Monday, November 21, 2016

Entering The Twilight Zone on Public Radio's Selected Shorts

Robert Sean Leonard
             The Twilight Zone recently made an appearance on Selected Shorts, the public radio program which features live readings of short fiction presented by well-known performers. The program is part of Public Radio International and comes recommended due to the high quality of the performances and the unique aspect that accompanies a live audience. The program is, with some exceptions, recorded live on Broadway at Symphony Space in New York City and later broadcast on public radio stations on Friday evenings.

            The Twilight Zone program was hosted by actor Robert Sean Leonard with three short stories that formed the basis of three episodes of the series. This was presumably done in an effort to offer something outrĂ© during the Halloween season. The selections were eclectic and unusual. The three stories featured were “Four O’clock” by Price Day, “Perchance to Dream” by Charles Beaumont, and “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” by Henry Slesar. Though Selected Shorts typically devotes an entire one-hour episode to a single short story, the program decided to select very short stories from The Twilight Zone in order to fit more than one story into an episode. Oddly enough, Rod Serling is only directly connected to one of the stories, other than as creator of the series, of course, as he adapted Price Day’s “Four O’clock” for the series. It would have been nice to see the program devote an entire episode to one of Rod Serling’s many story adaptations from one of the three Bantam paperbacks he wrote in the early 1960s, and perhaps the program will do so in the future. Alas, the Serling stories proved too long for current consideration and Selected Shorts opted instead for shorter material connected with the show.

            The three Twilight Zone stories were spread out over two programs. The original broadcasts were as follows: On Friday, October 28, Selected Shorts featured “Four O’clock” by Price Day, read by Zachary Quinto, “Perchance to Dream” by Charles Beaumont, read by Zach Grenier, and “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl, read by Sam Underwood. On Friday, November 18, Selected Shorts featured “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” by Henry Slesar, read by Robert Sean Leonard, “Head Over Knees” by Eric Schlich, read by Robert Sean Leonard, and “Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose” by Helen Oyeyemi, read by Colby Minifie. These episodes can currently be downloaded free on iTunes or another podcatcher but those interested should hurry as Selected Shorts only features the last dozen or so episodes available for download at any given time. The October 28 episode can be found under the title “Entering the Twilight Zone” and the November 18 episode under the title “Fateful Encounters.”

            The readings offered an opportunity to revisit the source material in comparison to the finished product on the series. Zachary Quinto’s reading of Price Day’s “Four O’clock” is serviceable. The actor, best known for his role as Spock in the current Star Trek films, chooses to read the very short story in a subdued, almost monotone, fashion. Though this method produces an overly long build-up, it works well when delivering the story’s memorable final line. “Four O’clock” was originally published in the April, 1958 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Incidentally, we will soon see that this Selected Shorts program had as much to do with Alfred Hitchcock as it did with The Twilight Zone, beginning with Price Day’s story, illustrating the vast common ground shared by Hitchcock's and Serling's programs as well as the permanence of Hitchcock on literary culture then and now.  

              “Four O’clock” was adapted by Rod Serling and directed by Lamont Johnson for the third season of The Twilight Zone. The story is very short and it is interesting to see how much Serling added when crafting his adaptation. A lot of what he added was necessary as Serling painted the main character, Oliver Crangle, as a much viler person than in Day’s story. In the story, Day only hints at Crangle’s true nature in an effort to keep the shock ending unexpected, although a reader is left wondering if Crangle truly deserved his awful fate. Serling leaves no doubt of this by clearly displaying Crangle’s warped sense of justice.

               The standout reading of the program is Zach Grenier’s performance of Charles Beaumont’s “Perchance to Dream,” which received raucous applause from the audience once the devastating final line of the story was delivered. The manic story of a sleep deprived man’s attempt to explain his plight to a sympathetic psychologist is perfect for an energetic reading and that is exactly what Grenier delivers. One forgets how terrifying a story it is, especially the scenes in which Phillip Hall, the afflicted man, is the victim of a recurring nightmare in which he steadily climbs a high wooden roller coaster. “Perchance to Dream” was first published in the October, 1958 issue of Playboy, the magazine to which Beaumont would contribute a large amount of his published work. The story was the first Beaumont’s first contribution to The Twilight Zone, produced for the first season from Beaumont’s own adaptation under the direction of Robert Florey. Beaumont changes little in his adaptation, allowing Florey free reign to display his excellent, German expressionist-inspired, directing style. “Perchance to Dream” remains one of the most nightmarish and frightening episodes of the entire series. Florey was an accomplished French director who is primarily remembered by horror fans for developing an adaptation of Frankenstein in 1930 for Universal Studios with Bela Lugosi in the role of the Monster before the project was scrapped by the studio. Universal quickly hired director James Whale to develop the project instead. Whale “discovered” Boris Karloff for the role of the Monster and the resultant film is a classic. The compensation prize for Florey and Lugosi was the 1932 shocker Murders in the Rue Morgue.

