Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"Nothing in the Dark"

Gladys Cooper as Wanda Dunn, a woman hiding from Mr. Death
“Nothing in the Dark”
Season Three, Episode 81
Original Air Date: January 5, 1962

Wanda Dunn: Gladys Cooper
Harold Beldon: Robert Redford
Building Contractor: R.G. Armstrong

Writer: George Clayton Johnson (original teleplay)
Director: Lamont Johnson
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Phil Barber
Set Decoration: Henry Grace, H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Editor: Jason Bernie
Sound: Franklin Milton, Bill Edmondson
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week an excursion into the shadowland of the hereafter. Ms. Gladys Cooper and Mr. Robert Redford combine sizable talents to bring a script by George Clayton Johnson entitled ‘Nothing in the Dark.’ The dark in this case being the little nooks, crannies, and closets of those regions presided over by Mr. Death. I hope you’ll be with us next week for ‘Nothing in the Dark.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:

“An old woman living in a nightmare. An old woman who has fought a thousand battles with death and always won. Now she’s faced with a grim decision. Whether or not to open a door. And in some strange and frightening way she knows that this seemingly ordinary door leads to the Twilight Zone.”

            On a cold winter day, Wanda Dunn, a very old woman, is awakened from an afternoon nap within her dilapidated apartment. She sees movement through a space in a boarded window. A police officer is on the street outside the window. Suddenly, he sounds a whistle and a gunshot is heard. Alarmed, Wanda moves to her front door and peers though a small opening, careful to leave the chain lock fastened.

            The police officer is injured and lying feebly in the snow near her doorway. The young man tells her that his name is Harold Beldon and he needs help lest he should die. The old woman is reluctant to help because she believes the injured man is not who he says he is. “I know who you are,” she tells him. “I know what you are.”
            Confused and in pain, the man continues to beg for help until Wanda cannot bear his pleading any longer. She unlocks the door and moves slowly toward the injured man. She touches him tentatively. “I’m still alive,” she says, clearly astonished. She pulls the injured man inside her apartment.
            The old woman situates the policeman in a comfortable space and serves him tea. When the injured man reiterates his need of a doctor, the old woman explains that calling a doctor isn’t possible. She has no telephone and couldn’t risk letting a doctor into her home even if she had. When she sees the look of confusion on the young man’s face, she explains her plight.
            For many years she has remained within this apartment, never venturing out or letting anyone in for fear of coming into contact with Mr. Death. Years ago, she saw a young man touch an old woman’s hand. When this old woman died shortly afterwards, it became clear that the young man who touched her was Mr. Death. Wanda has been hiding from Mr. Death ever since.
            Again, there is movement from without the apartment followed by an urgent knocking at the door. The policeman encourages Wanda to answer the door. She reluctantly opens the door. On the other side is a contractor who has scheduled Wanda’s apartment building to be torn down and whose job it is to ensure the old woman vacates the premises. Wanda resists, terrified at the prospect of leaving her apartment. The man forces his way into the apartment and knocks the old woman unconscious upon the floor.
            When Wanda awakens, she is lying upon her bed and the contractor is leaning over her with an expression of relief. He is holding her hand. Again, the old woman is amazed to still be alive after being touch by this stranger. She has mistaken him for Mr. Death.

The building contractor explains that he isn’t trying to be cruel but that the building is clearly unfit to live in. The city has condemned the dwelling and charged him with tearing it down. Wanda stands and pleads with the young policeman to help her explain to the contractor why she can’t leave the apartment. The contractor doesn’t seem to notice the policeman and gives Wanda an ultimatum to gather her possessions and vacate the premises.
After the man leaves it dawns on Wanda that the contractor couldn’t see the young policeman. The policeman is Mr. Death and has tricked Wanda into bringing him into her home. Wanda is terrified at this revelation but Mr. Death convinces her that he isn’t going to cause her pain and that death is not an end but a beginning. He implores her to take his hand and make the journey to the afterlife. She does so reluctantly. Together they walk from the apartment.  

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“There was an old woman who lived in a room, and like all of us was frightened of the dark. But who discovered in a minute, last fragment of her life that there was nothing in the dark that wasn’t there when the lights were on. Object lesson for the more frightened amongst us, in or out of the Twilight Zone.”

