Thursday, September 25, 2014

"Shadow Play"

Adam Grant (Dennis Weaver) imprisoned in a recurring nightmare
"Shadow Play"
Season Two, Episode 62
Original Air Date: May 5, 1961

Adam Grant: Dennis Weaver
Henry Ritchie: Harry Townes
Paul Carson: Wright King
Carol Ritchie: Anne Barton
Jiggs: William Edmondson
Coley: Bernie Hamilton
Phillips: Tommy Nello
Judge: Gene Roth
Priest: Mack Williams
Attorney: Jack Hyde
Jury Foreman: Howard Culver
Guard: John Close

Writer: Charles Beaumont (based on his short story "Traumerei")
Director: John Brahm
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Darrell Hallenbeck
Editor: Jason Bernie
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
"Next week on the Twilight Zone you'll sit in this courtroom and you'll watch what is apparently the standard, everyday turning of the wheels of justice. But because this is The Twilight Zone don't be fooled by the readily apparent. When the judge enters, the jury rises, the bailiff calls out the case, all of this is the opening salvo to one of our wildest journeys yet. Our program is called 'Shadow Play' and it's written by Mr. Charles Beaumont. It comes well recommended."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"Adam Grant, a nondescript kind of man found guilty of murder and sentenced to the electric chair. Like every other animal caught in the wheels of justice he's scared, right down to the marrow of his bones. But it isn't prison that scares him, the long, silent nights of waiting, the slow walk to the little room, or even death itself. It's something else that holds Adam Grant in the hot, sweaty grip of fear, something worse than any punishment this world has to offer, something found only in The Twilight Zone."

Harry Townes and Wright King
            Found guilty of murder, Adam Grant is sentenced to die in the electric chair. His reaction to the sentencing is hysterical laughter followed by outrage and screaming, "Not again! I won't die again!" Grant's story is that everything in the world, the places, the people, everything, is a recurring nightmare he experiences night after night. He tries to plead his case with other prisoners by pointing out inconsistencies in this reality, such as a prisoner on death row being allowed to wear a watch and the fact that Grant was tried and sentenced in only a single day.
            The only person who believes that Grant may be telling the truth is Carson, a local journalist. He pleads with Ritchie, the District Attorney, to go and see Grant. Ritchie does and is surprised that Grant seems to know the words that he, Ritchie, speaks before they leave his mouth. Grant tells Ritchie that the DA always comes to visit at the same time, night after night, but is not always the same person playing the role in the dream. Grant explains that the dream has its own logic and that dying, even in a dream, is terrifying because it feels so real. When Grant explains that an element of the dream can be changed, such as a meal that Ritchie's wife is preparing at home, Ritchie rushes home to see that the meal has indeed changed. This wins him over to Grant's way of thinking.
            Ritchie rushes to the telephone and calls the governor. He manages to get a stay of execution but is too late. Grant has been executed only a moment sooner. As Grant dies, Ritchie and Carson stand in Ritchie's living room. First the objects in the room disappear and then Ritchie and Carson disappear as well.
            Grant is on trial again and it is exactly as it was before except the players in the dream have all switched roles. He is again found guilty of murder and sentenced to death in the electric chair. 

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"We know that a dream can be real but who ever thought that reality can be a dream? We exist, of course, but how, in what way? As we believe, as flesh and blood human beings, or are we simply part of someone's feverish, complicated nightmare? Think about it, and then ask yourself, do you live here, in this country, in this world, or do you live instead in The Twilight Zone?"

