Friday, July 5, 2013

"A Most Unusual Camera"



"A Most Unusual Camera"
Season Two, Episode 46
Original Air Date: December 16, 1960

Cast:
Chester Dietrich: Fred Clark
Paula Dietrich: Jean Carson
Woodward: Adam Williams
Pierre the Waiter: Marcel Hillaire

 Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: John Rich
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Philip 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: Stock

And now, Mr. Serling:
            "In this $28 a day hotel suite live three human being who have larceny firmly from their toes to where they part their hair. Amongst the loot of one evening's caper is this camera, which they soon discover has the most unique properties. It takes pictures of the future. Stick around for the development next week, on The Twilight Zone."

 Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
            "A most unimposing addition to the flotsam and jetsam that it came with, hardly worth mentioning really because a camera's a camera, some expensive, some purchasable at five-and-dime stores. But this camera, this one's unusual, because in just a moment we'll watch it inject itself in the destinies of three people. It happens to be a fact that the pictures that it takes can only be developed in The Twilight Zone."

 Summary:
            Chester Dietrich and his wife Paula are small time thieves that have just knocked over a curio shop, coming away with nothing more than a bunch of cheap junk erroneously reported in the local newspaper as priceless valuables. There is one item, however, that soon grabs their attention, an antique camera with markings in an unfamiliar language. Though appearing to be nothing more than a gimmick device, it is soon revealed that the camera has the uncanny ability to reveal events in the very near future.
            One picture shows Paula's brother, Woodward, when it seems impossible that he could be anywhere nearby as he is currently serving a prison sentence. Yet, five minutes later, Woodward appears in the hotel room doorway, having broken out of prison and tracked down the couple. 
            Once Chester figures out the unusual ability of the camera, he initially wants to offer it to the pubic to be put to good use. Paula and Woodward are against this idea, wanting instead to devise a way to make the camera pay off. It is not until Woodward turns the television to a channel broadcasting horse racing that Chester hits upon the idea of using the camera to make a killing at the racetrack, quickly dumping his idea of using the camera for the good of all people.
            The three crooks head to the racetrack in time to catch the final six races for the day with the foolproof idea of taking a picture of the winner's board before the race begins, thus revealing the completed winner's board using the camera's future revealing pictures. They bet high and win large on all six races and return to their hotel room loaded with cash.
            Pierre, the hotel's french waiter, arrives at their room to deliver champagne and is curious about the camera. He picks it up and translates the unfamiliar language written on the camera, presumably French, as: "ten to an owner." Realizing what this means, they rush Pierre from the room and scramble to remember how many pictures they've already taken and arrive at the answer of eight, two before the races and six at the track.
            There is a disagreement over what the do with the final two pictures, culminating in Chester and Woodward getting into a physical confrontation over the camera and accidentally taking a picture. When it develops, it shows Paula screaming. Chester, convinced that Paula is screaming because Woodward is trying to hurt him, and Woodward, convinced that Paula is screaming because Chester is trying to hurt him, get into a fight. As Chester pulls a knife, the two men move toward the open high-rise window in a struggle and go tumbling out and down to their deaths in the courtyard below. Paula screams (as first revealed in the picture) and is initially broken up about the death of her husband and her brother until she sees all the cash that is left behind. She quickly changes her tune, takes a picture of their dead bodies "simply for posterity," and then proceeds to gather up the loot.
            It's not hers for long, however, as Pierre shows up soon after to clean her out, having found out for himself that Paula and her cohorts are wanted by the police, who will be even more interested once the bodies of Chester and Woodward are discovered below. Pierre takes a look at the final picture and tells Paula that there are more than two bodies shown in the picture. Paula rushes to the window to see, trips on an electrical cord, and goes diving out of the window to her death. Pierre walks to the window and again looks at the picture, counting not two or three but four bodies. He, too, falls from the window, though his fall is kept off screen. The unusual camera, dropped by Pierre before he fell, lies on the floor and awaits its next owner. 

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
            "Object known as a camera, vintage uncertain, origin unknown. But for the greedy, the avaricious, the fleet of foot, who can run a four minute mile so long as they're chasing a fast buck, it makes believe that it's an ally, but it isn't at all. It's a beckoning come-on for a quick walk around the block, in the Twilight Zone." 