            George Clayton Johnson’s “Nothing in the Dark” is a haunting and evocative fantasy with individual characters of clear delineation and a refreshingly optimistic view of a fundamentally bleak subject. It stands in the absolute first rank of the series. The simplicity of both concept and execution works entirely in its favor. The Twilight Zone often presented character-based fantasies that focused on story and performance and thus required little in the way of setting or design (at least in the way these things are noticed by the average viewer), presenting the viewer with essentially a filmed stage play, harkening back to the earlier days of the medium and the Golden Age of live television drama, an area in which many of the major creators on the show got their starts. “Nothing in the Dark” could serve as a model of this type of production as it utilizes a single setting to evoke a feeling of dilapidation, claustrophobia, and imprisonment without sacrificing the Emmy Award-winning cinematography for which the series is renowned.
            “Nothing in the Dark” was initially intended to be the closing episode of the second season and was filmed during the second season production schedule, evidenced by the way in which the credits were displayed on the episode, as it followed the method used during the second season in which all credits, including the title, were displayed following the episode. For the third season, the title and primary credits were displayed at the beginning of the episode, after Rod Serling’s opening narration, with the remainder of the credits to follow at the end. “Nothing in the Dark” retains its second season formatting to this day.
            This meant that “Nothing in the Dark” was the debut episode of director Lamont Johnson. As it happened, two of Johnson’s other episodes filmed for the third season (“The Shelter” and “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”) arrived in front of viewers before “Nothing in the Dark,” which was pushed back to the middle of the third season.
            After the departure of director Douglas Heyes from the series, Lamont Johnson stepped in as a director who could lend a distinctive stylistic touch to his episodes and one who fundamentally understood the versatility inherent in the advances in television cinematography. Johnson’s directing style is smooth and accomplished, with one fluid camera motion connecting to another via effective low-angle framing shots. Of course, accomplished cinematographer George T. Clemens is equally responsible for much of this excellent camera work but Clemens was a photographer that tended to adapt his style to that of the director with which he was working. If the director had a very staid style, Clemens’s camera was likewise content to simply cut from one framing shot to the next. The camerawork here is marred only once by a fairly obvious jump cut to achieve the effect of Mr. Death’s lack of a reflection in the mirror on the wall.
            A more interesting aspect of Johnson’s direction and staging is the heavy use of symbolism in the episode. There is the obvious symbol of Wanda Dunn’s dilapidated dwelling as a physical representation of her own crumbling existence. There is also the obvious symbolism in the character of the building contractor, brought to life by a fine performance from veteran character actor R.G. Armstrong, whose occupation (the razing and construction of buildings) is a parallel to the life/death process in the natural world. A more subtle use of symbolism is that of imprisoning bars as a symbol of the nature and effects of Wanda’s psychosis. We first view Gladys Cooper’s sleeping form through the latticework of a chair back. She pushes this away as though opening a door when she is awakened by noise in the street. Later, when she awakens from the fall caused by the building contractor, Lamont Johnson chooses to film Gladys Cooper clutching the iron bars of a bed frame, giving the distinct impression of an imprisoned person (see photo in summary section above).  
            Johnson’s choice of filming the exit of Wanda and Mr. Death is also interesting. He chooses to follow the two completely out of the apartment, up the tenement steps and along the street until they disappear from the frame. Johnson’s camera never leaves the interior the apartment and the two characters stop briefly in the street for a final framing shot, reinforcing the optimistic tone of the episode. It would have been interesting to film the two characters leaving the apartment and not reveal them on the outside, defying the viewer’s expectation of seeing them through the partially boarded window and suggesting a passage beyond. 
            After working in radio, director Lamont Johnson began his directing career on the New York stage before moving into television drama. He specifically desired Gladys Cooper for the role of Wanda Dunn based on her long and varied career on the stage. Cooper was a beauty of the London stage and of silent films since before the start of the First World War. She began appearing on Broadway by the 1930's and moved gracefully into middle and late age in a variety of film and television roles, amassing three Academy Award nominations along the way for performances in Now, Voyager (1942), The Song of Bernadette (1943), and My Fair Lady (1964). Cooper would appear twice more on the series and was always exceptional in her performances. Cooper also had the fortune of working with the three principle writers of the show not named Rod Serling. She worked with George Clayton Johnson here on “Nothing in the Dark,” with Charles Beaumont on the fourth season episode “Passage on the Lady Anne,” and with Richard Matheson on the fifth season episode “Night Call.”
In “Nothing in the Dark,” she elicits pathos in her performance in a manner that is perhaps unmatched by any other performer on the series. There was, however, some reluctance when Cooper, a highly refined British actress, was cast in the role of the poverty-stricken Wanda Dunn, many believing the actress would struggle to bring herself low enough to achieve verisimilitude in the performance. Though Cooper had to work with Lamont Johnson during pre-production in order to achieve the most effective accent and manner, she eventually hit upon a flawless method of bringing Wanda Dunn to life as a once highly refined and beautiful woman brought low by old age and an incapacitating fear of death. The moment in which Wanda remembers the beauty of her youth and passes her aged hand through a band of sunlight upon the floor remains one of the more poignant moments from the series.
            Lamont Johnson was also involved in the selection of Robert Redford as the young policeman Harold Beldon. Redford has, of course, gone on to a highly successful career as both an actor and director but was still working his way up the acting ranks via character work at the time of filming this episode. He had, however, a previous connection to Rod Serling in that Redford performed the role of a Nazi soldier in Serling’s Playhouse 90 episode “In the Presence of Mine Enemies,” which originally aired on May 18, 1960. That final regular episode of Playhouse 90 was one of Serling’s more effective plays and featured an outstanding cast including Charles Laughton, Sam Jaffe, Arthur Kennedy, and George Macready. Redford’s performance in “Nothing in the Dark” has been lamented in some critical circles as leaden and unfeeling but this seems to have missed the point of both the character and the performance. Redford is essentially performing as the human form of an elemental being and can hardly be expected to turn in a highly charged or emotional performance. This would be highly out of character, especially for so melancholy a character as Death. Redford presents Death as a calm, rational, inevitable force, much like Death’s other two appearances on the series, in the first season episodes “One for the Angels” and “The Hitch-Hiker.” Though Redford was primarily cast for his pleasing appearance, his performance is an effective foil to Cooper’s highly emotional turn.
            An often overlooked aspect of this episode is its strong resemblance to a Ray Bradbury story published about a year before production began on the episode. Bradbury was clearly the spiritual father of The Twilight Zone and a writer whose work was far more than simply inspiration for the writers of the series. His work was often liberally borrowed from in order to create a variance on a theme. It’s all the more astounding and frustrating that Bradbury was only able to place a single workable script with the series, the later third season episode “I Sing the Body Electric.”
            Writer George Clayton Johnson, like his Twilight Zone co-writers Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, was mentored to some degree by Bradbury while in the early stages of his professional career. Johnson clearly idolized Bradbury, going so far as to tell author Matthew R. Bradley in an interview that through Bradbury’s work he (Johnson) was shown that perfection in writing could be achieved. Johnson would point to “Nothing in the Dark” as his own stake to the claim of perfection, an irony considering its close association with the Bradbury story titled “Death and the Maiden.”
            The similarities between the stories are unmistakable and it would be naive to assume coincidence when the two writers in question were close friends and enjoyed at the very least a marginal mentor/protégé relationship. One can reasonably assume that Johnson was an avid follower of Bradbury’s fiction as it was published and came upon “Death and the Maiden” in its initial publication in the March, 1960 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is fair to note here that although Johnson all but certainly took the germ of “Nothing in the Dark” from Bradbury’s “Death and the Maiden,” he subsequently crafted an emotionally effective story from that initial inspiration and included enough of a variation of the theme to make the story his own.

