Monday, October 22, 2018

"Mute"

Ann Jillian as the telepathic girl Ilse and Irene Dailey as the stern Miss Frank

“Mute”
Season Four, Episode 107
Original Air Date: January 31, 1963

Cast:
Cora Wheeler: Barbara Baxley
Harry Wheeler: Frank Overton
Miss Frank: Irene Dailey
Ilse: Ann Jillian
Frau Werner: Eva Soreny (Éva Szörényi)
Holger Nielsen: Robert Boon
Fran Nielsen: Claudia Bryar
Tom Poulter: Percy Helton
Karl Werner: Oscar Beregi (Jr.)

Crew:
Writer: Richard Matheson (based on his story)
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Producer: Herbert Hirschman
Director of Photography: Robert Pittack
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Associate Producer: Murray Golden
Assistant to the Producer: John Conwell
Music: Fred Steiner
Art Direction: George W. Davis & Edward Cartagno
Film Editor: Eda Warren, A.C.E.
Set Decoration: Henry Grace & Don Greenwood, Jr.
Assistant Director: Ray de Camp
Sound: Franklin Milton & Joe Edmondson
Rod Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes
Filmed at MGM Studios

And Now, Mr. Serling:

“The talented author Richard Matheson pays a return visit to Twilight Zone with a story called ‘Mute.’ It provides an exceptional challenge to the acting talents of Barbara Baxley, Frank Overton, and an unusual twelve-year-old by the name of Ann Jillian.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:

“What you’re witnessing is the curtain-raiser to a most extraordinary play; to wit, the signing of a pact, the commencement of a project. The play itself will be performed almost entirely offstage. The final scenes are to be enacted a decade hence and with a different cast. The main character of these final scenes is Ilse, the daughter of Professor and Mrs. Nielsen, age two. At the moment she lies sleeping in her crib, unaware of the singular drama in which she is to be involved. Ten years from this moment, Ilse Nielsen is to know the desolating terror of living simultaneously in the world – and in the Twilight Zone.”

Summary:

            The story begins in 1953 in Düsseldorf, Germany where four couples (all parents of small children) form a pact to begin a psychological experiment. Believing human beings to have natural telepathic abilities, which have been dulled through centuries of verbal language usage, the families formulate a plan to isolate their children and train them to develop their inborn telepathic skills. One family, the Nielsons, including a daughter named Ilse, are leaving Germany to return to the United States. This causes some anxiety for the Werners, a closely allied family who are to stay in Germany.
            The story moves forward a decade to a point in which the isolated lives of the Nielsons in German Corners, Pennsylvania are tragically disrupted by a deadly house fire in which both Mr. and Mrs. Nielson perish. Ilse, now twelve years old, is miraculously found unharmed outside the house by Tom Poulter, a local volunteer firefighter. The local sheriff, Harry Wheeler, attempts to communicate with the girl but she refuses to speak. The sheriff takes the young girl home where his wife, Cora, instantly forms an intense protective bond with the child, fueled by the lingering grief over the drowning death of her own daughter some time before.
            The Wheelers cannot understand why Ilse, a powerful telepath, refuses to speak. They begin to darkly speculate on what may have happened to the girl whilst in the care of her eccentric parents, who refused to assimilate into the local community. Harry Wheeler does his duty and attempts to find relatives with which he can place the girl. He uses the return addresses on the Nielsons’s mail to send out letters apprising the recipients of the situation. Unbeknownst to Wheeler, Cora destroys the letters.
            Meanwhile, Ilse is struggling in this new world of spoken language. Her isolated upbringing and telepathic development have made spoken language both a dulling sensation upon the brain and an assault upon the senses. She fights against Cora’s attempts to make her speak. After weeks of not hearing anything in response to his letters, Harry Wheeler makes the fateful decision to enroll Ilse at the local school, the commencement of a “normal” life for the girl. This results in the appearance of Miss Frank, the local schoolteacher. Miss Frank, a stern woman whose father attempted to develop her into a medium as a child, believes in the power of personal will to overcome the overriding influence of a negative environment. With the aid of her class, Miss Frank berates and antagonizes Ilse in an attempt to break her will and force her to speak and behave as a normal child.
            Arriving in German Corners at this time is Mr. and Mrs. Werner, who, having not heard from the Nielsens in an unusually long time, have traveled to the United States to investigate. They connect with Harry Wheeler who takes them to his home to await Ilse’s return from school. The Werners realize that they are too late in arriving and that the Wheelers have unknowingly corrupted Ilse’s telepathic abilities by the girl’s forced assimilation into the local community.
            The suspicions of the Werners are confirmed when Ilse arrives home from school completely broken of her remarkable abilities. An unconvincing happy ending ensues in which it is suggested that Ilse will be happier now that she is free from the influence of her parents and ensconced in the loving home of the Wheelers.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:

“It has been noted in a book of proven wisdom that perfect love casteth out fear. While it’s unlikely that this observation was meant to include that specific fear which follows the loss of extrasensory perception, the principle remains, as always, beautifully intact. Case in point, that of Ilse Nielsen, former resident of the Twilight Zone.” 

