Thursday, May 5, 2016

"The Grave"

Hired gun Conny Miller (Lee Marvin) arrives at the grave of outlaw
Pinto Sykes to await his doom.
“The Grave”
Season Three, Episode 72
Original Air Date: October 27, 1961

Conny Miller: Lee Marvin
Mothershed: Strother Martin
Johnny Rob: James Best
Steinhart: Lee Van Cleef
Ione: Ellen Willard
Ira Broadly: Stafford Rep
Jasen: William Challee
Corcoran: Larry Johns
Pinto Sykes: Richard Geary
Man on Rooftop: Bob McCord (uncredited)

Writer: Montgomery Pittman (original teleplay)
Director: Montgomery Pittman
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Editor: Leon Barsha
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“It’s traditional in the great American western that the climax of any given story is the gun-down on the main street. Next week, Montgomery Pittman has written a story in which we have our gun-down and then go on from there. It’s a haunting little item about a top gun as he was alive…and his operation after death. This is one for rainy nights and power failures, but wherever you watch it, I think it will leave its imprint.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Normally, the old man would be correct. This would be the end of the story. We’ve had the traditional shoot-out on the street, and the bad man will soon be dead. But some men of legend and folk tale have been known to continue having their way even after death. The outlaw and killer, Pinto Sykes, was such a person. And shortly, we’ll see how he introduces the town, and a man named Conny Miller in particular…to the Twilight Zone.”

            America, the Old West. A group of vigilante killers and lawmen converge on a lone gunman in the middle of a small town. Armed men are stationed up and down the main street: on rooftops, in windows and doorways, behind wagons, behind buildings, in every possible route of escape. The man they are tracking is named Pinto Sykes. As he exits a saloon a man calls out to him and tells him to surrender. Sykes draws and is shot dead.
            Several days later, night. Conny Miller, a hired gun in pursuit of Sykes, rides into town. He enters a saloon where three patrons, all of whom were involved in the shooting, inform him that Sykes is dead. They also tell him that Sykes had claimed that Miller was afraid of him and deliberately remained a day behind to avoid a confrontation. According to those were by his side when he died, Sykes issued a warning for Miller to stay away from his grave or the outlaw would rise from the dead and grab him.
Miller denies the claim just as Sykes’s sister, Ione, enters the saloon. She repeats her brother’s threat and dares Miller to visit the grave. Then she leaves. The three patrons also dare him to visit the grave and they propose a wager. If Miller can visit Sykes’s grave and plant a knife in it to prove he was there, he wins forty dollars. Furious, but wanting to prove his courage, Miller accepts.
When he arrives at the graveyard, he spots a drunk Ione leaving. She offers him a drink of whiskey to calm his nerves but he declines. She tells him that her brother is waiting for him and then leaves. Miller makes his way over to Sykes’s grave. All around him the wind howls. He hears strange noises and begins to lose his nerve but forces himself to ignore it. He kneels by the grave and plunges the blade of a long hunting knife into the fresh dirt. As he prepares to stand up, however, he is pulled back down.
          The next morning. When Miller fails to come back the three patrons speculate over what happened. They notice that Miller’s horse and belongings are still at the bar so they know he hasn’t left town. They decide to accompany Ione to the graveyard to find out what happened. When they get there they find Miller sprawled over Sykes’s grave, dead. One of the patrons, a gambler named Steinhart, attempts to explain what happened. He believes that Miller mistakenly pinned his coat to the ground after the wind blew it over the grave and died of fright when he tried to stand up. But Ione claims that this is not possible for the wind would have been blowing in the wrong direction. Claiming that the wind is blowing in the same direction as the previous night, she demonstrates by standing where Miller would have stood. She gives the three men a haunting smile as the wind blows her long, black cloak behind her, far away from the grave of outlaw Pinto Sykes.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Final Comment: you can take this with a grain of salt or a shovel of Earth, as shadow or substance. We leave it up to you. And for any further research, check under ‘G’ for ghosts…in the Twilight Zone.”