            Bradbury’s story concerns a woman who lives far out in the country and is known in the nearest town by the name Old Mam. Like Wanda Dunn in “Nothing in the Dark,” Old Mam has shut herself away for many years in her home for fear of Death, which has tried many times to lure her out and seal her fate. It is here that the two stories diverge somewhat. “Nothing in the Dark” is about facing the fear of the unknown and the inevitability of death. “Death and the Maiden,” though also approaching these themes, concerns itself more with the idea that one is not truly alive if all the effort of life is spent avoiding death, though Johnson does include a major theme in the Bradbury story: the mournful remembrance of a youth long gone.
In Bradbury’s story, Old Mam is confronted by a young man carrying a vial of bright green liquid. She immediately recognizes the young man as Death and the young man soon acknowledges this as well, claiming that the green liquid contained in the vial is the essence of Old Mam's life at eighteen years old. Death appeals to the vanity of her younger self, when she was a beautiful, energetic woman using her real name, Clarinda. Death offers her a glimpse of her lost youth. He tempts her to taste of the green liquid and promises her twenty-four hours as herself at eighteen years old in exchange for an eternity in the afterlife. Like Wanda Dunn, Old Mam agrees to take the frightening journey hand-in-hand with Death. “Death and the Maiden” was first published in book form in Bradbury’s 1964 collection The Machineries of Joy.
            Bradbury previously approached similar material in a far more ghoulish manner with his story “There Was an Old Woman” from the July, 1944 issue of Weird Tales. This darkly comedic and highly entertaining story concerns a woman who is unwilling to proceed to the afterlife after dying. She is tricked by an ever-patient Death and must doggedly pursue her physical remains before an autopsy is performed. After hounding the mortician, the old woman interrupts her own autopsy and is allowed to reenter her physical body. The story ends with her proudly displaying her autopsy scars. “Not bad sewing, for a man,” she intones. The story is far different in tone from either of the later tales as it was written at the height of that wonderful 1940s period in which Bradbury was firmly committed to crafting his unique style of weird tale, a style of story that would be highly influential to William M. Gaines and Albert Feldstein, the primary architects of the EC line of horror comics Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear. Feldstein adapted “There was an Old Woman” for Tales from the Crypt #34 (Feb/March, 1953) and the story was illustrated by the supreme master of horror art “Ghastly” Graham Ingels. The Feldstein/Ingels adaptation was included in the 1965 Ballantine paperback The Autumn People, which collected the best of the EC adaptations of Bradbury’s weird tales. The story was first published in book form in Bradbury’s first book, Dark Carnival, from Arkham House publishers in 1947, as well as in Bradbury’s famous collection of weird tales The October Country from 1955. 

