Monday, January 14, 2013

"A Thing About Machines"

Richard Haydn as bitter Barlett Finchley battling an electric razor intent on killing him.
"A Thing About Machines"
Season Two, Episode 40
Original Air Date: October 28, 1960

Cast:
Bartlett Finchley: Richard Haydn
Edith (the secretary): Barbara Stuart
TV Repairman: Barney Phillips
Intern: Jay Overholts
Policeman: Henry Beckman
Girl on TV: Margarita Cordova

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: David Orrick McDearmon
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Production Manager: Sidney S. Van Keuren
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Direction: Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Ethel Winant
Editor: Leon Barsha
Sound: Franklin Milton and Charles Scheid
Music: Stock

And now, Mr. Serling:
"These are familiar items, I'm sure. Television set, electric razor, clock, typewriter, the normal, everyday accouterment that are part and parcel of twentieth century progress. But next week you'll see them under different circumstances and in a totally dissimilar guise. They'll be machines, but they'll also be monsters. Our story is called 'A Thing About Machines' and it'll be here waiting for you in The Twilight Zone."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"This is Mr. Bartlett Finchley, age forty-eight, a practicing sophisticate who writes very special and very precious things for gourmet magazines and the like. He's a bachelor and a recluse with few friends, only devotees and adherents to the cause of tart sophistry. He has no interests save whatever current annoyances he can put his mind to. He has no purpose to his life except the formulation of day-to-day opportunities to vent his wrath on mechanical contrivances of an age he abhors. In short, Mr. Bartlett Finchley is a malcontent, born either too late or too early in the century and who in just a moment will enter a realm where muscles and the will to fight back are not limited to human beings. Next stop for Mr. Bartlett Finchley. . . The Twilight Zone."

Summary:
            The opening scene immediately establishes what the remainder of the episode repeatedly hammers home: Bartlett Finchley, a wealthy, reclusive bachelor whose occupation involves some sort of regular commentary on high culture, is an unmitigated and unrepentant snob prone to sudden and outrageous bursts of violent anger. Finchley exchanges barbed witticisms with the television repairman, a familiar figure in the large, solitary home as Finchley repeatedly assaults his television when it does not work according to the standards which he has set forth for the electrical and mechanical appliances and contraptions in his home. After the television repairman has left his home, Finchley smashes a tolling clock with a fireplace poker to drive the point home.
            Finchley's next vicious human encounter, this time with his personal secretary, who promptly quits on him after suffering one too many insults from his tongue, reveals Finchley's true dilemma. Not only has Finchley had a lifelong inability to properly use machines, he now believes that the machines have gained sentient life and are conspiring not only to malfunction and frustrate him but to cause him bodily harm. After an angry outburst when she suggest Finchley see a doctor, the secretary storms off angrily but not before telling Finchley that he is mentally sick and that his paranoid fears about machines are all in his head. We quickly learn that the secretary is indeed wrong and the machines are out to get Finchley.
            Then the fun begins. Finchley's typewriter writes on its own: GET OUT OF HERE FINCHLEY, over and over. His television turns itself on and displayed on the screen is a strange dancing woman alone on a stage who looks straight out at him and utters the same threatening message. In a panic, and not wanting to be alone, Finchley attempts to call old friends from his little black book. None, however, have time for the old curmudgeon. Blaming the telephone itself for this embarrassment, Finchley tears it from the wall. That does not, however, stop the phone from working. It screams at him to get out, over and over. The sound of police sirens outside calls Finchley to the end of his driveway where a policeman and a crowd have gathered because Finchley's car has rolled itself out into the street, almost hitting passersby. It seems Finchley's car, too, has been causing trouble as only a few days before the car's steering wheel turned itself in Finchley's hands as he was pulling the vehicle into the driveway and a headlight was broken as a result. It hit Finchley where it hurts most, his wallet. After resolving the issue of the car, while spewing insults and threats to the people gathered near his home, Finchley decides the only logical thing to do is to drink himself into a stupor.
            He awakens hours later. Rising groggily and going upstairs to his bedroom, Finchley is greeting with a frightening adversary, his electric razor gained life of its own and attacking him. The razor chases Finchley downstairs and out of the house where the car takes its turn tormenting the man, chasing him up and down the street and through backyards where it eventually knocks Finchley into a swimming pool and drowns him. When the ambulance and the police finally arrive to retrieve the dead man, they wonder why Finchley's body stayed on the bottom of the pool instead of floating up. It seems as though something were holding him down.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"Yes, it could be. It could just be that Mr. Bartlett Finchley succumbed from a heart attack and a set of delusions. It could just be that he was tormented by an imagination as sharp as his wit and as pointed as his dislikes. But as perceived by those attending, this is one explanation that has left the premises with the deceased. Look for it filed under M for machines, in the Twilight Zone."

