Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"The Midnight Sun"

Betty Garde (left) and Lois Nettleton (right) struggle for survival during a solar apocalypse

“The Midnight Sun”
Season Three, Episode 75
Original Air Date: November 17, 1961

Cast:
Norma Smith: Lois Nettleton
Mrs. Bronson: Betty Garde
Intruder: Tom Reese
Mr. Shuster: Jason Wingreen
Mrs. Shuster: June Ellis
Doctor: William Keene
Radio Announcer: Robert Stevenson

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Anton Leader
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: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Editor: Jason H. Bernie
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Music: Nathan Van Cleave

 And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week we see what will happen to a world that, with each passing hour, draws closer to the sun. This is a nightmare in depth in which we watch two doomed women spend their last hours struggling for survival against the fiery orb that moves over the top of a hot, still, deserted city. We call it ‘The Midnight Sun’ and we also recommend it most heartily.”
 
Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“The word that Mrs. Bronson is unable to put into the hot, still, sodden air is ‘doomed,’ because the people you’ve just seen have been handed a death sentence. One month ago the Earth suddenly changed its elliptical orbit and in doing so began to follow a path which gradually, moment by moment, day by day, took it closer to the sun. And all of man’s little devices to stir up the air are now no longer luxuries. They happen to be pitiful and panicky keys to survival. The time is five minutes to twelve, midnight. There is no more darkness. The place is New York City and this is the eve of the end, because even at midnight it’s high noon, the hottest day in history, and you’re about to spend it in The Twilight Zone.”

Summary:
            Norma Smith, a young woman, is alone in her apartment, painting the scene outside her upper-floor window. She swoons in the heat, wiping sweat from her brow. A huge, monstrous sun looms in the sky, pouring heat and blinding light down upon a deserted New York City. Norma looks into the face of the sun and quickly turns away, wincing in pain. She moves to her small kitchen where she allows herself a small ration of drinking water from a container in the refrigerator.
            Norma hears movement outside the apartment and opens her door to see a small girl standing in the hallway. The girl looks weary and her eyes plead for a taste from the water glass in Norma’s hand. Norma bends to give the girl some water when suddenly Mr. Shuster, the girl’s father, comes rushing down the stairs, yelling for the girl not to take the lady’s water. No one can afford to give away water anymore, he explains, pulling the girl away. The man’s wife follows behind him. They are sweating heavily and carrying suitcases.
            Mrs. Bronson, the middle-aged landlady, opens the door to her apartment and enters the hallway. Mr. Shuster tells Mrs. Bronson that he’s gotten hold of twelve gallons of gas and is using it to take his family to Syracuse to eventually try and make it to Toronto, where it is cooler. Norma and Mrs. Bronson wish the family luck and watch them leave the building. Norma and Mrs. Bronson are now the only two tenants remaining in the building. Mrs. Bronson speaks of a scientist who came onto the radio to explain that the Earth’s orbit has altered, bringing it closer to the sun each day. The thought causes Mrs. Bronson to break down, unable to voice the fact that the human race is doomed.

            Norma arrives home the following day struggling with two bags of groceries. Mrs. Bronson helps her get the bags inside the apartment as Norma describes the chaos of looting the grocery store. Norma has managed to acquire two cans of grapefruit juice. Mrs. Bronson grabs greedily at the cans, dropping one. She falls to her knees and apologizes. Norma comforts Mrs. Bronson before picking up the can and pouring each of them a glass of juice. A radio announcer comes on to report the news and slowly breaks down into delirium before being removed from the air. Soon after, the electricity shuts off. It is now a severely rationed service.
            Norma attempts to sleep, struggling to do so in the suffocating heat and permanent daylight. She crosses the hallways and knocks on Mrs. Bronson’s door. They stand in the doorway of Mrs. Bronson’s apartment, talking, when suddenly they hear a crash from upstairs. Mrs. Bronson cannot remember whether or not she locked the door to the roof exit. The exit door slowly opens. The two women dash into Norma’s apartment and lock the door. 

