christmas version of Night Of the Meek, with the Truex character the non-drunk Santa, Cochran a needy man no amount of gifts and good fortune could cheer up and turn into a decent human being. In this, the episode feels less like fantasy, more like magic realism. Black magic.

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    1. Great insight, John. I agree about the noir feeling of the episode. That was something the show flirted with a lot, especially in the first season, as that type of atmosphere lent itself nicely to the show's often dark subject matter. The comparison to "Night of the Meek" is interesting but not unusual as you know Serling often walked the same story path multiple times. I think with a lot of the early source material Serling was trying to adapt it to a type of story instead of doing a stictly faithful adaptation, despite the fact that the source material varied widely in the first season. This early on I think Serling was simply trying to find his footing in a genre he was generally unfamiliar with and though he was buying work from the finest fantasy writers of the middle of the century, he was, at the same time, trying to relate the material to the type of drama he had become accustomed to producing.

      Thanks for reading and for the great insight. We hope you'll stay along for the rest of the reviews.

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  2. Thanks, Jordan. They're rebooting TZ on MeTV and I caught this one again early this morning, after Perry Mason. It held up well, and the production values,--not just the sets but the lighting, the of space, tonalities, consistent with the characters in the story--were like something out of a 40s noir from the period of directors like Dmytry, Siodmak, Dassin and Wiliam Dieterle in his few films for Hal Wallis.

    Steve Cochran was outclassed by Ernest Truex as a character but not by his acting. He more than held his own and, especially in his early scenes, when she's just brooding and glaring, he's as good as Robert Ryan or, in a different key, Tom Neal, in their feature film roles. Yet Cochran, mean bastard as his character was, managed to convey humanity. Without asking for sympathy he managed to get mine for being so honest in is S.O.B.-ness.

    Cochran really haunts the episode, and he nicely conveys Renard's contentment with what is clearly very private pathology the viewer only gets a glimpse of. Having seen the episode so many times I was never the less moved by Renard's lack of self-knowledge in the end, especially knowing literally just what lay around the corner for him.


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