            "Shadow Play" is one of the most unusual episodes of The Twilight Zone and falls into a category of stories which lie outside Rod Serling's socially conscious episodes or episodes built around a traditional thriller construct. These episodes of existential crisis examine reality through a lens of fantasy and include such episodes as Richard Matheson's "A World of Difference," Serling's "The After Hours" and "Mirror Image," Charles Beaumont's "Perchance to Dream," and several of the episodes dealing with time travel. These episodes are rarely fable-like or reliant upon a twist ending. They are designed to challenge the viewer's conceptions about the nature of reality by examining the possibility of a living unreality. This is essentially what the Twilight Zone, as an idea, embodies. It questions what happens when an element of the fantastic intrudes upon a perceived reality. "Shadow Play" benefits from a fine Charles Beaumont script, another outstanding directing job by veteran John Brahm, and an enviable cast to produce one of the show's most underrated, hidden gems of existential terror.
            Charles Beaumont placed a story with editor Larry Shaw titled "Traumerei" (which roughly translates from the German as "daydream" or "reverie") in the February, 1956 issue of Infinity Science Fiction. Though it seems to have been largely overlooked, this early Beaumont story is clearly the seed for his script of "Shadow Play." It includes passages presented wholly and unchanged in the later script. In "Traumerei," a slight four page story, Beaumont utilizes the scene which, in the episode, is played out at the District Attorney's house while the character of Adam Grant awaits execution. The short story is almost entirely comprised of the discussion between Carson, the journalist, and Ritchie, the District Attorney, about the possibility of whether or not the prisoner, who does not have a role in the short story outside of this context, is telling the truth about the whole world being a dream which will end when the prisoner is put to death. The story ends with a brief passage describing the prisoner being walked to the electric chair and the insinuation that the world is beginning to fade away. "Traumerei" was later collected in Beaumont's Yonder: Stories of Fantasy and Science Fiction (Bantam Books, 1958).
            The short story leaves a lot to be desired and it is easy to understand why it has slipped through the cracks. It has not seen a reprint beyond its inclusion in Beaumont's second story collection (update: the story is included in Beaumont's 2015 collection from Penguin Classics, Perchance to Dream). It reads more like the treatment of an idea which, though written five years before, it essentially becomes when Beaumont decided to use it for a script on the show. To expand the short story to a half hour teleplay, Beaumont gave the prisoner a name, first Adam Trask and later changed to Adam Grant, a distinct personality, and a central role in the action. In the hands of actor Dennis Weaver, it makes for a manic but very convincing performance. It is a testament to the actors, including Harry Townes and Wright King as the District Attorney and local journalist, respectively, that they were able to bring off such a conceptually wild story in under half an hour. Beaumont's dialogue is brisk and moves the episode along quickly to an expected but still highly effective climax.
            The German-born John Brahm translated his strong German Expressionist influences to American thrillers for Fox such as The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945) and on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The distinctive Expressionist look of The Twilight Zone is largely Brahm's doing. Adam Grant's slightly askew dream world is filmed with little subtlety to heighten the effectiveness. The courtroom and jail scenes look slightly superficial (thanks to the MGM back lot) which lends credence to the unreality of Grant's dream, reflecting the world of Grant's imagination rather than a logical correlation to reality. Brahm even injects bits of Hitchcockian humor (a sizzling steak in an oven after a discussion of electrocution) and uses an effective split-screen camera technique in the episode.
            Dennis Weaver (1924-2006) was best known at the time for his role in Gunsmoke as Chester Goode. Weaver's connection with the Twilight Zone would extend beyond the show when he starred in the television film Duel (1971), giving a bravura performance in what is essentially a one man show. The screenplay for Duel was written by Richard Matheson from his short story from the April, 1971 issue of Playboy. Duel was directed by Steven Spielberg and was the director's first feature length film assignment. Two years prior, Spielberg was given his first professional assignment directing a segment of the pilot for a new anthology television show called Night Gallery, a Rod Serling created show which was a successor to the Twilight Zone but was ultimately hampered by the fact that Serling had little creative control. Spielberg directed "Eyes," starring Joan Crawford as a cruel blind woman given the chance to see for one night. It was a highly effective script and showcased some of Rod Serling's best writing since The Twilight Zone.
            Harry Townes (1914-2001) was a busy television actor who appeared on virtually every major series of the time. He appeared in excellent episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (including "The Creeper"), One Step Beyond, The Outer Limits, and Thriller (two fine episodes, "The Cheaters" and "Dark Legacy"). Townes' other genre credits include the Planet of the Apes television series, Star Trek, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Townes also had a role in the Playhouse 90 episode "The Rank and File," written by Rod Serling and broadcast on May 28, 1959.
            Wright King (1923-2018) was a close personal friend of Dennis Weaver and had also previously worked with Harry Townes, which explains the remarkable chemistry the actors have in the episode. He came from a stage tradition and worked frequently in live television drama during the early days of the medium. In 1951, he landed a role in Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire. King would work heavily in the western television series of the 1960s. His genre credits include episodes of Suspense and the Logan's Run television series, as well as the role of Dr. Galen in Planet of the Apes (1968).
            A faithful yet less effective remake of the episode appeared on the first Twilight Zone revival series. It aired April 4, 1986 as part of the first season and starred Peter Coyote as Adam Grant. The remake was directed by Paul Lynch and writer James Crocker updated Charles Beaumont's original teleplay.
            "Shadow Play" remains an intriguing and suspenseful episode that perfectly embodies the otherworldly nature of the Twilight Zone in a way few other episodes are able to match. It showcases Charles Beaumont's excellent writing and obsessions with dreams, nightmares, and unreality which perfectly suited the show and made him what many consider to be the ultimate Twilight Zone writer. It is an underrated episode which deserves wider attention.