            Heavy footsteps stop at Norma’s door. A man calls out to be let in. Norma rushes to a table and picks up a gun. She moves to the door and cocks the gun, threatening the man and telling him to leave. After a silence, the man acquiesces. Norma moves to the window to watch him leave by the front exit. Mrs. Bronson unlocks the door before Norma can stop her and the man, lying in wait, burst into the apartment, sending Mrs. Bronson sprawling. Norma points the gun at him but he rushes her and takes it away, pushing her to the floor.
            Norma stands up to the intruder but Mrs. Bronson continues to cower near the sofa. The man opens the refrigerator and drinks all of Norma’s carefully rationed water. He sees Norma’s paintings spread out near the window. This causes the man to break down. He explains that his wife liked to paint. She has recently died from the heat, he says, soon after giving birth to their only child, a boy, who also perished in the heat. The man drops the gun and apologizes to the women, begging forgiveness before slowly leaving the apartment. 

            Norma calls Mrs. Bronson’s attention to a new painting she has recently completed. It is a picture of a waterfall. Mrs. Bronson looks at the painting and slowly descends into hysterics, imagining water cascading down upon her. She moves to the blazing hot window and leans against it. She shutters in the brutal rays of the sun and collapses down upon the floor, dead.
            Norma cradles Mrs. Bronson in her arms as the heat quickly increases, melting the paint on the canvases and causing the thermometer to burst. Norma screams in pain and falls to the floor, her eyes wide and staring, the life leaving her body.
            It is night now. Heavy snow pelts the frost covered windows of Norma’s apartment. Norma lies upon the sofa, a doctor at her side. Mrs. Bronson stands nearby. The doctor tells Norma that she has suffered a very bad fever that has only just broken. Speaking privately to Mrs. Bronson, the doctor informs her that he won’t be able to come back again. He has decided to move his family south, to Miami, where it is warmer. The Earth has gotten colder and colder ever since its orbit has changed, moving it farther away from the sun with each passing day. 

            Norma tells Mrs. Bronson about her terrible dream of a burning hot sun and remarks how wonderful it is to have darkness and cold again.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“The poles of fear, the extremes of how the Earth might conceivably be doomed. Minor exercise in the care and feeding of a nightmare, respectfully submitted by all the thermometer watchers in The Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:
            “The Midnight Sun” can be considered Rod Serling’s coda to his earlier episode, “The Shelter.” He substitutes the threat of nuclear annihilation with the threat of extreme natural disaster, yet both episodes function in relatively the same manner, as a lens through which to view the unpredictable methods in which human individuals maintain or lose their basic humanity in the face of imminent doom.
            What Serling achieves with “The Midnight Sun,” however, is clearly the opposite of what he set out to illustrate in “The Shelter.” With “The Shelter,” Serling attempts to display how quickly individuals can descend into violence and savagery when faced with a crisis. “The Shelter” functions to drive home the undeniable principle of social behavior that the person we are in public is not, to varying degrees, the person we are in private. He uses the catalyst of a life and death situation to show the ugly side of our hidden personalities, areas filled with suppressed prejudices. “The Shelter” uses hateful rhetoric and sudden, shocking acts of violence to drive this point home, with all of the action taking place between supposedly friendly neighbors.
            “The Midnight Sun” takes an entirely different approach to a similar situation by focusing on a more humanistic reaction to crisis. “The Shelter” is, perhaps unfairly, dismissed, or at least disliked, because of the pessimistic leanings of its narrative. Generally speaking, the negative response it generates in many viewers is evidence of its power and effectiveness. In other words, this is exactly the reaction Serling was looking for in his audience. He wanted people to be horrified by the behavior exhibited in the episode. However, for viewers that disliked the earlier episode, “The Midnight Sun” remedies this by presenting a small group of individuals that retain their basic humanity in the face of calamity. It is an episode that presents an optimistic view of ourselves, in its way as unbelievable in its extremes as is the behavior in “The Shelter.” Interesting to note is that, with “The Midnight Sun,” it is not until the final act and the end of Norma’s nightmare that any violence or death is shown on-screen. It is not until the climatic confrontation with a violent intruder, who eventually leaves begging forgiveness from those he has harmed, that the viewer is confronted with tangible evidence of society’s descent into chaos outside Norma’s apartment. Of course, the situation is eventually revealed to be a dream and when Norma awakens we are returned to a calm, collected setting despite the persistence of a deadly threat. The characters in “The Shelter” may have escaped the misfortune which is certain to befall the characters in “The Midnight Sun,” but their failure to maintain basic civility in the face of disaster indicates that these characters will never again possess a meaningful relationship among themselves. Serling stresses in both episodes that we can destroy ourselves without the need of any physical disaster.
            The viewer can assume that some of the residents of Mrs. Bronson’s apartment building died because of the heat, likely in a horrible state. Yet, we are never given evidence of this. The radio announcer speaks of maniacs, allowing the viewer to imagine the varied horrors individuals are inflicting upon one another in the lawless streets. Again, Serling never shows us any of this, or even a hint of it. Instead of showing the chaos of Norma’s grocery store trip, for instance, he merely has her speak of it after it is over. She does not appear to be physically harmed and she speaks of the experience not in a frightened way but rather in a sad, mournful manner, as though her experience left her feeling pity rather than fear.
            It aids the episode that Serling has no discernable political message to convey as he had in “The Shelter” or in the similarly themed “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” This allows Serling to concentrate solely on developing character, clearly his strongest talent as a writer. It is character which drives the episode along, aided by a strong central performance and serviceable support. It is important that Serling paid such close attention to character development as he is certainly not breaking new conceptual ground with “The Midnight Sun,” as tales of natural apocalypse have been a regular theme of popular science fiction since the early 19th century (for examples see editor Michael Kelahan’s 2010 compilation The End of the World (Fall River Press), which collects apocalyptic science fiction from 1816-1920). 