            The first program also featured an inspired reading of Roald Dahl’s “The Landlady” by Sam Underwood. The reading was recorded at a comedy club and Underwood relishes and heightens the humorous aspects of Dahl’s story to a great degree. “The Landlady” was adapted for the sixth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and boast one of the finest pedigrees of any episode of that series, as it was adapted from the Dahl story by Robert Bloch and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Dahl later presented the story for the first season of his 1970s era television series Tales of the Unexpected. 
           Robert Sean Leonard, host of the program, reads the final Twilight Zone story, Henry Slesar’s “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross.” Leonard’s reading is fine and even, not given to the broad melodrama presented in Jerry McNeely’s adaptation of the story for the fifth season of The Twilight Zone. Revisiting the Slesar story greatly illustrated the failings of the adaptation. In the original story, Salvadore Ross is a pitiable figure nowhere near the selfish villain of the adaptation, which makes the surprise ending that much more shocking. In the adaptation, Ross is presented as a cruel bully of a man and his relationship with Leah is borderline abusive. This turns the story into a one-dimensional twist ending tale which unfortunately became very common by the fifth season of the series. Slesar’s story was first published in the May, 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Slesar was a frequent contributor to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so much so that in 1989 appeared a volume dedicated solely to Slesar’s contributions to Hitchcock’s show titled Death on Television: The Best of Henry Slesar’s Alfred Hitchcock Stories.

                In all, it was a delight to see Selected Shorts feature Twilight Zone stories on their program. It stands as proof of the high literary quality of the series. Here’s hoping the program continues to feature not only material from The Twilight Zone but other crowd-pleasing genre material from that Golden Age of the 1950s-1970s.

-Jordan P.     

                                                    Selected Shorts from PRI

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"Nothing in the Dark"

Gladys Cooper as Wanda Dunn, a woman hiding from Mr. Death
“Nothing in the Dark”
Season Three, Episode 81
Original Air Date: January 5, 1962

Wanda Dunn: Gladys Cooper
Harold Beldon: Robert Redford
Building Contractor: R.G. Armstrong

Writer: George Clayton Johnson (original teleplay)
Director: Lamont Johnson
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Phil Barber
Set Decoration: Henry Grace, H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Editor: Jason Bernie
Sound: Franklin Milton, Bill Edmondson
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week an excursion into the shadowland of the hereafter. Ms. Gladys Cooper and Mr. Robert Redford combine sizable talents to bring a script by George Clayton Johnson entitled ‘Nothing in the Dark.’ The dark in this case being the little nooks, crannies, and closets of those regions presided over by Mr. Death. I hope you’ll be with us next week for ‘Nothing in the Dark.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:

“An old woman living in a nightmare. An old woman who has fought a thousand battles with death and always won. Now she’s faced with a grim decision. Whether or not to open a door. And in some strange and frightening way she knows that this seemingly ordinary door leads to the Twilight Zone.”

            On a cold winter day, Wanda Dunn, a very old woman, is awakened from an afternoon nap within her dilapidated apartment. She sees movement through a space in a boarded window. A police officer is on the street outside the window. Suddenly, he sounds a whistle and a gunshot is heard. Alarmed, Wanda moves to her front door and peers though a small opening, careful to leave the chain lock fastened.

            The police officer is injured and lying feebly in the snow near her doorway. The young man tells her that his name is Harold Beldon and he needs help lest he should die. The old woman is reluctant to help because she believes the injured man is not who he says he is. “I know who you are,” she tells him. “I know what you are.”
            Confused and in pain, the man continues to beg for help until Wanda cannot bear his pleading any longer. She unlocks the door and moves slowly toward the injured man. She touches him tentatively. “I’m still alive,” she says, clearly astonished. She pulls the injured man inside her apartment.
            The old woman situates the policeman in a comfortable space and serves him tea. When the injured man reiterates his need of a doctor, the old woman explains that calling a doctor isn’t possible. She has no telephone and couldn’t risk letting a doctor into her home even if she had. When she sees the look of confusion on the young man’s face, she explains her plight.
            For many years she has remained within this apartment, never venturing out or letting anyone in for fear of coming into contact with Mr. Death. Years ago, she saw a young man touch an old woman’s hand. When this old woman died shortly afterwards, it became clear that the young man who touched her was Mr. Death. Wanda has been hiding from Mr. Death ever since.
            Again, there is movement from without the apartment followed by an urgent knocking at the door. The policeman encourages Wanda to answer the door. She reluctantly opens the door. On the other side is a contractor who has scheduled Wanda’s apartment building to be torn down and whose job it is to ensure the old woman vacates the premises. Wanda resists, terrified at the prospect of leaving her apartment. The man forces his way into the apartment and knocks the old woman unconscious upon the floor.
            When Wanda awakens, she is lying upon her bed and the contractor is leaning over her with an expression of relief. He is holding her hand. Again, the old woman is amazed to still be alive after being touch by this stranger. She has mistaken him for Mr. Death.