Commentary:

“It was the sound.
            Like endless club strokes across his vivid mind, it pulsed and throbbed into him in an endless, garbled din. He sensed it was communication of a sort but it hurt his ears and chained awareness and locked incoming thoughts behind dense, impassable walls.
            Sometimes, in an infrequent moment of silence he would sense a fissure in the walls and, for that fleeting moment, catch hold of fragments – like and animal snatching scraps of food before the trap jaws clash together.”

                        -“Mute” by Richard Matheson 

Barbara Baxley and Irene Dailey
            The immediate and lingering effects of “Mute” are those of its conflicted resolution. Most viewers are unlikely to be attuned to writer Richard Matheson’s proclamation, spoken by Frau Werner (Éva Szörényi) and reiterated by the author in an interview with editor Stanley Wiater, for Richard Matheson’s The Twilight Zone Scripts, Volume Two, that Ilse, the young telepathic girl who has been rudely stripped of her extraordinary abilities through forced assimilation by well-meaning caretakers, is in a better place at the end of her ordeal now that she is a “normal” child in the home of loving, if obtuse, adoptive parents. Prime among the reasons this resolution rings hollow is that the viewer is told, not shown, that Ilse’s birth parents were unloving. As such, the characterization of her parents as single-minded scientists who provide everything for their daughter except affection and warmth is not convincingly argued. There is also the notion of telepathy itself. Whether one views such an ability as a gift or a curse, and it has been convincingly portrayed as both in speculative fiction, the viewer likely sees such an ability as something which should not be destroyed for the cause of a subjective view of normality.
However large this flawed resolution appears to the viewer, “Mute” possesses moments of engaging drama which compel less from the strength of the narrative than from the convictions of the observations, particularly in what the events display about Americanism, assimilation, outsider syndrome, and the nature of grief. 
Original illustration for
"Lover, When You're Near Me"
by Ed Emshwiller
Galaxy Science Fiction, May, 1952

          The extraordinary abilities which author Charles Fort, in his 1932 book on the subject, labeled “wild talents”* has long formed rich grain for the SF mill. Telepathy, and related abilities such as telekinesis (moving objects by mental concentration), pyrokinesis (igniting fire by mental concentration), and precognition (foretelling the future), have fascinated SF writers and readers alike since at least the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Early examples include American writer Edward Bellamy’s 1889 story, “To Whom This May Come,” about an adventurer who discovers an island of telepathic natives who have long discarded spoken language. The English occultist and writer Aleister Crowley used the concept of telepathy to nightmarish effect in his 1913 tale “The Testament of Magdalen Blair,” in which a telepathic woman experiences the moment-by-moment terror and agony of her husband’s slow death and descent into an afterlife far different from the heavenly promises of religious faith. Some critics consider the tale the most disturbing in the English language.
            Richard Matheson first explored the subject of telepathy with “Lover, When You’re Near Me,” a 1952 story in which an alien planet serves as a harrowing trap for the Earth men sent there when they are preyed upon by a native female servant with strong telepathic abilities and even stronger desires. Later works by Matheson in a similar vein include the 1963 story, “Girl of My Dreams,” in which a petty crook exploits his girlfriend’s precognitive abilities, A Stir of Echoes, Matheson’s 1958 novel in which a suburbanite is hypnotized at a house party, thereby unlocking his ability to sense the presence haunting his home, and Hell House, Matheson’s 1971 modern classic in which a small group of psychics and sensitives investigate the Belasco House, the “Mount Everest of haunted houses.”
            By the middle of the 1970s, Matheson embarked on a serious exploration of metaphysical topics, resulting in a pair of novels, Bid Time Return (aka Somewhere in Time) (1975), a World Fantasy Award-winning novel about a terminally ill man who mentally wills his way backwards in time to connect with a beautiful actress from a century earlier, and What Dreams May Come (1978), which explores the afterlife through the perspective of a family tragedy and a love which transcends death. Similar thematic explorations flavor many of Matheson’s subsequent novels and culminate in his manifesto on the metaphysical, The Path: A New Look at Reality (1993).
            Telepathy and related abilities were occasionally explored on The Twilight Zone though seldom in so clinical a way as in “Mute,” which in many ways resembles the frequently used narrative theme of the “wild child,” in which a feral, or aboriginal, child is introduced into “civilized” society. The most notable example of this is Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Typically, themes of extrasensory perception were used on the series for morality plays (“What You Need”), humor (“The Prime Mover”), or ghostly thrills (“Twenty-Two”).
As speculative fiction moved from the external to the internal, with the emergence of writers who desired to explore the varieties of interpersonal relationships and the variegated perspectives of the self, writers found telepathy and related abilities to be useful lenses through which these topics could be explored, resulting in some of the finest SF literature of the 20th century. Examples include John Wyndham’s 1955 novel The Chrysalids, about an intolerant fundamentalist society which arises from post-apocalyptic wreckage to practice a form of eugenics which discriminates against those with telepathic “mutations,” Philip K. Dick’s Ubik (1969), in which psychics are utilized in corporate espionage, Daphne du Maurier’s 1970 novella “Don’t Look Now,” in which a pair of elderly psychics unwittingly set in motion a tragedy which befalls a bereaved couple who have recently lost their young daughter, Robert Silverberg’s influential 1972 novel Dying Inside, about a telepath who slowly loses his inborn ability while also losing a semblance of personal identity, and John Farris’s bestseller The Fury (1976), which combines a startling tale of psychic twins with the exploits of the espionage thriller. These wild talents also prominently feature in the works of Stephen King, who counts both Matheson and Farris as influences. Themes of telepathy and other outré abilities have further permeated speculative fiction to a saturation point, resulting in scores of related novels, stories, comic books, and films too numerous to list.
Cover art by Richard Powers