            “The Grave” wasn’t the first time The Twilight Zone explored the Western genre nor would it be the last. Probably the most interesting thing about the show, and the thing that distinguishes it from other anthology programs, is that it created a recognizable world for the audience. Not one that can be defined in terms of geography or time, but one immediately familiar just the same. No writer, except Serling, was ever under contract to the show or to CBS. This allowed each writer the freedom to develop their own voice. It also established a nice dynamic for the series as one that could discuss many different themes and ideas but somehow formulate them into one universal approach. Writers could hop genres and time periods liberally and the episodes would still feel like pieces of the same show.
            Although “The Grave” was written and directed by Montgomery Pittman, no stranger to the Western genre, all of the other Western-themed episodes were written by Rod Serling. It seems obvious that Serling, a writer deeply concerned with social prejudice, would have had an affinity for Westerns, a genre which continuously explored the struggle between right and wrong and the price of the human condition. The Western was also the genre that most accurately reflected the pulse of the era in which it was made. Although the stories were set in the American frontier of the nineteenth century they commented on contemporary issues, which is what Serling was trying to accomplish with fantasy. The portrayal of the archetypal good-guy-hero-gunslinger and the absolute distinction between good and evil in traditional Westerns appealed to post-war audiences and the genre flourished in virtually every medium between the late 1940’s and mid-1960’s. However, as the nation changed so did the Western.
By the end of the 1950’s many filmmakers had begun to shed certain tropes of the genre in exchange for realistic themes and characters. Films like The Searchers (1956), The Left-Handed Gun (1958), and The Magnificent Seven (1960) began to showcase a new kind of Western, one that was adapting to a rapidly changing social and political landscape. These films, and countless others, often featured flawed heroes, unrealistic expectations, and unhappy endings. They reflected a nation moving further and further away from the Norman Rockwell idealism of the early twentieth century and closer to a Vietnam War-era mentality. These films were the beginning of the end for the genre, the last great wave of Westerns to be produced by Hollywood before the collapse of the studio system. And the Westerns that followed throughout the next decade or so, namely Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973) and the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, had far more in common with the bleakness and realism of the emerging independent film movement than with their predecessors in the Hollywood studio system. Even the television Western, once a fan favorite of viewers of all ages, was vanishing. By the middle of the 1970’s the reign of the Western, one of the oldest and most celebrated genres of the cinematic landscape, was over. Filmmakers would revisit the genre in the subsequent decades (there are several A-list Westerns scheduled for release this year) but America’s fascination with the genre it had created and so often relied upon was gone.
While the movement towards a more mature and reflective Western had been present in film since the 1950’s, television was far more reluctant to push creative boundaries. This is most likely due to the industry’s inexperience at diversifying content to such a broad audience on such a new medium. Another reason was that the networks were in constant fear of losing sponsorship. However, on a fantasy program, especially an anthology series, networks were far more tolerant of creative experimentation. If the viewers or advertisers didn’t like something about a particular episode it was easier to reassure them that it would not occur again if the following week’s episode was going to be completely different.
This is likely one of the reasons Montgomery Pittman found himself working on The Twilight Zone. Thus far in his career, he had written mostly within the confines of serial dramas such as 77 Sunset Strip, Cheyenne, and Sugarfoot. Like Serling, he had taken measures to ensure his artistic freedom due to his frustration with studios and networks altering his scripts. On a fantasy program, especially one where the writer was held in such high regard, he was free to create misunderstood characters or blend genres, as he does here.
“The Grave,” doesn’t subscribe to the somber themes that run throughout the Westerns of the 1960’s, but it isn’t a return to traditional Westerns either. On the contrary, it almost seems to be poking fun at them a little. None of the characters here are particularly redeemable and the hero, who may or may not be a coward, is ridiculed by the supporting cast. “The Grave” is a combination of the classic American Western and traditional horror folklore, which makes it an early example of the Horror Western. Pittman isn’t working toward a moral at the end of the story. He only wants to entertain the audience. This episode could have taken place anywhere, as the origin story demonstrates. But the desert setting lends it an overtly Gothic atmosphere which makes it unsettling and fun at the same time.
Many will recognize this story from American and European folklore. It is often referred to as “The Graveyard Dare” or simply “The Dare.” The setting and characters differ with each version but the basic plot, someone being challenged to visit a graveyard alone and then dying of fright, is always present. A well-known version, entitled “The Dare,” appears in The Thing at the End of the Bed and Other Scary Stories (1953) by American folklorist Maria Leach. In her version a group of boys talk around a fire. The town curmudgeon has recently died and the boys dare one another to visit his grave, which is supposedly haunted. Finally, a boastful young man announces that he will visit the elderly man’s grave and leave his knife as proof. He follows through with his plan but pins himself to the ground and dies of a heart attack. In her notes, Leach claims that the tale is too old and widespread to be traced to a single source but she does list several versions that predate hers. The oldest version on her list appears in a 1934 collection by Dr. Ralph S. Boggs called North Carolina White Folktales and Riddles. Probably the most widely-read version of this story appears in Alvin Schwartz’s classic 1981 collection, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. This version features kids, presumably teenagers, at a party where a boy dares a girl to visit the graveyard down the street and stand on top of the grave. The rest of the story is much the same as the others.
