Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Dust"

Thomas Gomez as the sadistic Sykes taunts Vladimir Sokoloff as Gallegos.
"Dust"
Season Two, Episode 49
Original Air Date: January 6, 1961

Cast:
 
Sykes: Thomas Gomez
Sheriff Koch: John Larch
Old Gallegos: Vladimir Sokoloff
Luis Gallegos: John Alonso
Estrelita: Andrea Margolis
Mr. Canfield: Paul Genge
Mrs. Canfield: Dorothy Adams
Rogers: Duane Grey

Man: John Lormer
Boy: Douglas Heyes, Jr.

Crew:

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Douglas Heyes
Producer: Buck Houghton

Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Production Manager: Sidney Van Keuran
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: Jerry Goldsmith

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
 
 
"There was a village, built of crumbling clay and rotting wood. And it squatted ugly under a broiling sun like a sick and mangy animal waiting to die. This village had a virus, shared by its people. It was the germ of squalor, of hopelessness, of a loss of faith. For the faithless, the hopeless, the misery-laden, there is time, ample time, to engage in one of the other pursuits of men. They begin to destroy themselves."

Summary:


In a small American western town somewhere during the latter half of the 19th century, Luis Gallegos is to be hanged for running over and killing a little girl while operating a horse drawn cart while drunk. The decision of the townspeople to execute the young man for this terrible accident hangs like a black cloud over the small town. Filled with hate, anger, and confusion, the townspeople drift about on this terrible execution day as though in a lethargic trance.

One person morbidly enjoying the day is the sadistic, drifting salesman Sykes. He has wandered into town and sold the rope to the townspeople with which young Gallegos is to be hanged. The local sheriff, Koch, is disgusted with Sykes and his attitude toward the situation.

When Old Gallegos, Luis's father, pleads with the townspeople for mercy, he is met with disdain and violence. Sykes, sensing a way to make some easy money instructs the little girl who accompanies Old Gallegos to tell the old man that Sykes is in possession of a bag of magic dust which, when sprinkled on the heads of the townspeople, will turn their hate to love. The price: one hundred pesos. As the little girl leaves with her instructions, Sykes simples reaches down to the ground, scoops up a handful of fine dirt, and places it into a small pouch. Presto: magic dust.

As Luis Gallegos is led to the scaffold, Old Gallegos races to find Sykes and pay for possession of the magic dust which can save his son's life. With the help of friends who have sold valuable possessions, Gallegos arrives with gold pieces. Sykes eagerly hands over the dust for the gold, with a laughing guarantee that the "magic" dust will work when sprinkled over the heads of the townspeople.

It seems as though the entire small town, children included, have turned out to view the execution. Old Gallegos arrives seconds before Luis is to be hanged and implores the townspeople for mercy, throwing his "magic" dust at them. It does nothing to prevent the hanging.

Yet, something extraordinary happens. The rope breaks on the way down and Luis is spared a terrible death. Incredulous, the townspeople call for another go at the hanging. Sykes is even more stunned, as it was a heavy duty, brand new rope, impossible that it should break.

The sheriff looks to Mr. and Mrs. Canfield, parents of the little girl lost in the terrible accident, and asks them if they want to continue with the execution. Sensing that a higher power may have had a hand in the miracle of the breaking rope, they relent, show mercy, and allow Luis to go free. The towspeople, disappointed and a little stunned, quickly disperse and return to their homes. Gallegos, father and son, walk away from the scaffold arm-in-arm, joyous.

Finally, Sykes is confronted by three dirty, hungry looking children and he guiltily relinquishes the gold pieces out of which he had earlier tricked the old man.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"It was a small, misery-laden village on the day of a hanging, and of little historical consequence. And if there's any moral to it at all, let's say that in any quest for magic, in any search for sorcery, witchery, legerdemain, first check the human heart. For inside this deep place there's a wizardry that costs far more than a few pieces of gold. Tonight's case in point, in the Twilight Zone."
 