The original short story “Mute” was published in the 1962 paperback anthology The Fiend in You from Ballantine Books, edited by Matheson’s close friend and fellow Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont. The Fiend in You, an anthology of exceptionally high quality which has unfortunately never been reprinted, served as much as a showcase for the Southern California Group as for its thematic goal as stated in Beaumont’s introduction: to shrug off the Gothic archetypes of horror fiction, which are no longer frightening, and push the genre toward psychological horror, as exemplified by the works of Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, and the writers of The Twilight Zone. Matheson held the distinction of having two stories in the anthology, one at each end of the book. Other authors to appear in the anthology include George Clayton Johnson, Henry Slesar, Ray Bradbury, Stanley Ellin, Charles E. Fritch, William F. Nolan, and several more. The importance of this little-known anthology has been unremarked upon through the years but it remains a key turning point away from the external horrors of the Gothic toward the inward horrors seen through the perspective of psychological disorder.
            Matheson, typically faithful to himself when adapting his works, changed several elements when adapting his original short story into a teleplay for The Twilight Zone. Some of these changes, such as the gender of the telepathic child, changed from the boy Paal in the story to the girl Ilse in the episode, came at the behest of the production, who perhaps believed that a female child would elicit more sympathy from the audience. This change necessitated another in that the Wheelers lost their son David in the story but their daughter Sally in the episode. Another gender change occurred in the case of Miss Frank’s tale of her troubled upbringing. In the original story, Miss Frank’s father died and her mother became obsessed with communicating with him in the great beyond to the point of forcing mediumship upon her young daughter. In the episode, it is changed so that Miss Frank’s father is the parent who forces mediumship upon her. Other changes came as necessary to the change from print to film. Matheson’s original story is told mostly in flashback while the episode favors a more traditional linear approach. Unfortunately, the saccharine and unconvincing happy ending is not a product of the episode but is lifted nearly whole from the original short story.
            It is worth noting that Matheson was sincere with the ending to “Mute,” while also acknowledging its overall ineffectiveness. This lack of effectiveness is largely due to the unsympathetic characters in the drama. Harry Wheeler comes across as cold and aloof, simply wishing to be unburdened of the child. Cora Wheeler is largely a pathetic figure, imperceptive and unable to provide the sort of care Ilse truly needs. Miss Frank is purely a villain, placed into the story simply to antagonize. The only sympathetic character is the telepathic child. In the original short story, Matheson gives ample space to displaying the child’s perspective during assaults by the well-meaning Wheelers. Speech to the child is described as like “knife strokes across the weave of consciousness,” and Cora’s attempts to verbally communicate are related thus from the child’s perspective: “He knew there was only love in her but the sound would destroy him. It would chain his thoughts – like putting shackles on the wind.” From the reader’s/viewer’s perspective, the end of the drama feels more as though the child has been defeated rather than freed from a mental affliction. It is this tonally depressive quality which mars the smooth transition of the sunny resolution. 
            The adaptation does allow Matheson to expand and better explain some aspects of the short story. The episode gives a clear explanation of how the Nielsens came to settle in German Corners (an inheritance). It also allows Matheson to expand the abilities of the telepathic child, as Ilse is able to perform feats such as sensing when a phone is going to ring moments before it does so, and entering the minds of those several rooms away, which were not known to be abilities of the boy Paal from the original story. Oddly enough, a scene near the final act of the drama seems lifted directly from Ray Bradbury’s third season episode “I Sing the Body Electric,” going so far as to use the same town square set and to replicate the narrative action of an upset young girl running from a house toward the town square only to be pursued by a mother figure who saves the girl from being run down in traffic. 

        Both the original story and the episode approach timely themes of isolation, alienation, and assimilation which remain divisive topics in American society today. Chief among these themes is the effects of outsider syndrome (the feeling of not belonging experienced by those who differ from the common characteristics of a population) and the pressure to assimilate, particularly in relation to those seen as different or foreign in their thoughts, actions, or heredity. The German Professor Werner is mocked by the first townsperson he comes into contact with, and the self-isolating nature of the Nielsens is repeatedly spoken of in condescending terms by the characters in the story. This intolerant attitude is focused in the character of Miss Frank, the spinster schoolteacher whose troubled upbringing has colored all her subsequent thoughts about teaching, discipline, and assimilation. The tragedy of the play is that Miss Frank and the Wheelers truly believe their destructive actions are in the best interest of the child, and remain at the end of the story completely unaware of the beauty they have destroyed for the sake of plainness. 

