Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Judgment Night"

Carl Lanser (Nehemiah Persoff),
formerly of the Third Reich, now a citizen of The Twilight Zone.

“Judgment Night”
Season One, Episode 10
Original air date: December 4, 1959

Carl Lanser: Nehemiah Persoff
Lieutenant Mueller: James Franciscus
Barbara Stanley: Deirdre Owen
Captain Wilbur: Ben Wright
First Officer: Patrick Macnee
Mr. Potter: Hugh Sanders
Major Devereaux: Leslie Bradley
Bartender: Kendrick Huxham
First Steward: Richard Peel
Second Steward: Donald Journeaux
Engineer: Barry Bernard

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: John Brahm
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and William Ferrari
Set Decoration: Rudy Butler and Henry Grace
Assistant Director: Edward Denault
Casting: Mildred Gusse
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Jean Valentino
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Once upon a time there was a ship sailing from Liverpool, England to New York. It never got there and one man on board knows why. Next week we tell this man’s story. The distinguished actor Nehemiah Persoff plays the role of Carl Lanser, a haunted man in a haunted story called ‘Judgment Night.’ This ship sails next week and we hope you’ll see it off. Thank you, and good night.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Her name is the S. S. Queen of Glasgow. Her registry: British. Gross tonnage: five thousand. Age: indeterminate. At this moment she’s one day out of Liverpool, her destination: New York. Duly recorded on this ship’s log is the sailing time, course to destination, weather conditions, temperature, longitude and latitude. But what is never recorded in a log is the fear that washes over a deck like fog and ocean spray. Fear like the throbbing strokes of engine pistons, each like a heartbeat, parceling out every hour into breathless minutes of watching, waiting and dreading. For the year is 1942, and this particular ship has lost its convoy. It travels alone like an aged blind thing groping through the unfriendly dark, stalked by unseen periscopes of steel killers. Yes, the Queen of Glasgow is a frightened ship, and she carries with her a premonition of death.”

          In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on a fog-blanketed night in 1942, the S. S. Queen of Glasgow is making her way from Liverpool to New York. On board is one Carl Lanser. Mr. Lanser is distraught because he seems to have no recollection of how he came to be on the ship. He knows none of the other passengers and remembers very little about himself. But he does know one thing: something terrible is going to happen to the ship at 1:15 am.
Lanser wanders around the ship in a distorted haze and eventually makes his way into the lounge where he joins some of the other passengers and crew members, including the captain, at a table for tea. Still troubled over his situation, his behavior in front of his fellow passengers is noticeably bizarre. Lanser tells everyone that he believes something terrible will happen to the ship at 1:15 am.  He also seems to know a great deal about German U-boats which peaks the captain’s attention. After an uncomfortable conversation Lanser awkwardly excuses himself. Later, the captain has Lanser brought to the bridge where he asks him to provide a copy of his passport. Lanser says that his passport must be in his room so the captain has the steward follow him there to retrieve it. In his room the steward notices a German Navel Commander’s hat and asks Lanser if it’s a war souvenir. Angry for this invasion of his privacy, Lanser grabs the hat away from the steward and notices his name stitched into the inside of it. The hat is issued to him.
          Positive now that something is going to happen to the ship and frustrated at being powerless to stop it, Lanser spends the next few hours in the lounge drinking himself into a state of agitated incoherence. At 1:15 he finds himself drinking alone. The bartender and other passengers have inexplicably vanished.  With paranoia clinging to him, Lanser runs onto the deck and into the spotlight of a German U-boat shining directly in his face. While the U-boast fires upon the Queen of Glasgow Lanser races through the ship, screaming the names of the other passengers, but no one answers. He finds a pair of binoculars and peers through them at the U-boat. He sees himself on the hull on the German submarine. He continues to dart through the halls of the ship and then stumbles upon the rest of the passengers standing motionless in the middle of the hallway, glaring at him. He screams at them to do something but they only stand there. And then, they vanish. Knowing the ship is going to sink, Lanser jumps overboard but is pulled under with the current and drowns.
Later that night in the Captain’s barracks of the German submarine, a young lieutenant comes in to Lanser’s room to express his concerns over firing on a ship carrying women and children. He is afraid that perhaps they are now damned and will have to spend eternity paying for their sins. Lanser casually dismisses the lieutenant’s concerns as those of a religious fool.
Middle of the Atlantic Ocean. 1942. Night.
Carl Lanser is wandering around the deck of the S. S. Queen of Glasgow, mystified as to how he got onboard, doomed to relive a nightmare that he once inflicted upon others, for eternity.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“The S. S. Queen of Glasgow, heading for New York, and the time is 1942. For one man, it is always 1942—and this man will ride the ghost of that ship every night for eternity. This is what is meant by paying the fiddler. This is the comeuppance awaiting every man when the ledger of his life is opened and examined, the tally made, and then the reward or the penalty paid. And in the case of Carl Lanser, former Kapitan Leutnant, Navy of the Third Reich, this is the penalty. This is the justice meted out. This is judgment night in the Twilight Zone.”