The building contractor explains that he isn’t trying to be cruel but that the building is clearly unfit to live in. The city has condemned the dwelling and charged him with tearing it down. Wanda stands and pleads with the young policeman to help her explain to the contractor why she can’t leave the apartment. The contractor doesn’t seem to notice the policeman and gives Wanda an ultimatum to gather her possessions and vacate the premises.
After the man leaves it dawns on Wanda that the contractor couldn’t see the young policeman. The policeman is Mr. Death and has tricked Wanda into bringing him into her home. Wanda is terrified at this revelation but Mr. Death convinces her that he isn’t going to cause her pain and that death is not an end but a beginning. He implores her to take his hand and make the journey to the afterlife. She does so reluctantly. Together they walk from the apartment.  

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“There was an old woman who lived in a room, and like all of us was frightened of the dark. But who discovered in a minute, last fragment of her life that there was nothing in the dark that wasn’t there when the lights were on. Object lesson for the more frightened amongst us, in or out of the Twilight Zone.”


            George Clayton Johnson’s “Nothing in the Dark” is a haunting and evocative fantasy with individual characters of clear delineation and a refreshingly optimistic view of a fundamentally bleak subject. It stands in the absolute first rank of the series. The simplicity of both the concept and its execution work entirely in its favor. The Twilight Zone often presented character-based fantasies that focused on story and performance and thus required little in the way of setting or design (at least in the way these things are noticed by the average viewer), presenting the viewer with essentially a filmed stage play, harkening back to the earlier days of the medium and the Golden Age of live television drama, an area in which many of the major creators on the show got their starts. “Nothing in the Dark” could serve as a model of this type of production as it utilizes a single setting to evoke a feeling of dilapidation, claustrophobia, and imprisonment without sacrificing the Emmy Award-winning cinematography for which the series is renowned.
            “Nothing in the Dark” was originally intended to be the closing episode of the second season and was filmed during the second season production schedule, evidenced by the way in which the credits are displayed on the episode, as it followed the method used during the second season in which all credits, including the title, were displayed following the episode. For the third season, the title and primary credits were displayed at the beginning of the episode, after Rod Serling’s opening narration, with the remainder of the credits following at the end of the episode. “Nothing in the Dark” retains its second season formatting to this day.
            This means that “Nothing in the Dark” was the debut episode of director Lamont Johnson. As it happened, two of Johnson’s other episodes filmed for the third season (“The Shelter” and “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”) arrived in front of viewers before “Nothing in the Dark,” which was pushed back to the middle of the third season.
            After the departure of director Douglas Heyes from the series, Lamont Johnson stepped in as a director who could lend a distinctive stylistic touch to his episodes and one who fundamentally understood the versatility inherent in the advances in television cinematography. Johnson’s directing style is smooth and accomplished, with one fluid camera motion connecting to another via effective low-angle framing shots. Of course, accomplished cinematographer George T. Clemens is equally responsible for much of this excellent camera work but Clemens was a photographer who tended to adapt his style to that of the director with which he was working. If the director had a very staid style, Clemens’s camera was likewise content to simply cut from one framing shot to the next. The camerawork here is marred only once by a fairly obvious jump cut to achieve the effect of Mr. Death’s lack of reflection in a mirror on a wall.
            A more interesting aspect of Johnson’s direction and staging is the heavy use of symbolism in the episode. There is the obvious symbol of Wanda Dunn’s dilapidated dwelling as a physical representation of her own crumbling existence. There is also the obvious symbolism in the character of the building contractor, brought to life by a fine performance from veteran character actor R.G. Armstrong, whose occupation (the razing and construction of buildings) is a parallel to the life/death process in the natural world. A more subtle use of symbolism is that of imprisoning bars as a symbol of the nature and effects of Wanda’s psychosis. We first view Gladys Cooper’s sleeping form through the latticework of a chair back. She pushes this away as though opening a door when she is awakened by noise in the street. Later, when she awakens from the fall caused by the building contractor, Lamont Johnson chooses to film Gladys Cooper clutching the iron bars of a bed frame, giving the distinct impression of an imprisoned person (see photo in summary section above).  
            Johnson’s choice of filming the exit of Wanda and Mr. Death is also interesting. He chooses to follow the two completely out of the apartment, up the tenement steps and along the street until they disappear from the frame. Johnson’s camera never leaves the interior the apartment and the two characters stop briefly in the street for a final framing shot, reinforcing the optimistic tone of the episode. It would have been interesting to film the two characters leaving the apartment and then not reveal them on the outside, defying the viewer’s expectation of seeing them through the partially boarded window and suggesting a passage beyond. 
            After working in radio as an actor and announcer, Lamont Johnson began his directing career on the New York stage before moving into television drama. He specifically desired Gladys Cooper for the role of Wanda Dunn based on her long and varied career on the stage. Cooper was a beauty of the London stage and of silent films since before the start of the First World War. She began appearing on Broadway by the 1930's and moved gracefully into middle and late age in a variety of film and television roles, amassing three Academy Award nominations along the way for performances in Now, Voyager (1942), The Song of Bernadette (1943), and My Fair Lady (1964). Cooper would appear twice more on the series and was always exceptional in her performances. Cooper also had the fortune of working with the three principle writers of the show not named Rod Serling. She worked with George Clayton Johnson here on “Nothing in the Dark,” with Charles Beaumont on the fourth season episode “Passage on the Lady Anne,” and with Richard Matheson on the fifth season episode “Night Call,” exceptional episodes all.  
In “Nothing in the Dark,” she elicits pathos in her performance in a manner that is perhaps unmatched by any other performer on the series. There was, however, some reluctance when Cooper, a highly refined British actress, was cast in the role of the poverty-stricken Wanda Dunn, many believing the actress would struggle to bring herself low enough to achieve verisimilitude in the performance. Though Cooper had to work with Lamont Johnson during pre-production in order to achieve the most effective accent and manner, she eventually hit upon a flawless method of bringing Wanda Dunn to life as a once highly refined and beautiful woman brought low by old age and an incapacitating fear of death. The moment in which Wanda remembers the beauty of her youth and passes her aged hand through a band of sunlight upon the floor remains one of the more poignant moments from the series.
            Lamont Johnson was also involved in the selection of Robert Redford as the young policeman Harold Beldon. Redford has, of course, gone on to a highly successful career as both an actor and director but was still working his way up the acting ranks via character work at the time of filming this episode. He had, however, a previous connection to Rod Serling in that Redford performed the role of a Nazi soldier in Serling’s Playhouse 90 episode “In the Presence of Mine Enemies,” which originally aired on May 18, 1960. That final regular episode of Playhouse 90 was one of Serling’s more effective plays and featured an outstanding cast including Charles Laughton, Sam Jaffe, Arthur Kennedy, and George Macready. Redford’s performance in “Nothing in the Dark” has been lamented in some critical circles as leaden and unfeeling but this seems to have missed the point of both the character and the performance. Redford is essentially performing as the human form of an elemental being and can hardly be expected to turn in a highly charged or emotional performance. This would be highly out of character, especially for so melancholy a character as Death. Redford presents Death as a calm, rational, inevitable force, much like Death’s other two appearances on the series, in the first season episodes “One for the Angels” and “The Hitch-Hiker.” Though Redford was primarily cast for his pleasing appearance, his performance is an effective foil to Cooper’s highly emotional turn.