Commentary:
            Author Marc Scott Zicree, in his Twilight Zone Companion (second ed., Silman-James, 1992), was short and sharp in his review of "A Thing About Machines": "Although the concept of 'A Thing About Machines' is a clever one and some of the effects are fun (who couldn't help but love the image of an electric shaver slithering down a flight of stairs?), neither the writing, direction, nor performances are able to give the show any real vitality." And in this one Mr. Zicree is right on the money.
            The problems with the episode are many but fortunately for series creator and Rod Serling, this one appears to be an anomaly among his work for the series, particularly in the early seasons. If fault can be made of Rod Serling's style of drama, it is that his scripts can be overly "talky," as exemplified by "A Thing About Machines." The only problem is that the incessant talking, after the first scene, does little to move the plot forward other than to pad out the time limit required for a half-hour show. For a show like The Twilight Zone, a show that thrived on the fable-like quality of its scripts, the script for "A Thing About Machines" is especially threadbare and struggles to remain interesting for more than ten minutes. Like Zicree states, the main interest in the episode after the first few minutes are the effects of the machines coming to life to attack Finchley, and these are reasonably well done. Unfortunately, on the higher resolution of today's home videos, the fish line attached to the electric razor can clearly be seen holding the razor upright and pulling it down the stairs.
            Also, the characters are one-dimensional and even worse, with "A Thing About Machines," the viewer doesn't like Finchley. Unlike some of Serling's other so-called "hopeful loser" characters, Finchley starts unlikable and doesn’t change or transform from his trip into the Twilight Zone other than to go from living to dead. It renders the episode not only thin on plot but also thin on character and asks the viewer to remain tuned into this drama for the sole reason of seeing what everyone knew was coming all along: the machines kill Finchley. Few if any viewers can relate to Finchley nor is there any semblance of humanity about the man to elicit viewer sympathy. If anything, we want to see Finchley hurt and punished. Unlike other episodes which generate a similar response in the viewer, think "Death's-head Revisited" or "What You Need,"the effect simply doesn't come off and the viewer is left feeling bored with the whole thing.
            Serling didn't even feel it necessary to tack on one of his twist endings, which even by this point in the show’s history had become the defining characteristic of the series. The one truly unnerving effect in the episode is Margarita Cordova dancing on the television and stopping to look straight out at Finchley and tell him to "get out of here." It is an effectively bizarre choice for the television scene and the one truly imaginative spot in an otherwise predictable and rehashed episode.
            It is interesting to note that this episode resembles a story written by another of the show's frequent contributing writers, Richard Matheson. Matheson published a story titled "Mad House" about a (much more sympathic) aspiring writer and college professor who is victimized by steadily progressing and nearly uncontrollable bouts of rage that not only cost him his job and destroy his marriage but imbue the everyday objects in his home with a malevolence aimed at destroying him. In Matheson's story, not only do machines attempt to inflict pain (instead of a typewriter typing out a threatening message, there is a grisly scene of a typewriter shredding the character's fingers with its metal keys), but so do simple, inanimate objects, including a pencil that breaks and stabs and a deadly straight shaving razor (similar to the electric one in Serling's script) that ends the character's life in a gut-wrenching moment of pain, regret, and helplessness. Matheson's story had seen three printings before Serling brought his vision of killer household machines to the show. "Mad House" was originally published in the January/February, 1953 issue of Fantastic. It was reprinted twice, in Matheson's first hardcover book, a collection of stories titled Born of Man and Woman (Chamberlain Press, March, 1954) and the abridged paperback reprint of the same collection, Third from the Sun (Bantam, February, 1955). Though Serling certainly took his vision in a different direction for the show (albeit a duller direction, both less horrifying and less emotionally engaging) it is reasonable to assume that Serling had at least read the Matheson story if not consciously borrowed the germ of the story altogether. The genius and horror of the Matheson story is that the malevolent objects are not the scorned avengers of Serling's version but are products of the character's own rage and negative energy. The resulting death is that of being consumed by one's own hatred for oneself.
            The only other interesting aspect of the episode is an ending which confused some viewers upon initial telecast. As written, Finchley is knocked into the swimming pool and the car enters the pool on top of Finchley to hold him down until he is drowned. As filmed, it is a tad confusing as the viewer never sees the car enter the pool after knocking Finchley in. It simply stops on the edge. A subtle hint is given when Finchley's body is found and the water is shown to be pouring out of the car as though it had recently been submerged. Perhaps it was a bit too subtle and probably a bit too clever on top of the already predictable drama beforehand.
            Though author Marc Scott Zicree bemoans the direction of the episode, it must be said that David Orrick McDearmon was basically attempting to spin straw into gold with this assignment. The director turned in two other fine episodes for the show, the previous season’s "Execution" and the following season two episode "Back There." British born actor Richard Haydn plays it so that Finchley never seems to have a moment when he lets that high cultured, snobbish exterior down, even in moments when he is alone and in fear of his life. Hadyn’s fussy mannerisms found early success on radio and later became a fixture in anthology television, appearing in Playhouse 90, Lux Playhouse, and G.E. True Theater, as well as finding roles in popular television shows Burke's Law, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Man from U.N.C.L.E., Bewitched, and Bonanza. He found occasional supporting roles in impressive films ranging from Disney's Alice in Wonderland (1951), voicing the Caterpillar, to Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and The Sound of Music (1965). He sat in the director's chair for three features in the late '40s and early '50s, including the Bing Crosby vehicle Mr. Music (1950). Hadyn died on April 25, 1985.
            Barbara Stuart is suitably waspish as the independent working woman who's finally had enough of Finchley's condescending remarks. The talented character actress amassed over a hundred television credits from the early '50s until 2004. Her other genre credits besides The Twilight Zone include appearances on One Step Beyond and the ‘60s Batman show. She died on May 15, 2011.
                 The one familiar face in the cast is that of Barney Phillips as the television repairman. Phillips appeared in four episodes of The Twilight Zone and "A Thing About Machines" is certainly the worst of the lot. He also appeared in the first season's "The Purple Testament,"season four's excellent "Miniature," and, most memorably, in the second season's fan favorite "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" as a alien from Venus moonlighting as a short order cook in a remote diner and revealing himself as such by displaying a third eye embedded in his forehead.
            In all, it seems that "A Thing About Machines" got the short end from the start. The stock music cues are uninspired and unremarkable except for the fact that they are used as predictably suits the episode. Like all of producer Buck Houghton's episodes, its looks great and the wonderful old MGM back lot is in fine form. The episode, however, lacks the complexity or the simple moral nature of Serling's best scripts. Serling's creative muscles were likely being stretched too thin that the enormous amount of material he was obligated to provide for the show. Fortunately, Serling amassed an extremely talented supporting crew of writers for the first season (namely Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont) and which would add another to the stable in young writer George Clayton Johnson, soon to make his script writing debut in season two's "A Penny for Your Thoughts" after previously selling a couple of short stories that Serling adapted into season one’s "The Four of Us Are Dying" and the aforementioned "Execution." Of course, Serling was far too talented a writer to produce disposable fodder for the show with any regularity and he would turn in one of his finest efforts with "Eye of the Beholder" just two broadcasts later.