"Silent, stealthy, sinister, the sea fog wrapped its all-pervading swirls about the slowly moving ship, blanketing it in an utter hush. At moments, those misty coils opened into rifts, allowing glimpses of the gliding vessel, had there been eyes to see it. Then the creeping ship was blanketed again, as if feeling its way through eternity." 
            -"Judgment Night" by Rod Serling and Walter B. Gibson, Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1963)

“Judgment Night” is the first of many World War II episodes written by Rod Serling. As a paratrooper with the United States 11th Airborne Division during the war, Serling saw extensive combat in the Philippines and in Japan. He was wounded several times and was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. Both the physical and emotional repercussions of his combat experiences would affect him for the rest of his life. In her 2013 memoir As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling author Anne Serling says her father suffered from what is now commonly referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder nearly all of his adult life. When he first arrived home, after two years of combat, Serling found adjusting to civilian life difficult. He initially relied on alcohol to get him through his torment but eventually turned to writing as a therapeutic device. This is likely why his work is so autobiographical and why certain themes and settings, like war, are so prevalent.
The anger and social criticism that became the trademarks of his work were present even at the beginning of his career. In her memoir Anne Serling features a fragment of an unpublished story that Serling wrote while in college titled “First Squad, First Platoon” about the death of one of his closest friends during the war. In his unabashedly bleak dedication to his unborn children Serling writes:

“…human beings don’t like to remember unpleasant things…my children, I don’t want you to be among those who forget...I want you to read my stories and others like them…I want you to feel a semblance of the feeling of a torn limb, a burnt patch of flesh, the crippling, numbing sensation of fear, the hopeless emptiness of fatigue. All these things are complimentary to the province of war and they should be taught in classrooms...In my generation we were to enjoy ‘Peace in our time’…but humans kept polishing their rose-colored glasses when actually they should have taken them off.”

