Sunday, April 17, 2016

"The Mirror"

Peter Falk as Ramos Clemente, gazing into the mirror that will display his downfall

“The Mirror”
Season Three, Episode 71
Original Air Date: October 20, 1961

Cast:
Ramos Clemente: Peter Falk
General DeCruz: Will Kuluva
Cristo: Antony Carbone
Tabal: Arthur Batanides
Garcia: Rodolfo Hoyos
D’Allesandro: Richard Karlan
Father Tomas: Vladimir Sokoloff

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Don Medford
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Editor: Bill Mosher
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“We’ve had some performances of great depth on The Twilight Zone and next week is no exception. A distinguished and incredibly talented young man lends us his services when Peter Falk stars in ‘The Mirror.’ This is the story of a tyrant and his assassins, a shattered dream, and the death of a cause. Next week on The Twilight Zone . . . ‘The Mirror.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration: 
“This is the face of Ramos Clemente. A year ago a beardless, nameless worker of the dirt who plodded behind a mule, furrowing someone else’s land. And he looked up at a hot, Central American sun and he pledged the impossible. He made a vow that he would lead an avenging army against the tyranny that put the ache in his back and the anguish in his eyes. And now one year later the dream of the impossible has become a fact. In just a moment we will look deep into this mirror and see the aftermath of a rebellion in The Twilight Zone.”

Summary: 
            Ramos Clemente, leader of a bloody political revolution in an unnamed Central American country, basks in the adulating cries of the crowd gathered below the balcony of his new office. Together with his four trusted advisors he drinks wine in a toast to the new regime. 
            Clemente has the deposed leader, General DeCruz, brought in so that he, Clemente, can explain how all of DeCruz’s supporters will be executed and how DeCruz’s own death will be long and painful. DeCruz, however, is unaffected by Clemente’s threats. He tells Clemente that they are more alike than Clemente is willing to recognize and now that Clemente has taken control life will be fraught with fear and suspicion. He then warns Clemente that the large, ornate mirror hanging on the wall in the office will reveal the assassins who will come for Clemente’s life.
          Paranoia sets in quickly. As Clemente gazes into the mirror he sees a series of visions in which each of his most trusted men threaten him with an array of deadly weapons, from machine guns to knives to poison. In each case, Clemente either kills the man himself or has the man killed, all in quick succession. Clemente ponders how he can kill his best friends and yet feel nothing at all. Despite warnings from his most trusted friend, Cristo, Clemente cannot see the error of his ways. Even Cristo falls victim to Clemente’s murderous paranoia. When a priest, Father Tomas, arrives to beg Clemente to cease the ongoing executions of DeCruz’s supporters, Clemente rages against the idea, displaying the full measure of his psychosis.
            When the priest leaves, Clemente throws his gun at the mirror, shattering the glass. From without, the priest hears a gunshot. Accompanied by Clemente’s men, he rushes back into the office to find Clemente dead on the floor from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The final assassin, states the priest, is the one they never recognize until it is too late.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Ramos Clemente, a would-be god in dungarees, strangled by an illusion, the will-o’-the wisp mirage that dangles from the sky in front of all ambitious men, all tyrants. And any resemblance to tyrants living or dead is hardly coincidental, whether it be here or in The Twilight Zone.”      