            Initially, Serling included two additional characters in his teleplay that did not make into the finished episode. Shortly after the Shuster family departs, a refrigerator repairman finishes repairing Mrs. Bronson’s refrigerator. This excised scene was placed into the teleplay to show how desperate times have become for the remaining citizens of the city. When the repairman tells Mrs. Bronson that the job will cost her $100 and he can only accept payment in cash, Mrs. Bronson, who uses a charge account, offers her wedding ring as payment, which the repairman declines on principle. Interesting to note here is that the wedding ring calls direct attention to the fact that Mrs. Bronson is or was married, something otherwise left out of the finished episode if one is not paying close attention to the Mrs. in her name. If left in the episode, it leaves a wide spectrum of possibilities as to the fate of her husband. Has he been dead for years? Did he die earlier in the heat? Did he abandon her when she refused to leave her apartment building? Was he killed by some maniac? It is clear to see that the repairman character was unnecessary to move the narrative forward but it is still an interesting exchange that adds gravity to the situation.
            The second excised character is that of a policeman that arrives after Norma’s grocery trip. He appears in the doorway of her apartment in a tattered police uniform and explains that the police are making rounds to all those left in the city to inform them that the police are disbanding and that no more help will be available from the civil force. More importantly, it is this character that gives Norma the gun she later attempts to use to get rid of the intruder. When the policeman determines that the two women have no protection against any psychopath that may come into the building, he gives Norma his service revolver.
            For viewers that would like to read the excised scenes with these characters, Serling includes them in his adaptation of the teleplay for his 1962 collection, New Stories from the Twilight Zone, a book that has been reprinted dozens of times since. The decision to cut the two scenes resulted from Associate Producer Del Reisman’s concerns about both budget and time constraints. Ned Glass portrays the repairman and John McLiam portrays the policeman, with the scenes excised in post-production. 

