Sunday, January 6, 2013

"Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room"

Joe Mantell as nervous man Jackie Rhodes

“Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room”
Season Two, Episode 39
October 14, 1960

Cast:
Jackie Rhodes: Joe Mantell
George: William D. Gordon

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Douglas Heyes
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Ethel Winant
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Charles Scheid
Music: Jerry Goldsmith

And now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week we take you into this eight-by-eight hotel room and we watch a penny-ante crook make a decision.  You better ask the room clerk the number of this room and then come on up.  Mr. Joe Mantell is the ‘Nervous Man in the Four Dollar Room.’  That’s the Twilight Zone, next week, and we’ll be waiting for you.  Thank you and good night.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“This is Mr. Jackie Rhodes, age thirty-four.  And where some men leave a mark of their lives as a record of their fragmentary existence on Earth—this man leaves a blot.  A dirty, discolored blemish to document a cheap and undistinguished sojourn amongst his betters.  What you are about to watch in this room is a strange mortal combat between a man and himself.  For in just a moment Mr. Jackie Rhodes, whose life has been given over to fighting adversaries, will find his most formidable opponent in a cheap hotel room that is in reality the outskirts…of the Twilight Zone.”

 Summary:
Incessant nail-biter and would-be crook Jackie Rhodes sits in a squalid hotel room biding his time until his next big job.  The night is long and smothered with heat.  Finally, Rhodes receives a phone call from a man named George who has been giving him various jobs for quick cash.  But this isn’t another small-time nickel and dime job George has in mind for Jackie Rhodes.  Tonight George wants him to murder a bothersome bar owner whom George considers a liability.  Rhodes knows he is no murderer and is bound to be caught if he goes through with it.  He pleads with George but his gangster friend simply won’t hear it.  Rhodes reluctantly hangs up the phone.

Joe Mantell and William D. Gordon
                 An hour or so later George stops by Rhodes’s hotel room.  Rhodes again tries to persuade George into giving the job to someone else.  An angry George explains to Rhodes that the reason he is going to do this job is because everyone knows he is not qualified to do it so no one will suspect him.  He hands Rhodes a gun and tells him that the job better be finished the next time they speak.
                Panic sets in.  He knows he can’t do the job but he also knows he has nowhere to run.  And if he doesn’t kill this man then he will be the one who gets killed.  Rhodes catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror.  Remarkably, his mirror image begins to talk back to him.  Frightened, and fearing that he might be losing his mind, Rhodes tries to escape his reflection.  But he cannot escape himself for he finds his reflection in mirrors in the bathroom and in the closet.  His reflection tells him that he is tired of struggling and always listening to everyone else and never himself.  He wants a better life for himself and he wants it to start now.  The real Rhodes is dumbfounded and the two argue late into the night.
Early the next morning George drops by.  He is hip to the news that the bar owner is still alive.  And he plans to take it out on Jackie Rhodes.  Rhodes looks up at George and instantly a change can be seen in his expression.  He punches George in the face and throws him out of his room.  Then he calls the front desk and tells them that Mr. John Rhodes is checking out.

 Rod Serling’s Closing Narration: 
“Exit Mr. John Rhodes, formerly a reflection in the mirror, a fragment of someone else’s conscience, a wishful thinker made out of glass, but now made out of flesh and on his way to join the company of men.  Mr. John Rhodes, with one foot through the door and one foot out …of the Twilight Zone.”