Commentary:
            It is easy to label "A Most Unusual Camera" another "filler" episode largely dictated by Rod Serling's workload, which required him not only to function as a showrunner for the series (long before that label found wide use) but also to write the vast majority of the Twilight Zone's output. In a way it is another of Serling's quickly thrown together episodes and is in no way comparable to the writer's greatest work on the show, hanging as it does on an well-worn plot device, strung along on two cheap sets, with cliche characters playing on a shallow theme using overworked dialogue. It is easy to forget that such masterpieces of the series as "The Howling Man" and "Eye of the Beholder," episodes with great technical challenges, were filmed in three days. With that tight of a regular schedule, it is no wonder that occasionally the show would toss off an episode quickly and cheaply. It would be a mistake, obviously, to lump "A Most Unusual Camera" in with Serling's more consciously dramatic efforts when it is clearly more along the lines of Serling's over-the-top comedies, putting it in the same camp with such clunkers as "Mr. Dingle, the Strong," "Hocus-Pocus and Frisby," and "The Mind and the Matter."
            "A Most Unusal Camera" is better than the latter three episodes listed above and multiple viewings reveal it to be a minor success among the dreaded failures that are the Twilight Zone's attempts at broad comedy. It is surely one of the most heavily syndicated episodes and is apparently still enjoyed by a vast majority of the show's fans. The minor success of the episode lies not in Serling's flimsy, yet witty, script but in the performances of the four principle actors. More on them in a moment.
            When looking at the broadcast positioning of "A Most Unusual Camera," it is interesting to note that it was not pushed back toward the end of the second season but instead kept very close in broadcast time to an episode it resembles in more ways than one, "The Man in the Bottle." Both episodes are, in their respective ways, indebted to W.W. Jacobs' seminal 1902 weird story, "The Monkey's Paw." Both stories concern a curio shop, the want or need of money, a struggling couple, and, most importantly, a device, a genie's lamp and an antique camera, respectively, which seems at first to provide salvation only to turn hopes and wishes blackly back upon the owner. The major difference in the two episodes, and the reason why "A Most Unusual Camera" is a minor success and "The Man in the Bottle" is a general failure, is that Serling got the tone completely wrong the first time, attempting to make "The Man in the Bottle" a serious chiller when it only succeeds in coming off as unintentionally funny. This is due both to the audience's familiarity with the Jacobs story (which has nearly become foklore) and to the over-the-top nature of the wish fulfillment. With "A Most Unusual Camera," Serling realized the comedic potential not only of his script but of the principle actors and director John Rich, all of whom spent most, if not all, of their careers producing comedy for film and television.
            Another interesting trend to note is the number of Zone episodes which play upon a single object or device, enchanted or otherwise, affecting the characters or the situations the characters find themselves in. By count of our genre guide to the series, a whopping 19 episodes dealt with this theme. That's tied with time travel as most episodes under a single story theme. These episodes range from some of the best of the show to some of the absolute worst and the range and variety of the objects is notable, from a lost WWII fighter plane in "King Nine Will Not Return,"  a time machine in "Execution," a fortune telling napkin dispenser in "Nick of Time," a voice recorder in "A World of His Own,"  a coin in "A Penny for Your Thoughts," a tin can in "Kick the Can," lucky charms in "The Jungle," a strange book in "To Serve Man," mannequins in "The After Hours," a doll's house in "Miniature," a crashed spacecraft in "Death Ship," Mardi Gras masks in "The Masks," a child's toy doll in "Living Doll," a child's toy telephone in "Long Distance Call," an antique radio in "Static," wax figures in "The New Exhibit," a photograph in "Long Live Walter Jameson," and bandages in "Eye of the Beholder,"  to name some of the more successful episodes. Some of the show's worst episodes, including "Dust," "A Thing About Machines," "The Bewitchin' Pool," "A Kind of Stopwatch," "The Man in the Bottle," "What's in the Box?," "The Brain Center at Whipples," "Queen of the Nile," and "Uncle Simon," also revolve around enchanted objects.
            Fred Clark (1914-1968) excelled at the character type of the ill tempered grouch and plays it to perfection in "A Most Unusual Camera," allowing for the broader type comedy displayed by Jean Carson and Adam Williams to shine through. Though Clark found roles in dozens of films, it is for his comedic roles on television that he is well remembered. He found work on such staples of small screen comedy as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, and I Dream of Jeannie. He also starred alongside Vincent Price in the 1965 cult film Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.
            Jean Carson appears to have made an entire career out of playing the somewhat sinister, somewhat ditsy blonde with a raspy voice, riding the persona to an enviable, if unvaried, career, much of it spent in comedy and mostly on television programs of the 1950's and 1960's, such as The Andy Griffith Show, The Betty Hutton Show, and Gomer Pyle, USMC. Carson also found her way onto some fondly remembered drama and suspense programs, such as Burke's Law, Perry Mason, The Adventures of Ellery Queen, Lock Up, and The Untouchables. Her genre credits include an episode of Inner Sanctum and a supporting role in the underrated 1958 science fiction film, I Married a Monster From Outer Space.  
            Adam Williams (1922-2006) appeared in another episode of The Twilight Zone, as the spooked sailor that hitches a ride with Nan Adams' (actress Inger Stevens) ghost in the excellent season one episode, "The Hitch-Hiker." As a character actor, Williams had a long and varied career, finding roles from comedies to action to westerns to film noir to straight drama, suspense, and a healthy portion of genre work including roles on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Boris Karloff's Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Science Fiction Theater, and a supporting role in Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 thriller North by Northwest.
            Marcel Hillaire (1908-1988), born Erwin Hiller in Germany, also fashioned an entire career out of a useful persona. In Hillaire's case it was that of the Frenchman, often in a role as a servant, finding work on a varied number of programs such as Mission Impossible, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, Get Smart, and Lost in Space.  Hillaire's genre credits include Boris Karloff's Thriller, Kraft Suspense Theater, and a second episode of The Twilight Zone, season four's "The New Exhibit."
            Director John Rich (1925-2012) mined a long career as a television director, being at the helm for plenty of westerns and dramas early in his career before finding his niche in comedies of the 1960's and 1970's on such programs as Mister Ed, Gilligan's Island, All in the Family, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hogan's Heroes, and The Brady Bunch. Rich also directed another Zone episode that has much in common with "A Most Unusual Camera," season five's "A Kind of Stopwatch."
            "A Most Unusual Camera" is certainly not a shining moment in even as hit-or-miss a season as season two but it does have its charms, most of which derives from watching the excellent chemistry between the actors in a fast paced comedy that is short on originality but long on fun. It is apparent that the actors, director John Rich, and Rod Serling were all well aware of the ludicrous nature of the plot and wisely played it for laughs and avoided another troublesome and embarrassing episode. It is not surprising in the least to learn that episodes like "A Most Unusual Camera" and others of a similar bent ("Time Enough at Last" and "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?") have, for the most part, established the show's cultural identity among those viewers that do not watch it avidly. That is to say that despite the complex nature of many of the show's episodes, the most enjoyable and rewarding episodes for many viewers are those episodes that pretend to be nothing more than simple, diverting entertainment, twist-ending tales with broad characterizations. These episodes are clever and often funny. As entertainment, it is a fine half hour's time spent, and "A Most Unusual Camera" is no exception. 