Commentary: 


"There was a village built of crumbling clay and rotting wood. It squatted, ugly, under a broiling sun, like a sick, mangy animal waiting to die. It had a name, but the name was of little consequence. It had an age, but few people cared how old it was. It lay somewhere in the Southwest on the fringe of a desert."
               -"Dust," More Stories from the Twilight Zone 

Perhaps the type of episode which the creators of Twilight Zone struggled with as much as the comedic episode is the episode set in the Old West, an episode type represented in every season of the show, and in some seasons with multiple episodes. The Old West setting was almost exclusively a fascination of Rod Serling, and the episodes produced on the theme vary greatly in quality. "Dust" rises near the top of the pack of this episode type primarily on the strength of its cast and crew as it is one of the few Zone episodes based on a rather undistinguished script but also given the gold treatment when it came to those behind of and in front of the camera.

According to radio and television historian Martin Grams, Jr., in his book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR, 2008), director Douglas Heyes found himself put to work on "Dust" after being pulled from an unproduced episode scripted by Charles Beaumont titled "Acceleration." Heyes had become the go-to director for technically challenging episodes, such as "The Invaders" or "Eye of the Beholder," making him an unlikely choice for the less technical nature of "Dust." Heyes always found ways to insert his creative vision into the episodes he directed, and changed more in "Dust" than perhaps any other episode he was associated with.

Heyes felt the show played too fast, with too much energy, and therefore clashed with the subject matter. With the sun-beaten setting and all the talk of disease and squalor in Serling's opening narration, Heyes felt the way to show the abstract qualities of the episode visually was to instruct the actors in the episode, with the execption of Gomez, Sokoloff, and Alonso, to play their roles as though drained of nearly all engery, as though sleepwalking through the terrible situation being depicted.

Nowhere is it more evident of the changes Heyes imposed than on the character of Sheriff Koch, as played by John Larch. As originally written, Koch was a firm, steadfast, and dominant character, virtuous and stout, a character type Larch was known for portraying and undoubtedly why he received the role in the first place. Heyes went against the grain and instructed Larch to play the role in a different manner, not as the complete opposite, as a man cowed by the situation, but rather as a man physically and emotionally drained by it. Some critics of the episode have found this method unsuccessful and find that it takes away from the impact of the episode. I disagree. I find it displays a nice contrast to those characters that are passionate about the situation, including the villainous Sykes, played to perfection by Thomas Gomez, the only outsider in the episode, and also serves the moral of the "mob mentality" very nicely, displaying the blunt visual representation of people following blindly, or sleepwalking, into a terrible decision. Larch was adept at playing a strong or reassuring figure and regular Zone viewers will remember him as the psychologist dealing with a patient's deadly nightmares in writer Charles Beaumont's first seaon episode, "Perchance to Dream," under the idiosyncratic direction of Robert Florey, and as the father of the terrible, and omnipotent, Anthony in the unforgettable third season episode, "It's a Good Life."

"Dust" also benefitted from the presence of veteran character actor Vladimir Sokoloff, a Russian-born thespian here showing his versatility by convincingly playing a Mexican, something he did often throughout his long career. An equally able character actor, Thomas Gomez made a career out of playing the heavy, or villainous, role and had previously appeared on the Zone as Cadwallader, the Devil, in the otherwise forgettable first season episode, "Escape Clause."

As much as Thomas Gomez could elicit disgust or hatred from an audience, Vladimir Sokoloff could elicit sympathy. He would virtually repeat his pleading and passionate performance from "Dust" two additional times for the Zone, again playing characters of Spanish descent, in the third season episodes "The Mirror" and "The Gift," this latter an episode with a great deal in common with "Dust" but with a much more heavy handed and unsuccessful approach.

Serling's script for "Dust" was at least the third time the writer attempted the story with elevating degrees of variation. Serling had written a radio play titled "The Dust By Any Other Name" in 1950, concerning a man's attempts to manufactor a magic dust by which people's hatred could be dispelled, only to have the radio script rejected by the Dr. Christian radio program.