Grade: D

Notes:
-Director David Orrick McDearmon also directed season one's "Execution" and season two's "Back There."
-Actor Barney Phillips also appeared in season one's "The Purple Testament," season two's "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" and season four's "Miniature."
-Henry Beckman appeared in Rod Serling's "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" for Night Gallery.
-"A Thing about Machines" was adapted as a The Twilight Radio Drama starring Mike Starr.
-Rod Serling adapted his teleplay into a short story for More Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam Pathfinder, April, 1961).

--Jordan Prejean

4 comments:

  1. An excellent writeup! Haven't seen this one in years but I don't recall it being THAT bad! A "D" is awfully harsh. I loved Haydn in Sound of Music!

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  2. It was borderline C, I'll admit. I went with a D because it just felt phoned in by the whole crew, especially by Serling as it is certainly one of those scripts he churned out to meet that pesky quota. With the episodes that followed it ("Howling Man," "Eye of the Beholder," and "Nick of Time") it is even more apparent in comparison that the production crew invested those episodes with so much more time and effort. Funny thing is, if it had been produced and aired late in the fifth season it would look like a masterpiece amid the trash that was being thrown out by that time with the Zone tag on it from producer William Froug. So, I guess it just had bad timing. You know, it had been awhile for me too when I got around to watching it again for this post and maybe that's just it, the episode is for the most part unmemorable and unremarkable and I don't hear fans mention it much when the topic of the show comes up. Thanks for reading, Jack and I'm digging the John Collier love on the Bare.Bones Blog. Keep up the good work.

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  3. I always wondered if there really was a "twist" ending, because the only reason I can think for FInchley's body to not float is if he were a machine himself.

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  4. I just saw this episode on Syfy's New Years marathon and once again the ending drove me crazy. At most I figured maybe he had a pacemaker that kept him down since they mentioned a heart attack. I somehow managed to miss the water pouring out of the car despite having seen this episode several times. It could be because my mind couldn't comprehend a car somehow managing to roll back out of a pool (that wasn't zero entry as far as I could tell) after submerging itself in water long enough to kill a man. Of course the idea of machines going Maximum Overdrive on a pedantic schmuck I'm fine with ;)

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