Monday, November 5, 2018

The Twilight Zone and Film Noir

Illustration by Gregory Cannone for
George Clayton Johnson's "All of Us Are Dying"
Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine, May, 1982

In recognition of Noirvember 2018, a celebration of classic film noir held annually in the month of November, here are a dozen Twilight Zone episodes which represent the show’s rich noir heritage.

Film noir emerged from postwar Hollywood with a series of films that established the genre’s overriding themes and style: dark, melodramatic, urban crime dramas filmed with a shadowy palate and populated by drunken private eyes, small-time crooks, femme fatales, dirty cops, deadly doctors, thieves, psychopaths, conmen, and hustlers. The film titles succinctly tell the story: Night and the City, The Asphalt Jungle, In a Lonely Place, Kiss Me Deadly, Nightmare Alley. It was a stylistic genre which saw interpretation from an impressive array of talent on both sides of the camera.

Sources generally agree that John Huston’s 1941 film The Maltese Falcon, the third cinematic adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, was the first major film noir. Sources differ on the end of film noir’s classic era. A frequently cited end date is 1960 and the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel. Hitchcock took elements of film noir (black-and-white cinematography, a murder mystery, a woman on the run, the grizzled private eye) and delivered a shocking psychosexual nightmare which heralded the arrival of a more daring and ferocious kind of film thriller. One of the most transitional works in the history of the medium, Psycho was an enormous influence on subsequent crime and suspense films. A year before Psycho was released to theaters The Twilight Zone premiered on American television.

The Twilight Zone, often narrowly categorized as a science fiction program, approached a wide array of styles in fantasy storytelling; prime among these were the supernatural crime drama and the psychological thriller. With George T. Clemens’s Emmy Award-winning black-and-white cinematography (the zenith of the form on television) and a creative freedom unmatched on other programs, The Twilight Zone attracted the finest writers, directors, and actors to the series, many of whom were significant contributors to the classic era of film noir. 

Actors on the series with film noir appearances include Richard Basehart, William Bendix, Neville Brand, Charles Bronson, Dane Clark, Steve Cochran, Richard Conte, Robert Cummings, Howard Duff, Dan Duryea, Jack Elam, Thomas Gomez, Earl Holliman, Phyllis Kirk, Cloris Leachman, Ida Lupino, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Cliff Robertson, Mickey Rooney, and Franchot Tone. Some performers, such as Duryea and Lupino, are primarily remembered for their noir work. The series was also fortunate to have directors such as John Brahm, Robert Florey, Ida Lupino (the only person to star in one episode, “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine,” and direct another), Mitchell Leisen, and Jacques Tourneur behind the camera.

 Perhaps most important to the series were the writers. Series creator Rod Serling, always creatively concerned with the losers, the dreamers, and the doomed, was naturally at the forefront of the noir influence on the show, but he also recruited around him writers who were sensitive to the literary style from which the cinematic genre was born. Richard Matheson began his career as a novelist with the James M. Cain-inspired effort Someone Is Bleeding (1953) while Charles Beaumont and John Tomerlin collaborated (as Keith Grantland) on a novel, Run From the Hunter (1957), which bore the influence of David Goodis’s 1946 novel Dark Passage and inspired the man-on-the-run television series The Fugitive (1963-1967). Meanwhile, a young writer named George Clayton Johnson arrived in Hollywood fresh off the sale of a film treatment which became the popular, noir-influenced heist film Ocean’s 11 (1960). These writers would be responsible for the show’s most overtly noir-influenced output. 

Although dozens of episodes contain the film noir style in terms of photography and lighting effects, I have chosen to focus on episodes that explore the principal themes of film noir. This has naturally led to the omission of several episodes, such as “Eye of the Beholder,” “The Trade-Ins,” or “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” which will be of interest to those who wish to further explore the show’s connection with film noir. 

Episodes are listed in order of original broadcast date. 