            Interesting as these scenes are, however, it was probably wise to cut them for no other reason than logic, as it is highly unlikely that members of any occupation would still be making service rounds at this late date in the crisis. After showing scenes of completely deserted city streets, the idea that a refrigerator repairman would be out making services rounds and presumably leaving his family at home is preposterous. Especially if the streets are as dangerous as the radio announcers indicates. The refrigerator repairman also states that he is trying to get his family north, not only reinforcing the notion that it is absurd he would be out making service rounds but adding another mirrored juxtaposition to the doctor’s journey south at the end of the episode, a parallel which was previously established by the northern journey of the Shusters. The policeman continuing to do his job is a bit more believable but his character appears only to say that he won’t be around any longer.
            Serling’s adaptations of his teleplays often allowed him to elaborate and expand upon dialogue, setting, and characters with little of the space limitations of the television series. In his adaptation of “The Midnight Sun,” Serling presents extended dialogue sequences, including a harrowing extension of the radio announcer’s on-air breakdown, as well as more subtle changes, such as the fact that the Shusters are traveling to Buffalo and not Syracuse, as in the episode. Serling also ramps up the violence and impact of the situation in his adaptation. One memorable scene is that of Mrs. Bronson’s death, describing how portions of the woman’s face are burned away onto the scorching hot glass of the apartment window as she presses against it. The intruder is also a bit more violent in the adaptation, going so far as to slap Norma across the face during their encounter. Interestingly enough, Serling’s adaptation of “The Shelter” is also included in New Stories from the Twilight Zone and presents a fascinating juxtaposition of the two similarly theme stories.
            “The Midnight Sun” was directed by Anton M. Leader, born in Boston in 1913, who began his directing career in New York radio, at the helm for several memorable episodes of Suspense (1942-1962), working with many Golden Age Hollywood stars. Leader moved to Los Angeles in 1948 and began to work in the burgeoning television medium, where he was directing by 1954 with his first credit for the mystery anthology series The Web (1950-1954; 1957). He continued to work on anthology series in the 1950s, including work on Celebrity Playhouse (1955-1956), Four Star Playhouse (1952-1956), and The Ford Television Theatre (1948-1957). Leader could hardly avoid the flood of western television programs that descended upon the small screen in the 1950s and 1960s, helming episodes of The Adventures of Jim Bowie (1956-1958), Rawhide (1959-1966), and The Virginian (1962-1971). His science fiction and fantasy credits include episodes of Lost in Space (1965-1968), Tarzan (1966-1968), and Star Trek (1966-1969).
            Leader previously directed the excellent first season Twilight Zone episode "Long Live Walter Jameson" and, like that technically challenging episode, he again displays his directing skills behind the camera. Aided by Emmy Award-winning cinematographer George T. Clemens, Leader manages to convey the inherent suffocating atmosphere of the episode with an effective number of subjective camera shots. In one particularly memorable shot, Leader focuses down on Norma as she awakens from sleep with a long shop from the ceiling of the apartment. As she comes awake, Leader brings the camera swooping down to a close shot of her confronting an empty water glass. It is a marvelous shot and one which Leader managed to expertly employ in an episode otherwise devoid of opportunities for camera flourishes.
            Adding verisimilitude to the atmosphere is the fact that the episode was filmed in summer on a set without air conditioning. Though the actors were continually spritzed with water, much of the sweat and weariness in their performances is authentic. Leader even went so far as to occasionally have the temperature brought up on set to simulate the setting of the episode.  
            Leader is perhaps best known for directing the film Children of the Damned three years later in 1964. This film was the sequel to the classic 1960 science fiction thriller Village of the Damned, taken from John Wyndham’s 1957 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos. Children of the Damned, though greatly different in tone than its predecessor, has gained a loyal following in the years since its release and is a fine film in its own right. Leader died in Los Angeles on July 1, 1988, aged 74 years.
            Although ably supported by Betty Garde and Tom Reese, both of whom perhaps succumb a bit too much to melodramatic acting, the episode relies heavily upon the performance of Lois Nettleton, here playing Norma Smith. Nettleton brings to the role a calm, steely reserve, giving a highly effective and unusual performance during a time in which women were mostly cast in a science fiction play to panic and scream. She does get the one ringing scream off but it comes as the fever subsides and the nightmare breaks down.
            Nettleton was born in 1927 in Oak Park, Illinois. She was a former beauty queen (Miss Chicago 1948) who began an acting career at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and made her Broadway debut in 1949 in Dalton Trumbo’s comedy The Biggest Thief in Town, using the stage name Lydia Scott. Nettleton remained committed to stage work, appearing on stage well into her seventies. Although she did not make her official film debut until 1962, for Period of Adjustment, Nettleton quickly moved from the stage to the television screen, making an early appearance in an episode of Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949-1955) in 1954. Her genre television credits include an adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859) for The Dow Hour of Great Mysteries (1960), an adaptation of Conrad Aiken’s 1931 short story “Mr. Arcularis” for Great Ghost Tales (1961), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-1965) (in Alec Coppel’s “The Dark Pool”), and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1969-1973) (for an adaptation of Rene Morris’s 1966 short story “I’ll Never Leave You-Ever”). Nettle went on to win two Daytime Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Susan B. Anthony in The American Woman: Profiles in Courage (1976) and in 1983 for “A Gun for Mandy,” an episode of the Roman Catholic anthology series Insight (1960-1983). Nettleton was nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards. She died on January 18, 2008 in Woodland Hills, California, aged 80 years.
            I ultimately feel that “The Midnight Sun” is an underrated episode, one of the efforts well above average that warrants a repeated viewing to fully appreciate the nuances of directing and acting on display. Anton Leader only directed two episodes of the series and both are outstanding scripts (one from Charles Beaumont, one from Serling) that Leader manages to effectively frame in a stylized array of subjective camera shots which enhance both the performances and the carefully realized settings and effects. “The Midnight Sun” remains an episode perhaps remembered for its unexpected ending but certainly not an episode which fully relies upon it. And this is what separates it from the less successful episodes of a similar type. It comes recommended. 