        Barbara Baxley (1923-1990) is top-billed as Cora Wheeler, the grieving mother who clings to the orphaned child Ilse as a second chance for motherhood. Baxley appeared in Rod Serling’s early teleplay for Kraft Theatre, “The Twilight Rounds” (1953), a progenitor of his celebrated teleplay, “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” Baxley also appeared in such genre television programs as Inner Sanctum, Climax!, One Step Beyond, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (in Ray Bradbury's fourth season episode, "Design for Loving," based on his 1949 story, "Marionettes, Inc."), and ‘Way Out, which briefly ran before The Twilight Zone’s broadcast time during the second season. In the very Twilight Zone-esque ‘Way Out episode “The Overnight Case,” written by Nicholas Pryor, Baxley plays a woman who cannot awaken from a recurrent nightmare, supported in the play by fellow Twilight Zone performers Martin Balsam and Kevin McCarthy. Baxley was a staple of the Broadway stage during the 1960s and 1970s, during which time she began to receive notable roles in such films as Nashville (1975) and Norma Rae (1979). Baxley returned to The Twilight Zone in 1986 when she appeared in the revival series segment, “Profile in Silver.” Her final film role was for the 1990 horror film sequel The Exorcist III. 

        Versatile character actor Frank Overton (1918-1967) plays Sheriff Harry Wheeler, a rather unfeeling character who is far removed from Overton's performance as Martin Sloan's (Gig Young) father in Rod Serling's moving first season episode "Walking Distance." Overton perfected his craft on the New York stages before moving into film and television in the early 1950s. Overton played another memorable sheriff in the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird and appeared on such genre television programs as Boris Karloff's Thriller, One Step Beyond, 'Way Out, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Invaders, and in his final television role, the Star Trek episode "This Side of Paradise," from a story by Twilight Zone writer Jerry Sohl. 

          The “unusual twelve-year-old” of Rod Serling’s preview narration is actress Ann Jillian (b. 1950), whose name is misspelled (as “Ann Jilliann”) in the closing credits. Born Ann Nauseda, Jillian began her career in television on such series as Leave it to Beaver before appearing in Walt Disney’s Babes in Toyland (1961). Numerous television roles followed. Jillian found a spark of career renewal with the 1980s sitcom It’s a Living, playing Cassie Cranston, which resulted in Jillian gaining notoriety as a sex symbol. Jillian briefly had her own sitcom for the 13-episode series Ann Jillian later in the decade. Jillian retired from acting at the turn of the century with her last credit in 2000 for an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. 

            The cast is rounded out by three talented performers. Irene Dailey (1920-2008) portrays Miss Frank. Dailey manages to imbue a rather one-note villain with a semblance of complexity and subtle shading. Dailey, a native New Yorker and the sister of actor Dan Dailey, is another product of the New York stages, appearing in several Broadway productions throughout her career. Dailey found her niche playing immoral or villainous characters in soap operas such as The Edge of Night and Another World, the latter for which she won an Emmy Award. The Hungarian actor Oscar Beregi, Jr. (1918-1976) (billed simply as Oscar Beregi), portrayed Professor Werner. Beregi is likely a familiar face to regular Twilight Zone viewers, having previously played a criminal mastermind who suffers an ironic fate in the second season episode, “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” and a Nazi fugitive who receives a dose of supernatural justice in the third season episode, “Deaths-Head Revisited.” Those interested in information about Beregi’s long career are directed to our commentaries on those episodes. Portraying Frau Werner is Hungarian actress Éva Szörényi (1917-2009), born Lersch Elvira and billed as Eva Soreny. An award-winning performer of the Hungarian National Theatre, Szörényi was a prolific performer in Hungarian films in the late 1930s and 1940s. She began appearing on American television in 1957, garnering roles on such programs as Perry Mason, Kraft Suspense Theatre, and The Wild, Wild West, among others. Her last role was for the 2001 film An American Rhapsody. 
            The final notable component of “Mute” is the varied and sensitive score from composer Fred Steiner (1923-2011). Steiner scored several Twilight Zone episodes, including excellent scores for “King Nine Will Not Return” and “The Passersby,” but his contributions to the series are largely overshadowed by the contributions of other composers on the series. Steiner provided music, often uncredited, for dozens of films and television series, including Star Trek, Perry Mason, and such low-budget genre offerings as Teenagers from Outer Space (1959), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977). Steiner began his professional career scoring radio programs such as Suspense. Steiner’s father, also a musician, performed in Nathan Van Cleave’s orchestra. Van Cleave, whose music is familiar to Twilight Zone fans from such episodes as “The Midnight Sun,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Jess-Belle,” and others, was a prominent influence on the young musician. Steiner provided uncredited music for such memorable films as Return of the Jedi, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Airplane!

            “Mute,” like much of the fourth season’s offerings, is an engaging though flawed episode which sacrifices sympathetic characterizations and narrative consistency to explore timely themes of social alienation as well as broader themes of metaphysics and the ways in which these themes may logically be thought to intrude upon everyday life. It can definitely be recommended for all viewers though said viewers will likely be divided about returning to “Mute” for additional viewings.