       “Perchance to Dream” Season one, Episode 9 
Written by Charles Beaumont, Directed by Robert Florey, Starring Richard Conte, Suzanne Lloyd, and John Larch (November 27, 1959)

For his series debut writer Charles Beaumont adapted his story from the October, 1958 issue of Playboy into a tense thriller concerning Edward Hall (Richard Conte), a man with a heart condition whose overactive imagination has turned his dreaming state deadly. Hall’s recurring nightmare centers on a carnival roller coaster and the beautiful but dangerous Maya the Catgirl. Conte, who built a career playing gangsters in films such as Under the Gun (1951) and The Big Combo (1955) is given the unenviable task of acting manic for half an hour yet pulls it off beautifully. Throw in a psychiatrist (John Larch), a seedy carnival, and a femme fatale in the form of Canadian actress Suzanne Lloyd (in an unforgettable performance as the alluring yet psychopathic Maya the Cat Girl) and “Perchance to Dream” wears its noir influence on its sleeve. The knockout punch is the weird musical score from Nathan Van Cleave and director Robert Florey’s twisted camera work, which combine to perfectly illuminate Edward Hall’s deteriorating mental state. “Perchance to Dream” is an underrated episode overall but for those interested in the influence of film noir on the series it is essential viewing.


Read our full review of “Perchance to Dream” here. 

“What You Need” Season one, Episode 12 
Written by Rod Serling, from a story by Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore, Directed by Alvin Ganzer, Starring Ernest Truex and Steve Cochran (December 25, 1959)

Rod Serling stripped Kuttner’s and Moore’s 1945 short story of its science fiction trappings in favor of a noir-flavored urban fantasy highlighting Serling’s skill at characterization. Steve Cochran, who made his name playing gangsters and heavies in films noir (Private Hell 36, The Chase) is tailor-made for the role of an embittered bully who intimidates a meek old man possessed of second sight (Ernest Truex). Kuttner’s and Moore’s story was previously adapted on Tales of Tomorrow, a significant precursor of The Twilight Zone, but it lacked the dark urban atmosphere of Serling’s interpretation.

Read our full review of “What You Need” here.  

“The Four of Us Are Dying” Season one, Episode 13 
Written by Rod Serling from a story by George Clayton Johnson, Directed by John Brahm, Starring Harry Townes, Ross Martin, Phillip Pine, Don Gordon, and Beverly Garland (January 1, 1960)

This most overtly film noir episode was a Rod Serling adaptation of an unpublished story by George Clayton Johnson about a criminal named Arch Hammer who can change his appearance at will. The tough dialogue is straight out of a paperback novel and the players are film noir standbys: the conman, the gangster, the jazz musician, the washed up boxer, the lonely nightclub singer. The episode’s strength is in the production design and photography, including a dazzling floating neon sequence which still impresses. It remains a memorable debut for George Clayton Johnson on the series, whose jazzy writing was perfectly filtered through Rod Serling’s remarkable gifts for characterization and dialogue. Johnson’s story was later published in the October, 1961 issue of Rogue.

See our full review of "The Four of Us Are Dying" here.


“Mirror Image” Season one, Episode 21 
Written by Rod Serling, Directed by John Brahm, Starring Vera Miles and Martin Milner (February 26, 1960)

The tale of the pursued and antagonized young woman was a favorite subject of film thrillers of the '40s and also of series creator Rod Serling, who approached the material several times throughout the course of the series. These included such episodes as “The Hitch-Hiker,” “The After Hours,” and “Twenty Two,” all of which show the influence of film noir, but “Mirror Image” particularly captures the oppressive atmosphere essential to the genre. Vera Miles, who gave a memorable noir performance in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), is mesmeric as the doomed young woman battling an evil double in an out-of-the-way bus station in the middle of the night. Martin Milner plays the rational man who gets the shock of his life after having Miles committed to the men in the white coats in one of the show’s more grotesque twist endings. This one is a sleeper and comes highly recommended.

See our full review here.