Commentary: 
            “The Mirror” is marred by a derivative premise, a divisive lead performance, an uneven supporting cast, unintentionally funny special effects, and a ludicrous ending. Despite this uneven quality, Rod Serling’s “The Mirror” is interesting for the audacious move to dramatically illustrate the terror and corruption immediately evident in the regime of Fidel Castro, and, by extension, the regimes of the many dictators that had recently risen to power in Central and South America.
By utilizing a thinly-veiled, fictionalized version of the young Cuban dictator, as well as his then-enforcer Ernesto “Che” Guevara, here portrayed by Arthur Batanides as “Tabal,” Rod Serling delivered perhaps the most violent and angry episode of the entire series. It comes a mere two years after the end of the Cuban Revolution, illustrating not only how quickly established was the Castro cult of personality, as well as that of Che Guevara, the one-time overseer of Castro’s execution squad whose stylized likeness is now used as a counter-cultural symbol of personal freedom, but also how much Rod Serling had his finger on the pulse of social and political issues. This is demonstrated time and again on the series, from the red scare of “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” to the threat of nuclear annihilation in “The Shelter” to the aftermath of the Holocaust in “Deaths-head Revisited,” Serling was always working to fit the directly frightening aspects of the modern world into a relatable cultural context for the modern viewer.
“The Mirror” does not present an abstract social issue like the aforementioned episodes. It deals directly with its subject in an immediately recognizable way. Only one other time had the series presented a real-life communist leader in an episode, this when the veiled figure of Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union, appeared in the humorous, shot on videotape, second season episode, “The Whole Truth.” In “The Mirror,” a decidedly non-humorous episode, the deposed leader, General DeCruz, alludes to three real-life dictators when delivering his warning to Castro stand-in Ramos Clemente. DeCruz mentions Castro, Batista, and Trujillo. The character of DeCruz is the fictional stand-in for Fulgencio Zaldívar Batista, the dictator deposed by Castro in the Cuban Revolution. Rafael Trujillo was the President, and longtime shadow dictator, of the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. 
   One presumes these issues were fresh in the minds of most members of the American viewing audience. Either way, by the spring of 1961, with the Bay of Pigs disaster, and into the fall, with the Cuban Missile Crisis, there remained little doubt that Serling’s, and many a political commentator’s, view of the issue was both prescient and, in many cases, blindly optimistic. Serling was no different in his ultimately optimistic depiction of the violent usurper Ramos Clemente besieged by paranoia and self-inflicted violence. What lends the character of Clemente depth is the fact that he was a poor, idealistic young man who grew, in only the space of a calendar year, into a cold, sociopathic leader more brutish than those he rose up against. It was this sort of ideological hopefulness meeting the brutal nature of reality that made the bloody coupes of the period so disheartening for the United States and its own ideological foundations.
            Viewing the episode 55 years after its initial broadcast, it still manages to shock and provoke, even as we see through the thin storytelling, due mostly to the powerful, and contentious, performance of Peter Falk and the heated dialogue in Serling’s script. It was this type of bold social and political commentary which set the series apart from almost any other dramatic series of the time, especially any other science fiction series. It is this quality also which most closely relates The Twilight Zone to the well regarded science fiction series that followed in its wake, from The Outer Limits to The X-Files, and, conversely, which separates it from the series which seem unable to emerge from its long shadow of influence.
            A lot of filmed science fiction contemporary to The Twilight Zone, including the series itself, presented social and political commentary through the malleable symbolism of alien invaders, mad scientists, and atomic monsters. At its best, The Twilight Zone didn't bother to cloak its message to the viewer in any veneer of fantasy other than the most threadbare kind. The Southern California Group of writers, of which Serling was a satellite member and who collectively wrote virtually all of the material for The Twilight Zone, are notable for the fact that their approach to fantasy was to set it in as realistic a situation as possible. They approached fantastic material as would a writer of realist fiction, something they borrowed from notables like Jack Finney (The Body Snatchers), Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), and Theodore Sturgeon (More Than Human). It was the model set beforehand by Sturgeon, the brilliant short fiction writer, which exerted the strongest influence on the group. In 1958, Sturgeon published both a short story and a collection entitled A Touch of Strange, the idea being that to create a convincing fantasy for the modern reader the writer must create a wholly believable setting and set of characters, one to which the modern reader can instantly relate, only then to introduce a touch of something strange, an intrusion of the fantastic upon the lives of the characters.
The most successful episodes of The Twilight Zone come with no deconstruction required at all. Think “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” or “The Obsolete Man” or “The Shelter” or “Deaths-Head Revisited” or “He’s Alive.” All Rod Serling penned episodes and all moral tales painted in strokes broad enough for an average middle school child to easily comprehend, which undoubtedly explained both the popularity of the show among children and its fascination for adults. So it is with “The Mirror.” Serling doesn’t feel the need to convince the viewer of the truth of the fantasy element, in this case a magic mirror, but rather decides to leave it purposefully ambiguous. The episode can just as easily, perhaps more easily, be interpreted from a psychological perspective, the fantasy element being a result of psychosis on the part of the protagonist. There are assassins everywhere, intimates DeCruz, and whether or not it is only in the mind of Clemente is left for the viewer to decide. A quick interesting note is that Serling previously used the name DeCruz for the villain among villains in the second season episode “The Rip Van Winkle Caper.” In that episode, DeCruz was played by Simon Oakland.
            Serling had earlier exited the dramatic anthology programs which soon after died away and underwent a transformation from cutting edge drama to unthreatening and watered-down television movies of the week. Here he is in 1961 with a twenty six minute play consisting almost entirely of a fictional Fidel Castro systematically murdering an array of people, including his own entourage, and culminating in his own self-inflicted death. Clemente’s brutal murder of D’Allesandro, slammed through a set of glass doors and thrown bodily over a balcony, should be indication enough that this was a different sort of program than those Serling was writing five years before.
It’s hard to imagine the corporate sponsors on Playhouse 90 giving a script like this the green light. Yet, here it is on Serling’s “kooky” (his word) Twilight Zone presenting just such a scenario. There was a reason the series aired at 9:00, the traditional time slot where a more mature block of programming commenced. If we as regular viewers of the series have become accustomed to the nostalgic comforts inherent in The Twilight Zone, “The Mirror” is anything but comforting or nostalgic, which may explain its status as an almost forgotten episode and one which is rarely commented upon in the circle of science fiction and fantasy fans that examine such things.  
            The major problems with “The Mirror” are the problems with most of Serling’s moral episodes. If you’re looking for an original plot, look elsewhere. As a writer, Serling was clearly more interested in using science fiction and fantasy as a lens through which to view the world around him than in developing unique story concepts. Not that he was unable to achieve the latter but only that he couldn’t be expected to produce “Eye of the Beholder” or “The Masks” each time out, nor did he care to do so. Serling was always keenly aware of the fantasy tradition and was never shy about using familiar concepts as springboards to drive his stories across.