Grade: C

*In Matheson’s original short story he gives a small indication of Fort’s influence when Harry Wheeler and Tom Poulter find the mock-Fortean book The Unknown Mind amid the ruins of the Nielson’s burned house.

Grateful Acknowledgement is made for information found in the following:

-Richard Matheson's The Twilight Zone Scripts, Volume Two, edited by Stanley Wiater (Gauntlet Press, 2002)
-The Guide to Supernatural Fiction by E.F. Bleiler (Kent State University Press, 1983)
-The Internet Movie Database (imdb.org)

Notes:

--“Mute,” the original short story, was initially published in the 1962 anthology The Fiend in You, edited by Charles Beaumont (Ballantine Books). It has been reprinted in Matheson’s collections Shock II (1964), Collected Stories (1989), Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008), and The Best of Richard Matheson (2017). Matheson’s teleplay for “Mute” was published in Richard Matheson’s The Twilight Zone Scripts, Volume Two, edited by Stanley Wiater (2002).
--Stuart Rosenberg also directed the first season episode “I Shot an Arrow into the Air.”
--Barbara Baxley also appeared in the first Twilight Zone revival series segment, “Profile in Silver.”
--Frank Overton also appeared in the first season episode “Walking Distance.”
--Robert Boon also appeared in the third season episode, “Deaths-Head Revisited.”
--Claudia Bryar also appeared in the first Twilight Zone revival series segment “Welcome to Winfield.”
--Percy Helton also appeared in the fifth season episode, “Mr. Garrity and the Graves.”
--Oscar Beregi (Jr.) also appeared in the second season episode “The Rip Van Winkle Caper” and the third season episode “Deaths-Head Revisited.”
--The episode also features Bill Erwin in an uncredited role. Erwin appeared in such additional episodes as “Mr. Denton on Doomsday,” “Walking Distance,” and “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” as well as the Twilight Zone Radio Drama production of “Ninety Years Without Slumbering.”
--Fred Seiner also composed and/or conducted music for the episodes “King Nine Will Not Return,” “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” “The Passersby,” “Miniature,” “I Dream of Genie,” and “The Bard.”
--“Mute” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Wade Williams.

-JP

Monday, October 8, 2018

"He's Alive"

Peter Vollmer (Dennis Hopper; center) and his Neo-Nazi goons.

“He’s Alive”
Season Four, Episode 106
Original Air Date: January 24, 1963

Cast:
Peter Vollmer: Dennis Hopper
Ernst Ganz: Ludwig Donath
Adolf Hitler: Curt Conway
Frank: Paul Mazursky
Nick: Howard Caine
Stanley: Barnaby Hale
Gibbons: Jay Adler
Proprietor: Wolfe Barzell
Heckler: Bernard Fein
Policeman: Robert McCord

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Producer: Herbert Hirschman
Associate Producer: Murray Golden
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Assistant to the Producer: John Conwell
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Edward Carfagno
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and Don Greenwood, Jr.
Assistant Director: Ray De Camp
Editor: Richard W. Farrell
Sound: Franklin Milton and Joe Edmondson
Music: Stock
Optical Effects: Pacific Title
Rod Serling’s Wardrobe provided by Eagle Clothes
Filmed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios


And Now, Mr. Serling:

“We move next on Twilight Zone into a shadowy area that treads a very thin line between flesh and fantasy. You’ll see a performance by Dennis Hopper that even from my rather very close-end perspective strikes me as an exceptional one. Our story is called ‘He’s Alive’ and if this doesn’t get you where you live, you’ll find it close by in the suburbs.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration: 

 “Portrait of a bush-league fuehrer named Peter Vollmer, a sparse little man who feeds off his self-delusions and finds himself perpetually hungry for want of greatness in his diet. And like some goose-stepping predecessors, he searches for something to explain his hunger, and to rationalize why a world passes him by without saluting. That something he looks for and finds is in a sewer. In his own twisted and distorted lexicon he calls it faith, strength, truth. But in just a moment Peter Vollmer will ply his trade on another kind of corner, a strange intersection in a shadow land called…The Twilight Zone.

Summary: 