“The Big Tall Wish” Season one, Episode 27 
Written by Rod Serling, Directed by Ron Winston, Starring Ivan Dixon (April 8, 1960)

Professional boxing is unquestionably the sport of film noir. In films such as Body and Soul (1947), The Set-Up (1949) and Champion (1949), boxing is viewed through the lens of loyalty, honor, criminality, and consequence. Rod Serling’s writing career was launched into the stratosphere with his Playhouse 90 effort “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1956), about a washed up boxer trying for a second chance in life, and he returns here to tackle the sport through a lens of fantasy. The result is a heartbreaking meditation on faith and forgiveness performed by a groundbreaking group of African American performers who broke through the color lines of American television. It remains one of Serling’s most underrated efforts on the series and comes highly recommended.

See our full review here.  


“Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” Season two, Episode 39 
Written by Rod Serling, Directed by Douglas Heyes, Starring Joe Mantell and William D. Gordon (October 14, 1960)

Director Douglas Heyes was up to the challenge for this technically difficult two-man play showcasing Rod Serling’s concerns with the doomed and the redeemed. It is another example of Serling’s ability to combine the crime drama with fantasy as Joe Mantell plays a cowardly small-time crook that comes face-to-face with the hidden self beneath the surface. William D. Gordon, later to play the lead doctor in Serling’s masterpiece, “Eye of the Beholder,” is suitably slimy as an antagonistic thug. Though clearly influenced by film noir, Serling’s redemptive ending is unique in a typically nihilistic genre.

See our full review here.  

“Shadow Play” Season two, Episode 62 
Written by Charles Beaumont, Directed by John Brahm, Starring Dennis Weaver (May 5, 1961)

“Shadow Play” is the second in Charles Beaumont’s informally termed Dream Trilogy, comprised also of “Perchance to Dream” and “Person or Persons Unknown.” All of these stories contain that essential noir element: the man on the run. Beaumont’s preoccupation with dreams and nightmares led him to create several tales which placed an everyman into the spiraling depths of an altered reality. “Shadow Play” takes this a step further as the viewer is never shown reality but only the recurring nightmare which sends Adam Grant (Dennis Weaver) to the electric chair night after night. It becomes even more powerful in the hands of director John Brahm, the man behind such moody psychological thrillers as The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945). “Shadow Play” was remade for the first revival Twilight Zone series in 1986.


See our full review here. 

“A Game of Pool” Season three, Episode 62 
Written by George Clayton Johnson, Directed by Buzz Kulik, Starring Jack Klugman and Jonathan Winters (October 13, 1961)

This masterfully performed episode takes that noir standard, the pool hall hustler, and creates from it an epic game of life and death which tackles such heavy topics as legends, dreams, cowardice, and redemption. Jack Klugman, perhaps the performer most associated with the series, is at his absolute best here and is still upstaged by comedian Jonathan Winters as pool hall legend Fats Brown. Winters delivers Clayton Johnson’s jazzy dialogue with a confident attitude that belied his nervous disposition while filming. In the process he created one of the truly enduring characters from the series. Despite an ending with too much levity (tacked on without Clayton Johnson’s approval) the episode still manages to mesmerize and impart the hard knocks of noir wisdom. It remains essential viewing. “A Game of Pool” was remade, with Clayton Johnson’s original ending, for the first revival Twilight Zone series in 1985.


To read our full review go here. 

“Dead Man’s Shoes” Season three, Episode 83 
Written by Charles Beaumont and OCee Ritch, Directed by Montgomery Pittman, Starring Warren Stevens (January 19, 1962)

Functioning almost as a humorous remake of George Clayton Johnson’s “The Four of Us Are Dying,” “Dead Man’s Shoes” finds bum Nate Bledsoe (Warren Stevens) steal a pair of shoes off a murdered gangster who’s been dumped in an alley. A game of switched identities ensues as Bledsoe becomes the murdered man as long as he wears the shoes. Warren Stevens’s deadpan acting style perfectly complements Montgomery Pittman’s direction as does the jazz-inflected cues from the stock music. The supporting cast is rounded out by Richard Devon as a long-faced mobster and the statuesque Joan Marshall as the dead gangster’s girl. “Dead Man’s Shoes” was remade, as the entertaining “Dead Woman’s Shoes,” for the first revival Twilight Zone series in 1985.