“The Grave” is one of two episodes (the other is George Clayton Johnson’s “Nothing in the Dark”) filmed during Season Two but held until Season Three. Principle photography took place in March, 1961, six months before it actually aired. This makes “The Grave” Montgomery Pittman’s first appearance on the show as it predates his first screen credit in Season Two’s “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” by several weeks. The reason for shelving these episodes is likely due to CBS’s concerns over production costs. Despite its immense popularity, The Twilight Zone was always a program in danger of cancellation. In an effort to save the show Buck Houghton asked CBS for an early commitment on the third season. This way the show could begin filming in the spring of 1961 (before the end of the second season) and continue through the summer, when the salaries of the cast and crew would be lower and the MGM backlot would be readily available. The network agreed and after the second season officially ended the show continued shooting new episodes well into June. But by the time the second season was drawing to a close they had more episodes than they had time slots. So the decision was made to hold two episodes until the third season. As a result, “The Grave” and “Nothing in the Dark” are the only Season Three episodes that do not feature a title or production credits at the start of Act I. Instead, they are listed during the closing credits as was the format for Season Two. “The Grave” was one of several episodes considered as the season premiere. But Houghton and Serling choose to hold it until October and promote it as a Halloween episode, which ended up being a wise decision.
As an actor turned writer/director Pittman seemed to have an eye for talent. All of his Twilight Zone episodes feature early performances from actors who went on to establish successful careers in film and television. “The Grave,” however, has perhaps the best collection of well-known Hollywood faces of any episode of the show. James Best  was a friend of Pittman's. He had a prolific career in television, appearing largely in Westerns, before landing the role of Sherriff Rosco P. Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard. This is the first of three Twilight Zone appearances for Best who also appears in Season Three’s “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank” (also written and directed by Pittman) and Season Four’s “Jess-Belle.” The rest of the leading actors (Lee Marvin, Strother Martin, and Lee Van Cleef) all went on to enormously successful film careers. Their credits, which include dozens of highly-regarded Western classics, are too many to list. Less than a year after this episode aired all three appeared together in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—considered by many to be the best Western film of all time. Marvin plays the title character, the villain of the film, and Martin and Van Cleef play his two cronies. I was unable to locate the production date for the film but it was released in April of 1962 and “The Grave” had most likely finished filming by the time casting began on the Ford film.
           Lee Marvin’s struggle with alcoholism and his resulting behavior on this and various other projects has been well documented. Houghton reportedly had to postpone the first day of filming after Marvin arrived on the set intoxicated. The next day, however, the actor arrived on time and gave a formal apology to the cast and crew. The incident does not seem to have affected his performance for he is totally believable as ridiculed tough guy Conny Miller.
What’s frustrating about “The Grave” is that it’s an enjoyable episode with great performances from an all-star cast and a fun, well-crafted atmosphere that is marred by a slow, dreary final scene. For starters, it is the only scene to take place during the day which removes the established mystique almost immediately. Also, the twist demands a detailed explanation—rarely a good strategy—which brings the pace of the story to a halt. The fact that the first twenty minutes are so enjoyable only makes the final two or three minutes of the episode that much more disappointing. It’s a lot of built up anticipation for little reward. The fateful scene in which Marvin pins himself to the grave is also awkward. Because he cannot reveal the twist Pittman cannot shoot Marvin from the waist down nor can he show the grave. This gives the shot a clumsy, confusing feeling which weakens the suspense to some extent. 
            But the “The Grave” still manages to be an entertaining episode despite the lackluster ending and it's one that audiences may find more enjoyable in subsequent viewings. The performances really are spectacular and Pittman’s direction here is possibly his best work on the show. The high contrast lighting and gothic set pieces give it a strong resemblance to the German horror films of the 1920’s. The fact that the cemetery scene, with its absurd prop department grave markers and roaring wind soundtrack, was so clearly shot on a sound stage only adds to the atmosphere somehow. It appears to have been a conscious decision but it works. For anyone who may have been turned off from the episode after a single viewing I would suggest giving it another look. It’s a fun episode that is equal parts Hollywood nostalgia and solid, honest storytelling from a writer whose work warrants more attention than it is often given.