            Peter Vollmer is an angry and confused young man who channels his frustrations through prejudice and hatred which he peddles on lonely street corners. He has few followers, only other despondent young men like himself, who trust in him with the loyalty of whipped dogs. Vollmer’s only family is an elderly man named Ernst who rescued Vollmer from a toxic home environment when Vollmer was a child. Ernst—an immigrant and concentration camp survivor—is aware of Vollmer’s role as the neighborhood bigot. He tells his young friend that the people who sent him to Dachau during the war were a lot like him. Angry. Bitter. Lonely. Content to take their rage out on those weaker than themselves. After chastising the young man Ernst tells Vollmer he can stay the night.
            Later that night, Vollmer senses something outside his window. He opens it and sees a shadowy figure in the street below. This mysterious stranger calls out to Vollmer, saying that he is sympathetic to Vollmer’s cause. He gives Vollmer advice on how to control an audience. Empathize with them, he says. Make their fears his own. Give them a cause for their anger, something or someone to blame for their suffering. Vollmer considers this and decides to heed the stranger’s advice.
            Weeks later, Vollmer stands before a packed meeting hall selling hatred to an anxious crowd. They listen with hopeful enthusiasm as the young man at the pulpit promises them solutions to their problems. Vollmer’s movement has finally gained an audience. The mysterious stranger’s advice has worked. Later, the stranger appears again and tells Vollmer that he needs a martyr, someone to die for his cause. Vollmer reluctantly chooses his friend Nick as the sacrifice. He tells the others in his group that Nick is a traitor and arranges for him to be murdered. Afterwards, he blames the opposition for the murder.
Ernst loses all sympathy for Vollmer and walks onto the stage during a rally. He tells the audience that Vollmer is nothing more than a frightened child who needs attention. Vollmer slaps the older man across the face. After the rally is over the stranger appears again and reveals himself to be Adolf Hitler. He tells Vollmer that he must kill Ernst. Vollmer, now nothing more than a puppet, follows orders and races to Ernst’s apartment. Vollmer shoots the old man, killing his lifelong father figure.
The police arrive shortly afterwards to arrest Vollmer for Nick’s murder. Vollmer flees into the streets but is fatally shot by officers. On the wall behind him the shadow of Adolf Hitler quietly slips away to another place.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:

“Where will he go next, this phantom of another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare? Chicago? Los Angeles? Miami, Florida? Vincennes, Indiana? Syracuse, New York? Any place, every place, where there’s hate, where’s there’s prejudice, where there’s bigotry, he’s alive. He’s alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He’s alive because through these things we keep him alive.”

Commentary: 


            Rod Serling’s second script for the fourth season concerns a naïve and frustrated young man who peddles hate and prejudice as the leader of a small political organization in 1963. Serling’s disdain for any and all forms of bigotry and racism is well-documented and features prominently in many of his scripts for The Twilight Zone, notably the first season episodes "Judgment Night" and "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," the second season episode "The Shelter," and the third season episode "Deaths-Head Revisited." Perhaps Serling's most powerful exploration of the theme is the final segment of the Night Gallery pilot film (1969), "The Escape Route," which finds a Nazi war criminal living under an assumed identity in South America. When a concentration camp survivor recognizes the Nazi, it sends the villain spinning into a terrifying world of supernatural justice. Serling adapted his own novella for the segment, taken from his 1967 collection The Season to Be Wary (Little, Brown). That collection also included another powerful tale of bigotry, "Color Scheme," inspired by an anecdote from Sammy Davis, Jr. It is also worth noting here that the first segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), commonly referred to as "Time Out," written and directed by John Landis, contains many of the same powerful themes as Rod Serling at his most acerbic. Unfortunately, that segment is best known today for the horrific accidental deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two small children during a botched special effects sequence of the production.
            Serling explored fascism and the Third Reich numerous times, but the conflict typically took place in a world far removed from that of the average American television viewer. In “He’s Alive” Serling explores the threat of a neo-fascist movement in contemporary America, organized and perpetrated by Americans. While this premise is certainly daring and unusual for its time, certain unconvincing aspects of the script and production, including a poorly disguised Curt Conway as the ghost of Adolf Hitler, render this episode flat and underwhelming in places.
            As previous writers have noted, “He’s Alive” was met with immediate controversy upon its initial broadcast. As Hal Erikson recounts in his article “All the Little Hitlers" (Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, Aug, 1986), CBS was flooded with letters from every perspective, including viewers angry at having to endure the hateful rhetoric spouted by Peter Vollmer and prominent hate groups praising the episode for the same reason. The Indianapolis Star accused Serling of focusing on out-of-touch, irrelevant issues like Nazis and fascism when communism was clearly a bigger threat to American society. Serling wrote an angry response to the editor of the paper causing the editor to backtrack and claim the article was meant to be satirical. 