            “Nothing in the Dark” remains an episode that rises far above the novelty of its surprise ending and contains enough thematic and symbolic material to appease even the most demanding viewer of the show. It also showcases the debuts of Lamont Johnson (in production, not broadcast), one of the three or four finest directors for the series, and Glayds Cooper, who must be counted in the absolute front rank of performers on the series. It is a justifiably famous episode that manages to perfectly capture that unique blend of melancholy and optimistic that distinguished the series from similar television material.

Grade: A+

-Lamont Johnson directed seven additional episodes for the series, including the exceptional season three episodes “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” and “Kick the Can.”
-Gladys Cooper appeared in two additional episodes, “Passage on the Lady Anne” from season four and “Night Call” from season five.
-“Nothing in the Dark” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Marshall Allman and Roz Alexander. The adaptation is by M.J. Elliott and is one of the finest offerings of the series. It includes an interesting opening sequence in which Wanda suffers a recurring nightmare where she is lost outside in an unfamiliar place. There, she meets a man who soon reveals himself to be a terrifying incarnation of Death.

-Jordan Prejean              


  1. I'm old enough to remember this episode when it was first broadcast. As a child though I was more interested in sci-fi themed stories as opposed to fantasy. Still, I found this particular story strangely compelling even at my young age. A+ certainly.

    1. I can remember this one affecting me greatly as a child as well. It has a uniquely melancholy tone that really shines through Gladys Cooper's performance. I think even the stock music cues are used very effectively to reinforce that tone. The science fiction episodes are great but some of these more poignant episodes seem to be as timeless as fables.

  2. Fantastic overview. I love the depth you go into sketching out all the context.

    I love those EC Bradbury tales. ECs in general, but the Bradbury/EC synthesis is my favorite.

    1. Thanks! The great episodes lend themselves easily to in-depth commentary. The EC Bradbury adaptations are among the finest comic stories of the 20th century and Al Feldstein said that reading Bradbury encouraged him to reach further as a comics writer and it really moved the medium forward. If you enjoy the EC line then you should really check out the Bare Bones E-Zine blog where they are doing a fantastic issue-by-issue commentary on the New Trend titles (Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, etc.).

  3. Thanks for the plug, Jordan! I really enjoyed your piece on this episode. I think Redford is terrific in it.

    1. No prob, Jack. Y'all are doing some great work over there. Yeah, I never understood the animosity toward the Redford performance. I would even imagine he was directed to perform in that subdued, emotionless manner.

  4. I liked this episode quite a lot, as well. Interestingly, I've also read and reviewed the Bradbury story, which earned from me a "not bad" (which is pretty high praise from me -- I don't like Bradbury much).

    I'm loving that you seem to be watching the third season at the same pace we are. I will continue to read your reviews, and I hope you enjoy ours!

    1. Yeah, this one's a classic. I love Bradbury but what I really mean is I love Bradbury in the '40s and '50s. By the '60s he's slipping away from the style of story I enjoy from him. I'll certainly seek out your review. Not bad is about right.

      I hope we can keep up with you guys and I'll certainly read your thoughts on this season.

  5. We're pretty easy to keep up with. :) We watch one episode a week, like everyone else. Reviews in 4 episode bunches.

    I'm not sure what we'll do come Season 4 -- there's rumor of a cancellation/format change!

    1. Yeah, let's hope it's untrue! The format is perfect the way it is, although I feel confident the creative crew can make the best of anything. Let's just hope it doesn't break up the band.