Read our full review here. 

“Night Call” Season five, Episode 139 
Written by Richard Matheson, Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Starring Gladys Cooper (February 7, 1964)


Richard Matheson lobbied to get Jacques Tourneur, with which he had recently worked on The Comedy of Terrors, behind the camera for an episode of The Twilight Zone. The result was this tense, moody, and heartbreaking meditation on guilt and fear. Tourneur directed one of the classics of film noir, Out of the Past (1947), as well as a series of noir-infused Gothic Horrors for producer Val Lewton: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943). “Night Call” remains a genuinely suspenseful supernatural thriller which careens into an effective, emotional melodrama in its final act. 

“The Masks” Season five, Episode 145 
Written by Rod Serling, Directed by Ida Lupino, Starring Robert Keith, Milton Selzer, Virginia Gregg, Brooke Hayward, and Alan Sues (March 20, 1964)

“The Masks” is one of the most atmospheric episodes of the series largely thanks to director Ida Lupino, a performer and artist intimately associated with film noir. Lupino appeared in a handful of essential films noir and directed the effective low-budget thriller The Hitch-Hiker (1953). Lupino skillfully utilized her talented cast of character actors and the suffocating atmosphere of an old New Orleans mansion (with excellent sound design in the form of a Mardi Gras parade outside its walls) to tell Rod Serling’s story of  the otherworldly comeuppance on a group of narcissistic, gold-digging relatives who descend on a dying old man. Makeup effects artist William Tuttle and sculptor Charles Schram tie the tale together beautifully with their unforgettable designs for the effects of a set of ghoulish carnival masks. "The Masks" remains chillingly effective and stands as Rod Serling’s final great script for the series.

“The Jeopardy Room” Season five, Episode 149 
Written by Rod Serling, Directed by Richard Donner, Starring Martin Landau and John Van Dreelen (April 17, 1964)

As film noir moved into the 1950s so did the genre’s preoccupation with the Cold War. “The Jeopardy Room” combines Rod Serling’s talent for social commentary and characterization while also remaining an entertaining espionage thriller. Serling cuts the fat off the typical spy tale and gets right to a game of cat and mouse staged between two motel rooms. If the narrative jumps logic in a few spots it is suited to the type of dime novel on screen Serling and company were trying to achieve. Although this episode is sometimes dismissed as a tale better suited to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it is unmistakably the work of Rod Serling and displays the range of the series. Director Richard Donner was the last great director to arrive on the series and here shows his skills in staging a violent and paranoid thriller. Donner embraces the staged quality of the script with some innovative camera work which keeps the dialogue-heavy script moving forward. The episode also benefits from the presence of Martin Landau, one of the finest actors of his generation, and John Van Dreelen in a pleasingly over-the-top performance as the villainous Commissar Vassiloff.

So ends our journey through the dark alleys and side streets of The Twilight Zone. We hope you enjoyed the trip and made it through with your sanity intact. For more information on film noir I highly recommend Eddie Muller’s Dark City (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998), to which I’m indebted for information found in this post. Muller is a leading scholar on film noir and you can find out more about him here. Muller currently hosts Noir Alley on TCM. 


-JP

2 comments:

  1. What a cool idea for a post! I must admit I like the first season's noir shows best of this group. I also LOVE Noir Alley and record and watch it weekly. Thanks for reminding me of some of these great episodes.

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    1. Thanks, Jack! The first season was definitely the most Noir influenced of the series. The show only occasionally came back to that style afterwards. There were also many episodes which looked Noir but were more science fiction in nature so I left them off the list. Thanks for reading!

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