           Serling anticipated an intense response even before the episode went into production. Neo-fascism was not a new concept in 1963 but it had very rarely been seen on network television (perhaps some of our readers more knowledgeable about television history can tell us if this is the first appearance of the subject matter in the medium). After submitting his script to network censors, CBS informed Serling and producer Herbert Hirschman that several changes needed to be made before the episode would be allowed to air. Vollmer’s group could not be mentioned by name nor could they be recognizably tied to any existing political organizations. Although Vollmer's group displays many of the tactics and ideals of the former National Socialist Party, they could not refer to themselves, or be referred to, as Nazis. Nazi propaganda, including swastikas, were visibly limited in the episode. Serling was forced to substitute a burning torch held at arms for the Nazi swastika in the episode. The only time Vollmer's group is referred to as Nazis is in the scene in which Nick’s body is found pinned with a note which reads “good little Nazi" (see image above). In the scene where Vollmer first meets Hitler, swastikas can briefly be seen in Vollmer’s eyes moments before he approaches the window, an unsubtle hint of the mysterious stranger’s identity. Also, Serling changed his protagonist’s last name from Collier to Vollmer due to the fact that there were prominent Nazis and neo-fascists with that name.
            Serling was apparently quite fond of the script for “He’s Alive” and initially had high hopes for the production. Upset that a scene was edited (for time) in which Vollmer, moments after Hitler’s big reveal, flees the ghostly figure in panic, running wildly through the streets only to be repeatedly stopped by a series of symbolic omens—swastika shadows on a building, a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf in a bookstore window, Nazi propaganda posters—Serling approached producer Herbert Hirschman about possibly expanding his unexpurgated script into a feature-length film. Serling had been attempting to get a feature-length Twilight Zone film off the ground as early as the show’s second season. This longer version would keep Vollmer as its antihero but would also feature an FBI investigator as the protagonist. Bound by the pressures of an already tight production budget, Hirschman passed on the idea of expanding the production to feature-length.
            As previously mentioned, Serling dedicated much of his writing career to fighting bigotry and intolerance in all forms. A principal reason Serling created Twilight Zone was to circumvent the network watchdogs who repeatedly censored his scripts which dealt with controversial cultural and socio-political issues. As a Jewish-American veteran of WW II, Serling possessed a particular disdain for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. By setting the conflict with Nazis in a contemporary American city Serling gave the episode an uncomfortable familiarity to American audiences. Like “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” or “The Shelter,” Serling was sending a clear message to viewers: This could happen in your town. This was a fresh approach to a theme that had been utilized many times throughout the show’s first three seasons.
While Serling provides a compelling premise, certain aspects of the plot are less believable. The most unlikely element is the fact that Vollmer, a child who was taken in and raised by a Jewish immigrant and concentration camp survivor, would grow up to idolize Adolf Hitler and other fascist leaders. The viewer is given little indication of the seeds from which Vollmer's racial hatred grew. It is also hard to believe that Vollmer would not immediately recognize Hitler’s highly documented methods for manipulating a crowd and thus early on realize the nature of his manipulator. Interesting enough, in the Twilight Zone Radio Drama adaptation of the episode, Vollmer recognizes Hitler as soon as he meets him, though the Nazi leader's name is kept from the listener until the end of the play.
         The character of Peter Vollmer was possibly inspired by George Lincoln Rockwell, a decorated WWII veteran who rose to prominence as the founder and commander of the American Nazi Party in 1959. Later, Rockwell served as the leader of the World Union of National Socialists. Rockwell, a highly impressionable religious zealot who drove a Volkswagen "Hate Bus" decorated with white supremacist symbols to disrupt civil rights gatherings, was fatally shot by a former member of his party in 1967. 

        Peter Vollmer is portrayed by American actor Dennis Hopper (1936-2010), one of the more notable performers in the Twilight Zone's galaxy of "before they were stars." Hopper was an actor, writer, director, photographer, activist, counter-cultural icon, and one of the most eclectic and beloved artists in American popular culture. His career spanned nearly six decades and saw him at the center of numerous artistic and social movements during the latter half of the twentieth century. Stubbornly unconventional and at times professionally handicapped by substance abuse issues and a tumultuous personal life, Hopper managed to stay culturally relevant all of his life.
            While still in his teens, Hopper was put under contract to Warner Bros where he first met James Dean, an actor whom Hopper greatly admired. He appeared in two films with Dean, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). Afterwards, Hopper moved to New York where he continued to appear in films and on television. Hopper came out of the method school of acting in New York. He trained under Stella Adler and Lee Strassberg at the Actor’s Studio. He was also an admirer of Montgomery Clift, who is considered a model of 20th century method acting. When Hopper appeared in "He's Alive," he was suffering under a blacklisting in Hollywood after getting into a fight with director Henry Hathaway on the set of From Hell to Texas (1958). He was subsequently dropped from his Warner Bros contract. Ironically, Hopper experienced a comeback after being asked to appear in Hathaway’s film The Sons of Katie Elder (1965).
            In 1957 Hopper appeared in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and also played Napoleon Bonaparte in Irwin Allen’s The Story of Mankind. Hopper first met actor Vincent Price while making the latter film. The two actors formed a close friendship that lasted until Price’s death in 1993.
            The 1960’s saw Hopper’s film career fade into virtual nonexistence for much of the decade. He managed to land small parts in big budget films like the aforementioned The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967). He kept afloat by accepting roles on television. In 1963 Twilight Zone producer Herbert Hirschman made the inspired choice of hiring Hopper to play Vollmer, the naive young man who becomes the victim of his own twisted ideology. While Hopper's performance can come across as over-the-top there is little dispute that it remains one of the more powerful performances in a show filled with such performances.
            As the 1960’s pushed on Hopper became increasingly more involved in the counter-culture movement. He became friends with activists and celebrities and spoke out against the conflict in Vietnam. He became friends with director Roger Corman and appeared in Corman’s LSD-inspired cult film The Trip in 1967. The film starred Peter Fonda and was written by Jack Nicholson. Hopper became close friends with both actors and in 1969, he and Fonda co-wrote a screenplay with Dr. Strangelove screenwriter Terry Southern. The resultant film, Easy Rider, is about two cocaine-dealing twenty-somethings (Fonda and Hopper) on a motorcycle trek across America. Hopper made his directorial debut with the film which also featured Nicholson in a career-making performance. Hopper and Fonda financed much of the film from their own pockets. Many historians consider the film, which boldly saw all three of its free-spirited heroes murdered before the conclusion, to be a symbolic representation of the rise and fall of the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s. Whether it was a conscious decision by the screenwriters or just opportune timing, the film was one of a handful of cultural events that signified the idealism of the counter-culture was over. It won numerous awards and spear-headed the independent film movement of the 1970’s.
            After the success of Easy Rider and a role in the acclaimed western True Grit (1969), Hopper’s film career appeared to be back on track, although he would appear mainly in independent films throughout the next decade. In 1979, at the height of a highly publicized cocaine addiction, Hopper played a neurotic Vietnam War photojournalist living in a tribal Cambodian prison under the rule of a mentally unsound military colonel in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Hopper worked with Coppola again in 1983 when he played actor Matt Dillon’s father in Rumble Fish. 1986 was perhaps Hopper’s defining year as an actor as he appeared in a whopping seven films and delivered several of his most well-known performances. With Hopper newly sober, director David Lynch cast him as gas-huffing psychopath Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. This is considered by many to be his finest performance. He also appeared in the basketball film Hoosiers alongside Gene Hackman, a performance which earned Hopper an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Hopper also played chainsaw-wielding Lieutenant ‘Lefty’ Enright in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 that same year. Other notable roles followed. In 1992 Hopper appeared in Tony Scott’s True Romance, which was screenwriter Quentin Tarantino’s first professional sale. In 1994 Hopper played explosives expert Howard Payne who terrorizes Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in the action thriller Speed.
            Hopper directed a total of seven feature films during his career, most of them in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. His most directorial effort, other than Easy Rider, is the 1988 drama Colors about gang violence in East Los Angeles.
Hopper was also an accomplished photographer. He primarily shot portraits, usually of celebrity friends and various public figures, but he was also known for shooting images of contemporary popular culture as well. He was a regular contributor to several magazines including Vogue and he also published several collections of his photographic work. Hopper continued acting almost until the end, appearing mostly on television. Cancer claimed his life in May of 2010. He was 74.
Ludwig Donath