Grade: B

Notes:
-Anton Leader also directed the first season episode “Long Live Walter Jameson.”
-Lois Nettleton appears in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "I'll Never Leave You-Ever." In 1993, Nettleton recorded a reading of Rod Serling's prose adaptation of "The Midnight Sun" for Harper Audio. 
-Betty Garde also appears as a passenger in the second season episode, “The Odyssey of Flight 33.”
-Jason Wingreen also appears in the first season episode “A Stop at Willoughby” and (uncredited) in the fourth season episode “The Bard.” He appears in two episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, "The Nature of the Enemy" and "Silent Snow, Secret Snow."
-June Ellis also appears (uncredited) in the first season episode “What You Need.”
-William Keene also appears (uncredited) in the second season episode “The Prime Mover.”
-Rod Serling adapted “The Midnight Sun” into a short story for New Stories from the Twilight Zone, first published in May, 1962 by Bantam Books.
-“The Midnight Sun” was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama, starring Kim Fields.
-“The Midnight Sun” was adapted into a graphic novel by Mark Kneece (writer) and Anthony Spay (illustrator), first published in May, 2009 by Walker.
-The waterfall of which Mrs. Bronson speaks is The Taughannock Falls in Taughannock Falls State Park, located in Ulysses, New York, in Tompkins County. The park is northwest of Ithaca, which is the county seat.
-The effect of the melting paint was achieved by painting wax onto a hot plate, which could then be heated up to melt the wax.

--Jordan Prejean            

4 comments:

  1. Nice article, Jordan! I have a good memory of this episode and the sense of oppressive heat.

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    1. Yeah, it's one of the episodes that sticks in the mind. I found it better than I recalled (though I always had a high opinion of it) upon a re-watch.

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  2. Thanks, Jordan. I caught The Midnight Sun last week, and has seen it as a child more decades ago that I care to mention, and it's one of the few Zones that plays as well as it did the first time, with not a disappointing or awkward moment. It's one of the best of the series in my opinion. The Midnight Sun is truly built, from the ground up, and its payoff at the end gives it just a trace of optimism.

    It's worth mentioning the main female players: Louis Nettleton and Betty Garde. Miss Nettleton never looked better, and her acting was good. Okay, I'll admit that as she began peeling off her clothes at the half-point point the episode got sexy. However it's to Miss Nettleton's everlasting credit that her playing does not support this. She plays it straight, right through to the ending.

    Miss Garde, probably best remembered by classic movie lovers as the shady, craven Wanda Skutnick in the 1948 semi-doc Call Northside 777, in which, ironically, to compare the fates of her characters in these two different dream, both feature in a place of oppressive confinement in a city apartment building, A handgun figures in both The Midnight Sun and Northside as well. Her character in the film was a nasty piece of work, while on the TZ she played a kindly, decent woman; in both cases she was convincing.

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    1. Thanks for the info on Garde. I'll track down Call Northside 777. I thought she was very good in this and could have taken it way further over the top than she did. I think a lot of people remember this episode because of the twist, which is a good twist, but I think it would have still been an effective piece of human drama without the twist, a credit to Serling's script and the actresses.

      It is nice to see Serling crafting so many great scripts in the third season before his undeniable slump in the fourth season. "The Midnight Sun" is a bit underrated but it's one of the better scripts he wrote around this time.

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