During the course of producing The Twilight Zone, Serling was always beleaguered with calls of plagiarism and, for the vast majority, undeservedly so. The burden of producing a science fiction show, and the grave mistake of a call for open submissions prior to the first season, something which was still plaguing Serling three seasons in, was such that every episode put out, however successful or unsuccessful, would be claimed by some quack in his living room or by some professional writer irked by viewing a genre outsider like Serling, and don’t be fooled, he was viewed as such, clutching his Hugo and Emmy Awards at the end of each television season. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror have always been communal pools from which everyone drinks. One must simply stop short of drinking from someone else’s cupped hands.
             In “The Mirror,” Serling is using fairly standard fantasy elements to explore a very modern problem, the rise of the violent dictator in the 20th century. There is the old adage that science fiction isn’t really talking about the future; it’s talking about the present. So it goes with many of Serling’s Twilight Zone episodes. Serling’s plot constructions often suffered from cliché and repetition. One can hardly fault the guy since he was still writing about sixty-five percent of everything on the series, along with assuming his duties as executive producer. That aspect has been examined in detail before here in the Vortex, as has his reliance on common concepts of folklore, and there’s no need to go over it all again, except to say that “The Mirror” contains elements that go back to the Black Forest fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, themselves records of a much older oral tradition.
There is the haunted mirror which tells of a possible future. There is the character who seals his fate through the action of attempting to avoid a dire portent. The deposed leader, de Cruz, plays the role of both the accuser and of the one that lays the curse at the feet of the new leader. There is the wise old villager, here played by Vladimir Sokoloff, a Moscow-born character actor again relegated to playing a Hispanic character as he had previously done in the season two episode, “Dust,” who begs for understanding and spells out the moral for the audience at the conclusion of events. These are surely elements familiar to anyone with even a cursory interest in film or literature. Once passed through the cipher of Serling’s moralizing oratory the story becomes less about plot, thankfully, and more about what William Faulkner termed “the human heart in conflict with itself,” something at which Serling was masterful.
It is remarkable how confined are many of The Twilight Zone episodes. This was less to serve a small budget and more the series not needing the decorative aspects of a less cerebral, or more outer space oriented, science fiction series. The series was exceptional at minimization and producer Buck Houghton was not only a master at managing the production, along with Ralph W. Nelson, but had assembled a group of technicians that thrived within the constricted confines of the show. The effectiveness of the MGM backlot, the finest such studio backlot at the time, didn’t hurt matters either.
“The Mirror” takes place on two sets, one interior (Clemente’s office) and one exterior (the office balcony), and is all the better for it. It lends the episode intimacy which masks many of the missteps in narrative. Much like the later fifth season episode, “The Masks,” the use sound indicates vastness, as great crowds and the gunfire of the execution squads can be heard continuously roaring beneath the windows of Clemente’s office. Clemente never leaves the office, never changes clothes, so strong is his paranoia, so defined is his cause. Never is the viewer allowed to imagine this man with anything resembling a personal life. As far as we know, he has no wife, no children, no mother, no father, nor any siblings. He is a single minded individual, driven by will, desperation, violence, and an unacknowledged need for exoneration. Serling reminds us again and again, violence begets violence, hate begets hate, and prejudice begets prejudice. Clemente is the latest personification of this. There is a moment late in the episode which seems unnecessary and yet perfectly displays who and what Clemente represents. After murdering all but one of his entourage, Clemente wonders aloud how he can murder men he thought of as brothers and feel nothing about it.
Peter Falk portrays Ramos Clemente. Falk would later, of course, become famous as Lt. Frank Columbo in the show of the same name. Serling was very impressed with the young Falk as evidenced in his preview narration. Falk was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Murder, Inc. (1960) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and would go on to win five Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe. His performance as Clemente is a manic, exuberant performance which has undoubtedly left many viewers divided. Falk hovers the line between parody and effectiveness yet is unquestionably menacing and perfectly displays the single-minded arrogance of a man who knows only achievement through violence.
            Even as early as the late 1970's, when author Marc Scott Zicree was conducting interviews for The Twilight Zone Companion, series producer Buck Houghton was apologizing for Falk’s performance, finding it too flamboyant and explaining it as the way in which many Americans viewed the Cuban leader. The problem which this assessment is that even though Falk is clearly made up to resemble Castro, he is playing a much broader character, an amalgamation intended to represent the maniacal dictators which had risen to power in several nations in Central and South America at the time. Whether or not Falk’s performance is a result of American perspective or not, the violence sweeping through that portion of the world at the time is undeniable fact, as are the leaders responsible for it.
            Antony Carbone, an Italian-American actor, matches the broad nature of Falk’s performance, often delivering his lines which one eye squinted closed and his teeth bared in a grimace. The other supporting players are simply fodder for Clemente’s mania and are not given ground to really offer anything to the episode. The ever-present Robert McCord makes another uncredited appearance at the end of the episode as an off-screen voice and the Priest’s companion.  
            The final aspect of the episode that needs to be briefly commented upon is the ineffective mirror effects. One after another each of Clemente’s men are viewed in the mirror approaching the paranoid leader with a different array of deadly weapons, gun, knife, poison, etc. The effect simply doesn’t work and very closely skirts the line of being unintentionally humorous, especially the image of D’Allesandro (Richard Karlan) wielding a large machine gun and turning in a semi-circle. Perhaps Serling felt that he must show something in the mirror but one wonders if the episode would have been more effective if the viewer were not privy to what Clemente saw but left only to imagine what he beheld in the mirror.
            Director Don Medford was a veteran of television direction and is probably best remembered today for directing the two-part finale of The Fugitive. He was at the helm for four additional Zone episodes, including the similar and more successful “Deaths-head Revisited,” about a Nazi war criminal (Oscar Beregi, Jr.) who revisits the concentration camp where he committed his atrocities, which was filmed before “The Mirror” but aired afterwards. It is very likely Medford’s work on “Deaths-head Revisited” indicated he was the right man for the “The Mirror.”
            In all, “The Mirror” is not an episode easy to recommend as something other than an oddity in a third season populated with established classics. It is never boring and the high third season production values hold the viewer’s attention, as well as the opportunity to see a genuine artifact of the Cold War era. Call it average, though that hardly speaks to the unique qualities offered by the episode.