Ludwig Donath (1900-1967), who portrayed the sympathetic and tragic character Ernst Ganz, was an Austrian-born Jew who was ironically, and repeatedly, cast as a Nazi throughout his career. He portrayed Adolf Hitler on film several times. Donath perfected his craft on the Berlin stage but returned to his native Vienna when Hitler rose to power. He made his American film debut in 1942 and was destined to repeatedly play a German “heavy” during his prolific film and television career. He died of cancer in 1967. 

Despite its relatively minor flaws of narrative logic and convincing production, it is clear that Rod Serling was more than willing to forego a concentration on these traditional aspects to focus on the important and urgent message he wished to convey. Serling's powerful words combined with Dennis Hopper's striking performance ensure that "He's Alive" is an episode few, if any, viewers will come away from unaffected. In light of certain recent events in such American cities as Charleston, SC and Charlottesville, VA, it unfortunately remains an episode with a potent relevancy today. For this reason, “He’s Alive” must be rated above the average offering on Twilight Zone. 

Grade: B

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following:

--The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR Publishing, 2008)

--The Twilight Zone Companion, Second Edition, by Marc Scott Zicree (Silman-James Press, 1992)

--“All the Little Hitlers” by Hal Erickson, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine Vol. 6, No. 3 (August, 1986). Editor: Michael Blaine

--“He’s Alive” original teleplay by Rod Serling published in two parts in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, August & October, 1986 issues (vol. 6, no. 3 & vol. 6, no. 4), Editor: Michael Blane

--Hollywood Hellraisers: The Wild Lives and Fast Times of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, and Jack Nicholson by Robert Sellers (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010).

--Dennis Hopper: Create (or Die) directed by Henning Lohner and Ariane Rlecker for Hot Spots (ARTE TV, 2003)

--The Twilight Zone Museum (twilightzonemuseum.com)

--The Internet Movie Database (imdb.org)

Notes: 
Curt Conway as Adolf Hitler

--Stuart Rosenberg also directed the first season episode “I Shot an Arrow into the Air” and the fourth season episode “Mute.” He also directed the fifth season Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes "Dead Weight," scripted by TZ writer Jerry Sohl from a story by Herb Golden, and "Backward, Turn Backward," scripted by TZ writer Charles Beaumont from a story by Dorothy Salisbury Davis.
--Paul Mazursky also appeared in the first season episode “The Purple Testament” and the third season episode “The Gift.”
--Jay Adler also appeared in the third season episode "The Jungle."
--Bernard Fein also appeared in the first season episode "The Four of Us Are Dying."
--Curt Conway also appeared in Serling’s short-lived western series The Loner in the episode “The Trial in Paradise.”
--“He’s Alive” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Marshall Allman.

--BD & JP