 Commentary:
Though clumsy at times, “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” is an archetypal Rod Serling story full of the compassion that runs throughout much of his work.  Jackie Rhodes is a loser with a capital L, a character that would hang himself with every piece of rope given to him.  But somewhere in his personality is something that makes him a likable and sympathetic character.  He is the kind of character that Serling loved to grant a second chance.  As many fans and critics have pointed out this episode bears a strong resemblance to the Season Five episode “The Last Night of a Jockey” also written by Serling.  In it Mickey Rooney plays an aging horse jockey named Grady who has recently been banned from the sport due to horse doping allegations.  Disgusted with himself and angry at the world he sits alone in a dirty hotel room drinking himself into a state of oblivion and self-denial.  In the midst of his drunken state he hears a voice (Rooney’s voiceover).  The voice informs him that it is there to grant him a single wish.  Grady informs the voice that he wants to be big.  When he wakes up later in the night he suddenly finds that he is a ten-foot tall giant of a man.  Immediately after this he receives an offer to come back to race as a jockey again.  He is overjoyed until he realizes that he can no longer race because of his size.  He proceeds to rip his hotel room apart.  Role credits.  Aside from their similarities the juxtaposition of these two episodes is an example of the main thematic element that runs through the majority of Serling’s episodes.  The outcome of a character’s journey into the Twilight Zone depends entirely on the character’s view of humanity.  While Jackie Rhodes may be a crook there is still something in him that makes him a basically decent person.  And the audience recognizes this in his reluctance to murder the bar owner.  So he walks away from the Twilight Zone unscathed and with a renewed outlook on life.  But Grady cares exclusively for himself and the audience is given evidence of this in virtually everything he does.  He takes no responsibility nor does he show any remorse for his crimes thus the Twilight Zone defeats him.  Of course this theme can be found in episodes written by any of the show’s regular writers but it is most prominent in Serling’s work.
                The heroes of this episode are leading man Joe Mantell and director Douglas Heyes.  This is the first of two appearances by Mantell who also has a role in Season Five’s “Steel.”  He had a knack for playing nervous, fumbling characters and here he breathes life into an otherwise stale protagonist.  Jackie Rhodes’s personality spills out onto the screen via the naturally spastic mannerisms of Mantell.  His anxiety is genuine and the audience sees this in the inflection of his voice and his frantic, disheveled physical appearance.  If there is a down side to his performance it’s his portrayal of the “other” Jackie Rhodes, the confident Jackie that wants to take control of his life again.  He turns in a believable enough performance but in contrast to the nervous Jackie it comes off as slightly predictable, but this is a minor flaw and Mantell is still the most enjoyable thing about this episode.  Mantell first garnered attention in Hollywood when he starred alongside Ernest Borgnine in Marty (1955) for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.  Years later he would star alongside Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974).  On the small screen he appeared in episodes of Inner Sanctum, Lights Out, One Step Beyond and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
                For his first episode of Season Two director Douglas Heyes flexes his creative muscle for a script that would be an enormous challenge for most directors given that the entire episode takes place in one room.  To emphasize Rhodes’s cramped living quarters there are several crane shots shown from directly above the room including the shot for Serling’s intro in which his image is superimposed over video footage.  For the scenes which feature mirror images of Jackie Rhodes’s alter ego Heyes choose not to use split screen and instead used rear projections screens for Mantell to play off of.  To accomplish this Heyes shot all of the footage of Mantell’s mirror image first.  So when it came time to shoot the footage of Mantell speaking directly to his alter-ego, all of the mirrors seen in the hotel room were actually rear projection screens with pre-recorded footage playing back on them.  So when the viewer sees Mantell speaking to his other self in the mirror they are seeing exactly what was filmed and not footage spliced in later.  This allowed both Heyes and Mantell more freedom to move about the set and is aesthetically more pleasing for the viewer.  Heyes went on to direct five episodes during the show’s second season including “The Howling Man,” “Eye of the Beholder” and “The Invaders,” all three of which are among the best known episodes of the program, particularly for their unusual direction and skillful camera work.
                While the theme here is classic Serling the story isn’t quite up to par with some of his other episodes.  The idea is interesting but at times the story feels stagnant and the dialogue repetitive.  It’s unique enough to grab the viewer’s attention but ultimately it feels as if it’s stretched too thin over a half-hour segment. 

 Grade: C

 Notes:
--Joe Mantell also appears in the Season Five episode “Steel.”
 --William D Gordon achieved pop culture immortality when he appeared as the Doctor in another Season Two episode directed by Douglas Heyes, “Eye of the Beholder.”
--Director Douglas Heyes was also at the helm for the classic episodes "The After Hours," "The Howling Man," "Eye of the Beholder," and "The Invaders." Heyes wrote and directed the first episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, "The Dead Man" (based on the story by Fritz Leiber), as well as scripting the second segment of that first episode, "The Housekeeper" under the pseudonym Matthew Howard. Under the Howard name, Heyes also scripted the episode "Brenda," based on the story Margaret St. Clair. 
--"Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room" was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Adam Baldwin. 
 --There is a moment in this episode that is eerily similar to the famous scene in Taxi Driver (1976) when Rhodes first encounters his mirror image and utters the lines “Are you talkin’ to me?”

 --Brian Durant

4 comments:

  1. Your review is right on target and I agree with the grade. I don't recall liking this episode very much, but Doug Heyes always did interesting work, your screen grabs make it seem like it's worth another look, and the title is a classic!

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  2. Thanks, Jack. Yep, Douglas Heyes was the best. I'm not sure why he chose not to stick around after Season Two. There are several episodes from Season Three that would have been right up his alley, particularly "It's a Good Life" or "Deaths-Head Revisited."

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  3. this episode was the only one to ever make me cry because it hit me where it hurts the most...my heart. you need to understand and be able connect and respect to where he is coming from and his personal mountain he has to climb to get where he's supposed to be going to understand him. that's why you judge so harshly. I can sympathize with most of what the mirror version of himself said so I can relate personally.

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    1. Hey, Rob. First let me apologize for the delayed response time. After re-reading my review I stand by the grade although I can certainly appreciate your connection to the episode. We can be harsh graders at times but a "C" or better means that we would recommend the episode to someone unfamiliar with the show. We try to approach the reviews from an objective viewpoint and consider every element that goes into an episode--acting, writing, directing, set design, etc. This isn't a terrible episode by any means. Joe Mantell gives a great performance as the nervous man. And Serling's script is enjoyable with some bits of clever dialogue. Douglas Heyes's direction is also pretty spectacular. What took me out of the story is Mantell's performance as the tough guy in the mirror, which seems artificial, not so much what he is saying. The episode also seems to drag a bit in the middle. Overall though, I would say Serling's message is a good one and I can see how you might find it inspiring. Thanks for the comment!

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