Monday, August 11, 2014

"The Rip Van Winkle Caper"

From left: Oscar Beregi (as Farwell), Simon Oakland (as DeCruz) and Lew Gallo (as Brooks)

"The Rip Van Winkle Caper"
Season Two, Episode 60
Original Air Date: April 21, 1961

Cast:
Farwell: Oscar Beregi
DeCruz: Simon Oakland
Brooks: Lew Gallo
Erbie: John Mitchum
Man on Road: Wallace Rooney
Woman on Road: Shirley O'Hara

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Justus Addiss
Producer: Buck Houghton
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
Editor: Jason Bernie
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
"We've told some oddball stories on the Twilight Zone but none of them any more weird then next week's tale. Four men plan a heist the likes of which have never before been entered into the annals of crime. At which point, according to plan, they take a brief vacation from reality and they spend it in the Twilight Zone. Next week on the Twilight Zone, 'The Rip Van Winkle Caper.' I hope you will be among the bystanders."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"Introducing four experts in the questionable art of crime. Mr. Farwell, expert on noxious gases. Former professor with a doctorate in both chemistry and physics. Mr. Erbie, expert on mechanical engineering. Mr. Brooks, expert in the use of firearms and other weaponry. And Mr. DeCruz, expert in demolition and various forms of destruction. The time is now. And the place is a mountain cave in Death Valley, U.S.A. In just a moment, these four men will utilize the service of a truck placed in cosmoline, loaded with a hot heist cooled off by a century of sleep, and then take a drive into the Twilight Zone."

Summary:   
                Four thieves (Farwell, DeCruz, Brooks, and Erbie) escape to a hidden cave in the desert in a truck loaded with gold. The company is led by Farwell, an expert on noxious gases. We learn that Farwell has used this expertise to put to sleep the entire company of a train hauling the gold, allowing to thieves to simply drive away with the loot. Now, at the hideout, Farwell reveals the remainder of his plan. Within the cave are four objects which resemble glass coffins. It is within these containers that the four thieves will be put to sleep by one of Farwell's gases. The plan is to sleep undisturbed, and physically unchanged, for a century. When they wake up they will be free to spend the gold as they please, knowing that anyone that would still be searching for them will be long dead.
                The only member of the company that seems wary of this plan is highly-strung DeCruz, who is eventually outnumbered and bullied by Brooks into going along with the plan. The four men get into the containers and, following Farwell's systematic instructions, put themselves to sleep.
                Upon waking, the men believe that the plan did not work and that they have not slept long at all. It is only upon the discovery of the corpse of Erbie, now only a skeleton whose flesh has long since rotted away, do the men realize that the plan has worked. They have awakened into the next century.
                The tense confrontations between DeCruz and Brooks finally escalates to the point of murder when DeCruz uses the truck to run Brooks over and then further proceeds to send their only means of transportation off the side of a steep cliff. The only choice for DeCruz and Farwell is to pack the gold in backpacks and to walk across the desert in search of civilization.
                The men soon find a road to follow but see no signs of a population. The going is tough on Farwell who is out of shape and has accidentally left his water canteen behind. He begs DeCruz for some water to which DeCruz charges Farwell a gold bar for each drink. As the going gets rougher and Farwell needs more water, he realizes that DeCruz will eventually charge him the entirety of his share of gold and decides to ensure his own survival by bludgeoning DeCruz to death with a gold bar.
                When Farwell finally finds another person along the road, he is all but dead, lying baked and blistered. With his dying words he offers the man who has found him gold in exchange for a ride into town. Farwell dies before the man can reply. The man, dressed in unconventional clothes, returns to his futuristic vehicle alongside the road where a woman passenger asks him what has happened. The man explains that Farwell offered him gold as though it were valuable. The woman finds that odd and says so. Gold hasn't been valuable for years, ever since they discovered a method of manufacturing it.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"The last of four Rip Van Winkles who all died precisely the way they lived, chasing an idol across the sand to wind up bleached dry in the hot sun as so much desert flotsam, worthless as the gold bullion they built a shrine to. Tonight's lesson in the Twilight Zone."

Commentary:

"The gold was left where it lay - stretched across the desert and piled up in the back seat of a disintegrating ancient car. It soon became embedded in the landscape, joined the sage, saltbrush, pearlweed and the imperishable cacti. Like Messrs. Farwell, Brooks, and DeCruz, it had no value. No value at all."
              -"The Rip Van Winkle Caper," New Stories from the Twilight Zone