Grade: A

-Harry Townes appeared earlier in the season one episode, "The Four of Us Are Dying." He also appears in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, "Lindemann's Catch," scripted by Serling. 
-Wright King also appears in the fourth season episode, "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville."
-"Shadow Play" was used as the title of a collection of Charles Beaumont short stories brought out by British publisher Panther Books in 1964. The book was an abridged reprint of the author's 1957 collection, The Hunger and Other Stories.
-"Shadow Play" was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Ernie Hudson.
-The title refers to a type of stage puppetry which uses flat characters, a light source, and a translucent screen to create images and effects.


  1. A rare "A" from the Vortex! Nice review! I recall really liking this episode and Dennis Weaver is always fun to watch.

  2. I feel the A is deserved, this is an underrated episode and may be John Brahm's finest directing job, very strange and disorienting in spots. It was at one point probably my overall favorite episode but that spot belongs to The Howling Man now though I still recommend Shadow Play to folks new to the show. Thanks for reading.

  3. Late to the party here, BUT, the acting in Shadow Play cannot be praised highly enough: Dennis Weaver is superb as the condemned man, and he nicely brings some (Theater Of The Absurd?) humor to his playing. James Best or, a few years later, Bruce Dern, could probably have done the serious stuff as well as Weaver, but not the goofball wacky stuff that Weaver slips in.

    Also first rate is the playing of Harry Townes and Wright King, who manage to nicely suggest that the characters they are playing are truly friends, and men of good will, with the latter functioning as the conscience of the former. Townes has the more difficult part, as he has to swing back and forth; and he nicely underplays in his scenes with King and Weaver. I've seldom seen Townes so rock solid, so free of ham or eccentricities of any kind.

  4. This one has long been a favorite of mine and I agree that the acting is top notch here. The episode has a genuine dream-like feeling to it that I don't think was better replicated by any other episode, with the possible exception of Beaumont's earlier "Perchance to Dream."

  5. Replies
    1. This one can be a bit confusing because it concerns a recurring nightmare in which we only view the dreaming state. In other words, we never see Adam Grant when he is awake. The gist of it is that he is experiencing a recurring nightmare in which he is convicted and executed again and again with only subtle variations such as which people play which roles in the nightmare. Since a dream can feel incredibly real to the dreamer, this recurrent nightmare is tortuous to Grant and he can't break free of it.

      Interestingly, Beaumont first attempted this tale in his 1956 short story "Traumerei" with the notable exception that the story is told entirely from the view of the District Attorney and the reader is never given the perspective of the doomed prisoner. I feel that it works better the way the episode deals with the issue of perspective.

  6. Shadow Play for its' required look under the crevices type of horror, nevertheless DOES provide the map by way of heightened suspense, and chillingly connected graphic presentation. Through pervasive expression, we feel our actual participation in our protagonist's nightmare, as in "Perchance To Dream" and "Twenty-Two". We're proven the validity of Grant's explanation when as to final line " They pull the switch...." And immediately we see what is essentially an innocuous steak dinner, but what is NOT innocuous is its' graphic meaning; that is what's Grant at every finish of the nightmare, a broiled inmate at the chair. This may have inspired Serling to craft the adapted teleplay for "To Serve Man". Think about it.

  7. Shadow Play for its' required look under the crevices type of horror, nevertheless DOES provide the map by way of heightened suspense, and chillingly connected graphic presentation. Through pervasive expression, we feel our actual participation in our protagonist's nightmare, as in "Perchance To Dream" and "Twenty-Two". We're proven the validity of Grant's explanation when as to final line " They pull the switch...." And immediately we see what is essentially an innocuous steak dinner, but what is NOT innocuous is its' graphic meaning; that is what's Grant at every finish of the nightmare, a broiled inmate at the chair. This may have inspired Serling to craft the adapted teleplay for "To Serve Man". Think about it.