His combat experiences, combined with the shock and grief of his father’s death and his anger over not being granted leave to return home to attend the funeral, gave young Serling a pessimistic view of the world, one that would never fully dissipate, resurfacing in his writing again and again throughout his career. Serling often based his stories on current events like the Emmett Till murder or the Adolph Eichmann trial. He felt that the arts, especially television, had a certain responsibility to discuss topics that politicians and corporations were afraid to discuss publically. He would have made an excellent journalist but he chose the dramatic form as his outlet for social commentary.
Serling would often use Nazis and bigots as villains in his fiction. But here he does something interesting with Kapitan Leutnant Lanser. Lanser is, in many ways, the standard Nazi heavy found throughout much of twentieth century popular culture. He is predictable and uninspired. But what makes him interesting is that Serling has taken him out of his element. The audience gets to witness the psychology of an archetypal villain as he struggles, unsuccessfully, to prove to himself that he is not losing his mind. He has to question his convictions and behave in a manner that probably seems totally irrational to him. By doing this Serling successfully tricks the audience into feeling sympathy for a character that they know—for he makes it obvious within the first five or so minutes of the story—is, or once was, an appalling human being.
Nehemiah Persoff deserves a great deal of the credit for this. He portrays Lanser as a character who is mysterious and rough around the edges but gives him a quality that is immediately sympathetic. An accomplished television and film actor, Persoff had notable roles in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) and George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
           Another effective device in Serling’s script is that he tells the audience within the first few minutes of the episode that something awful is going to happen. The viewer is waiting for 1:15am throughout the entire episode. It’s a countdown to destruction. This adds an element of suspense to what would be a fairly predictable story without it.
“Judgment Night” was Serling’s hybrid variation of the myth of the Flying Dutchman, in which the ghosts of a ship's crew are doomed to roam the seas for all eternity, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which a fisherman kills a sacred albatross and is then damned to wear the creature around its neck as an admission of his sin. The difference here, of course, is that instead of an albatross, Lanser is doomed to continuously relive the nightmare he created for a ship full of innocent people.
The unsung hero of this episode is director John Brahm. Brahm directed 12 episodes of the show, more than any other director, and his contribution to the show is immeasurable. Not as visually daring as directors Douglas Heyes or Lamont Johnson, Brahm often took a subtle approach. His best episodes, such as season two’s “Shadowplay” or season one’s “Mirror Image,” have a dreamlike quality to them. Indeed, “Judgment Night” feels like a nightmare. Brahm uses unusual yet effective techniques such as brief flickers of total darkness whenever someone opens a door or the use of heavy fog and out of focus shots of the outside of the ship to convey Lanser’s muddled apprehension of the situation. Brahm used similar imagery in 1944 to portray the fog-blanketed streets of Victorian London in his re-make of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger. The famous scene near the end of the episode, when Lanser is confronted by the ghosts of the crew and passengers, is also mostly Brahm’s doing. Instead of letting the score do the work for him, Brahm takes the music away entirely so that every noise is amplified, placing the viewer inside the ship with Lanser. The image of the dead crew staring silently into the camera is particularly unsettling.
While it may be somewhat predictable, “Judgement Night” is still a terrific episode with a great script by Serling, a wonderful performance from Nehemiah Persoff, and some of John Brahm’s best work on the show—which is saying quite a bit. This one comes recommended as one the high points of the first season.

Grade: B

Grateful acknowledgement is made to:
As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling by Anne Serling. Citadel Press, 2013.

--John Brahm (1893 – 1982) directed 12 episodes of the show—more than anyone else—including the classics “Time Enough at Last,” “The Four of Us are Dying,” and “Mirror Image.” He is the only directer to contribute to all five seasons of the show.
--Patrick Macnee appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "Logoda's Heads."
--Barry Bernard appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "A Feast of Blood."
--"Judgment Night" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Chelcie Ross.
-- It was also adapted into a short story by Walter B. Gibson for Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (Grosset and Dunlap, 1963), a young adult collection that featured adaptations of several of Rod Serling's teleplays as well as original stories inspired by the series.


--Updated on October 10, 2016.


  1. I agree. I love The Twilight Zone, having watched reruns of it as a child. But only as an adult have I really understood and appreciated the heavier, darker ones like this episode. It's now one of my favorites.

  2. This one reminded me of a cross between "Death Ship" and "Death's-Head Revisited".

    1. It does play like a nice combination of those later episodes. I've always felt that the atmosphere in this one is among the finest on the series.

  3. What I have to say is this, quote, in Escape Clause, there was simply a man doomed to an eternity of Hell based on the fatal mistake of dealing with Satan, and it was all, in fact, left to our judgement as to Walter Bedeker's actual fate. But in Judgment Night, we actually got to experience the dark, eternal fate of another man, doomed to re-living his own heinous doings a zillion times over, and thus, we got an actual presentation of what eternity in Hell is, the real thing,and in the fiery eternal South of...The Twilight Zone!!

    1. I love this episode. Creepy as hell. Actually watching Carl Lanser right now, going through his nightly ritual