Shirley O'Hara in the car from Forbidden Planet (1956)
                "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" is most favorably viewed as an actor's showcase which displays the considerable talents of two veteran character actors, Oscar Beregi, Jr. (here billed only as Oscar Beregi) and Simon Oakland. The deficiencies of the episode result from a hurried shooting, including the reuse of the location of the previous episode, "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim."Some thematic problems arise from the uneven nature of Rod Serling's script, which creates two engaging characters but sends them on an illogical and absurd course of action and resolution.
                The episode was filmed on location in the desert outside Lone Pine, California immediately following the filming of the previous episode. The desert outside Lone Pine was also utilized on the second season opener, "King Nine Will Not Return." Although Cayuga Productions incurred some additional costs with the episode (constructing the fake cave wall and the glass sleep chambers) some cost cutting measures are apparent in two areas. The thieves' truck, complete with the same decals, was previously used in "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" (it is the truck which passes Cliff Robertson and lets him know he has wandered into the twentieth century). A prop futuristic vehicle (which is not seen in motion in the episode) from MGM's 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet is also reused in the episode’s final moments. Cayuga Productions often utilized available MGM props and footage while shooting on the MGM backlot and often looked to Forbidden Planet for inspiration in the prop department.
                Though the script is well paced and provides a great, dual (duel) character showcase, the major problem is the absurd and illogical nature of the twist ending. Though the show is fondly remembered for some of its twist endings, it is unfortunate that Serling and company felt compelled to fit so many episodes with a requisite twist, as it created some very unusual and frequently unsuccessful endings. The maddening irony of the script for "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" is that the characters actually discuss what would have been a better ending to the episode when Farwell and DeCruz discuss awakening in a hundred years only to find a world destroyed by atomic war. Had this in fact been the twist (the greedy men having killed each other after awakening in a world where atomic war has rendered gold useless), it would have been much more devastating than the camp science fiction ending with the silly and whimsical accompanying musical flourish. 
                What we are presented with instead is basically a variation on author B. Traven's Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a 1927 novel that was famously filmed in 1948 by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart, with a touch of science fiction. Where the script excels, and where lies most of Serling's best writing, is in the characterizations. In the hands of a talented actor or actress, a Rod Serling character walks onto the screen fully formed. Serling was an actor's writer and his dialogue alone could elevate a performance. For “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” Serling’s script was gifted with two talented character actors.
Oscar Beregi (1918-1976), as Farwell, made a career out of playing the villain and characters stereotyped as German or Russian (psychologists, Nazis, etc.). Beregi, of Hungarian descent, was the son of Oscar Beregi, Sr., an actor who appeared frequently on the German stage at the turn of the 20th century and moved into German silent cinema in 1919, eventually appearing in Fritz Lang’s 1933 film Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. In the episode, Beregi, Jr. manages to illicit sympathy for Farwell despite the illegal nature of the plot because Beregi plays Farwell as intellectual and much less savage than the other three men, who are written as brutes. Beregi is fondly remembered for his three appearances on The Twilight Zone, especially his unforgettable turn as a vicious ex-Nazi in Rod Serling’s excellent third season episode "Deaths-Head Revisited." He appeared a third time on the show in one of the handful of successful hour long episodes from the fourth season, "Mute," by Richard Matheson. Beregi also appeared on episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Mission: Impossible, and The Wild, Wild West among many other appearances on the small screen.
                Brooklyn born former concert violinist and Broadway character player Simon Oakland (1915-1983), here playing the Hispanic character DeCruz, is best remembered for his many “tough guy” roles, including the most disliked portion of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), this being the expository epilogue where Oakland plays a psychologist who explains Norman Bates' mental state. Though the scene is almost universally disliked, Oakland plays it well, faultlessly delivering a sizable chunk of dialogue. The character of DeCruz is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Norman Bates’ psychologist, however, and it can seem abrupt upon repeat viewings how quickly DeCruz changes from wary and worrisome to savage and homicidal, as though by killing Brooks he has taken over an aspect of that man's personality. Oakland would appear again on the show in the forgettable fourth season episode, "The Thirty Fathom Grave."
                "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" does have some nice touches. The pace is frantic, the mood suspenseful, and the episode doesn't drag, probably leading to its frequent rotation in syndication. It is certainly one of the most familiar of the non-classic episodes among viewers of the series. The location shooting is well done, the heat of the setting is palpable, and little touches, such as the makeup department progressively applying blister makeup on Oscar Beregi's face, including upon the actor’s lips, also adds to the verisimilitude of the Death Valley setting. Of course, the most macabre touch in the episode is the discovery that Erbie’s sleep chamber has suffered a crack from a falling rock, leaving only a decayed skeleton after so many years asleep. Rod Serling would place a similar scene into the screenplay of 20th Century Fox’s classic 1968 science fiction film Planet of the Apes, starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall, the latter of whom had an ironic role in the first season episode of The Twilight Zone, "People Are Alike All Over."
                Martin Grams, Jr., in his book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR, 2008), uncovers some interesting trivia about the episode. The first is that Rod Serling originally composed an alternate opening narration that was absurdly long and was wisely trimmed down by three quarters length. Grams presents the entire monologue in his book for those interested. The show continued its frequent practice of recycling the music of first season contributor Bernard Herrmann, as the prolific composer provides the majority of the music for this episode. According to Grams, portions of the stock music were taken from Herrmann's composition for the July 26, 1946 broadcast of CBS radio's Mercury Summer Theatre on the Air episode titled "The Moat Farm Murder," starring Orson Welles.
                "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" ultimately survives despite its derivative aspects because of superb characterizations created by writer Serling and actors Beregi, Jr. and Oakland. The ending scores more for absurdity than originality but the episode still shines with the care given to the episodes of the show's first three seasons under producer Buck Houghton. It remains a memorable episode and, due mainly to the performances of the two main actors, warrants a viewing or two.

Grade: C

Notes:
-Justus Addiss also directed the second season's "The Odyssey of Flight 33" and the fourth season's "No Time Like the Past."
-Oscar Beregi also appeared in the third season's "Deaths-Head Revisited" and the fourth season's "Mute."
-Simon Oakland also appeared in the fourth season's "The Thirty Fathom Grave."
-Two stuntmen were utilized for the episode: frequent Zone actor Robert L. McCord III doubled for the character of Brooks and Dave Armstrong doubled for the character of DeCruz. McCord also portrayed the character of the Sheriff in the episode immediately preceding, "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim."
-“The Rip Van Winkle Caper” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama and starred Tim Kazurinsky.
-Rod Serling adapted “The Rip Van Winkle Caper” into prose form for his book New Stories From the Twilight Zone, first published in May, 1962 by Bantam Books. 

--Jordan Prejean