Grade: B

Illustration by Molly Bang for "The Stake in the Graveyard" by Americo Paredes,
a folktale from Mexico similar to the one dramatized in "The Grave"

--Lee Marvin (1924 – 1987) also appeared in Season Five’s “Steel.” Marvin won an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1966 for his performance in Cat Ballou.
--James Best (1926 – 2015) also appeared in Season Three’s “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank” and Season Four’s “Jess-Belle.”
--Stafford Repp (1918 – 1974) also appeared in Season Two’s “Nick of Time” and Season Five’s “Caesar and Me.” A prolific television actor, he is mostly remembered for his role as Chief O’Hara in the 1960’s Batman series.
--William Challee appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "The Little Black Bag." 
--Montgomery Pittman (1917 – 1962) wrote and directed the Season Three episodes, “Two” and “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank.” He also directed Season Two’s “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” and Season Three’s “Dead Man’s Shoes.” The Twilight Zone was one of his last projects.
--“The Grave” was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Michael Rooker.

--Brian Durant


  1. Thanks for this most interesting article! "The Grave" is an episode I remember fondly. It's neat that you mention the "absurd prop department grave markers," and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"--critics have argued for 50 years about the phony looking props in "Valance," including the big fake rock Lee Marvin jumps out from the back of. Some say John Ford was making a point and others say he was getting old and blind.

    1. Thanks, Jack. Liberty Valance is one of my favorite films of all time. I have to believe it was a conscious decision on Ford's part to use the highly artificial set pieces. Most of the film is one long flashback sequence and it's also filmed in black and white at a time when most filmmakers were switching to color. So it has an appropriately dream-like atmosphere. I've always seen it as a salute to a fading genre and to a different era of film making. And I can't help but view "The Grave" through the same lens.

  2. The Grave is a favorite of mine for if nothing else the atmosphere, the cast and the writing. It's a good story, basically a tall tale that author-director Montgomery Pittman turned into a Twilight Zone. I especially like the realistic, creative naming of the characters in the story: Connie Miller, Mothersheed, Johnny Rob, Pinto Sykes, his sister Ione. Good stuff. The obviously artificial, as n back lot, setting, only adds to the dream-like ambiance. It's "talky", like most Zones, but its cinematic qualities make it feel more like a feature film than a TV series, unusual for the TZ.

    1. I'm glad to hear others sharing my admiration for this episode, John. I feel it's one that often gets a bad rap for the predictable ending. But the acting and dialogue more than make up for it. And I agree with you about the character names. Pittman was a naturally storyteller. Up until now I wasn't familiar with his work outside of the TZ but I'm beginning to dig into his work on other programs. Unfortunately, a lot of it isn't available.

  3. Happy Twilight Zone Day, May 11. Copy and paste the below link to the NY Daily News article below to your browser search box.

  4. Thanks for the link! It's a pretty vanilla list but not unexpected. For those interested, their top episodes are: "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," "Time Enough at Last," "The Invaders," "It's a Good Life," "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," "To Serve Man," and "The Eye of the Beholder." There are so many great episodes of the series but in terms of widely recognizable episodes that are also of very high quality, to that I would add: "The Hitch-Hiker," "The After Hours," "The Howling Man," "Nick of Time," "Five Characters in Search of an Exit," "The Dummy," "Living Doll," and "The Masks." Happy Twilight Zone Day!

    1. Agreed. I love every episode but some are classic as you have defined.Thanks.