Grade: C

Notes:
--Don Medford also directed “A Passage for Trumpet” from season one, “The Man in the Bottle” from season two, “Deaths-head Revisited” from season three, and “Death Ship” from season four.
--Vladimir Sokoloff also appeared in the season two episode, “Dust.”
--Arthur Batanides also appeared in the season one episode, “Mr. Denton on Doomsday.”
--Richard Karlan also appeared in the season one episode, “Execution.”
--Rodolfo Hoyos appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "The Miracle at Camafeo." 
--“The Mirror” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Tony Plana.

-Jordan Prejean  

7 comments:

  1. I always liked this episode,but then I always enjoy seeing Peter Falk. I had to go to Wikipedia to confirm Lt. Columbo's first name as Frank. I always thought he was (first) nameless, like Agent 99!

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    1. Lt. Columbo was 'first-nameless'.
      William Link always said so - as co-creator, he'd be in the best position to know.
      In this case, Wiki was waki.

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    2. The original intention was to have him remain without a first name but by necessity Columbo's badge shows his first name to be Frank. Check the 1971 episode "Dead Weight" and the 1976 episode "A Matter of Honor."

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    3. The "necessity" you're referring to was a rogue prop guy at Universal who was made to do an insert shot of the badge.
      The producers/writers were not consulted.
      William Link maintains to this day that he never even knew about "Frank" until screen grabs became possible in recent times.
      Since Link is the surviving creator of the character, I'll go with him.

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    4. Hey, I'm with you, Mike. Thanks for the info. I threw that in the post just as a bit of trivial knowledge and it is in no way a point of contention with me. I'll go with Link's view, as well.

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  2. I really enjoy this performance though a lot of what I've read indicates that it's not a very popular one. I think it's easily the most interesting aspect of an otherwise dishwater episode. The viewer must accept that it's intentionally over-the-top and not intended to be a version of Castro like you would see in a biopic, and certainly not intended to be politically correct.

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  3. I hated this episode the first time I saw it, and my mind has not changed. It's the Twilight Zone at its worst, and if I were someone who wanted the show to be canceled appearing at a CBS symposium around the time the series was up for renewal I'd bring a copy of The Mirror as proof of how dreadful the show is,--even though the series as a whole is much better than this particular episode. Just sayin'...

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