Grade: C

Notes:
--Adam Williams also appeared in season one's "The Hitch-Hiker."
--Marcel Hillaire also appeared in season four's "The New Exhibit."
--John Rich also directed season five's "A Kind of Stopwatch."
--"A Most Unusual Camera" was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Mike Starr.

--JP

Up Next: It's Christmas in the Zone as a down on his luck department store Santa finds some Yuletide magic. We hope to see you back here next time in the Vortex for "Night of the Meek."

2 comments:

  1. I agree with your grade on this one, though I always found it kind of creepy. The last scene always seemed weird, with the guy falling out of the window offscreen. Thanks for another good writeup!

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  2. It does have a creepy vibe to it and I think a lot of that is because it moves so fast; they cram a bunch into the twenty five minutes. I can remember enjoying this episode as a kid because a lot the Zone episodes construct a certain type of atmosphere even when logically they don't make a whole lot of sense and as a kid I didn't care about logic so much. One thing you recognize is that the episode begins with what could almost be a sitcom setup, two crooks steal future revealing camera, and by the end of the second act all the characters are dead, having fallen from a high window. It is an especially disturbing visual when Fred Clark and Adam Williams go out the window together.

    That final scene has always posed a problem for me and others I've watched the episode with because it forces this question: how in the world did the guy fall out the window without something reaching up and pulling him out? No way he lets himself go out that window, right? They had to keep it offscreen simply because there was no way the resolution could plausibly play out onscreen.

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