Eight years later, on June 19, 1958, Serling, by then an established, Emmy Award-winning screenwriter, presented "A Town Has Turned to Dust" on Playhouse 90. This show concerned a 19th century western town driven to lynch a young Mexican man by a local merchant with ulterior motives. Serling initially had trouble getting his vision of this story onto Playhouse 90 at all, as he originally wrote the script in a contemporary setting (late 1950's) and concerning the then-current problem of segregation in the South. Corporate Sponsors felt the episode as originally written would cause too much controversy and Serling was left with no option but to change the race of the victim (from African American to Hispanic) and move the setting of the story back seventy years. It was this type of interference which prompted Serling to branch off into an executive role and develop the Twilight Zone in an effort to have autonomy over what could be done on a television program. Though the BBC took the opportunity a month before the airing of "Dust" on The Twilight Zone to broadcast a version of "A Town Has Turned to Dust," the BBC version was a remake of the Playhouse 90 show and ignorant of any changes Serling made for the story's broadcast on Twilight Zone a month later. The story also found itself dramatized on Australian radio a short time after it's broadcast on The Twilight Zone and was again adapted for radio as an episode of The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas.

"Dust" also benefits greatly from a Jerry Goldsmith score. Goldsmith produces a score that establishes setting, theme, and, most impressively in "Dust," character, as the score is as subtle, as lethargic, as the townspeople. It is a sad, wistful, and melancholy theme which perfectly matches the mood of the episode.

The MGM backlot is put to good use. Though MGM's backlot was built for grandeur, the sets in "Dust" are stark and minimal, almost the sets of an early American silent film or that of the German Expressionist films, and it greatly enhances the story for the viewer, as "Dust" is more concerned with the emotional, or expressive, nature of the story rather than tangible reality or an attempt to establish anything more than the barest mechanics of verisimilitude. The scaffold set and the vast, desolate landscape beyond is one the most affecting sets ever designed and filmed for the show.

Though "Dust" is anchored by a script which feels quite watered down as Serling rewrote and reworked it for nearly fifteen years of his professional career, the episode boasts some fine creative work from veteran actors, capable direction from the more technically minded Douglas Heyes, excellent set design, and a moody score from Jerry Goldsmith. If it doesn't quite reach the heights of the Old West episodes that manage to rank among the best of the show's entire run ("A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" comes to mind) it is a tight and controlled episode with enough to lift it above the average fare on the show.


Grade: B

Notes:


--John Larch also appears in the first season episode "Perchance to Dream" and the third season episode "It's a Good Life."
--Vladimir Sokoloff also appears in the third season episodes, "The Mirror" and "The Gift."
--Thomas Gomez also appears in the first season episode "Escape Clause." 

--Douglas Heyes, director, was responsible for some of the most celebrated episodes of the series, including "The After Hours," "The Howling Man," "Eye of the Beholder," and "The Invaders." Heyes wrote and directed the first segment of the series Rod Serling's Night Gallery, "The Dead Man" (based on the story by Fritz Leiber), and wrote two additional segments of the series, "The Housekeeper" and "Brenda" (based on the story by Margaret St. Clair) under the pseudonym Matthew Howard.
--Rod Serling reused the name of Sheriff Koch for a similar character in the fifth season episode "I Am the Night--Color Me Black."
--The role of Farmer Boy was acted by Douglas Heyes, Jr., son of the episode's director.
--"Dust" was produced as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Bill Smitrovich. 

--Rod Serling adapted his teleplay into a short story for More Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1961).

--Jordan Prejean

2 comments:

  1. An excellent, and very interesting, review of an episode I have not seen in a long time.

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  2. Oddly enough I had not seen it in quite some time as well and rewatching it I found a lot more to like than expected. It's nice to be plesantly surprised by episodes you come back to after a long while. Great cast and crew on this one. All the episodes in seasons two and three, videotape not withstanding, look really nice as the show was really hitting its stride.

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