           George Clayton Johnson's original story treatment for the episode, entitled "There Is Nothing in the Dark That Wasn't There When the Light Was On," presents a very different set of events. Although the setup of the story is fundamentally the same, with Harry Beldon shot by a hoodlum and seeking help at the door of Wanda Bloor, the rest of the story differs considerably. In the original story treatment, Beldon is actually a wounded police officer. Wanda takes him into her home and promises to shield him from Mr. Death. Three characters come knocking at the door in succession, a worker from the gas company, a real estate agent, and another police officer. To Wanda, all three men look exactly the same, justifying her fears that it is Mr. Death trying to get inside to get at her and Beldon. Beldon, sensing Wanda's madness, calls out to the police officer, who pushes his way inside, inadvertently sending Wanda reeling backwards to avoid his touch. Wanda falls through a hole in the floor of her dilapidated apartment and dies. All three of the men who came knocking at the door are then shown to look completely different. The similarity in their appearances was all in Wanda's fractured mind. The story ends with Beldon seeing the driver of the hearse who has come to take Wanda's remains away. The hearse driver has the same face as seen on the three men through Wanda's eyes.
            It ends: "Beldon peers at him uncertainly. 'Don't I know you?' 'No,' says the driver, with a strange smile. 'But you will.'"              
           The genesis of Johnson's story lies in a Ray Bradbury story published about a year before production began on the episode. Bradbury was a strong influence on the core writers on The Twilight Zone. As such, his work was occasionally borrowed from in order to create a variance on a theme. It’s all the more astounding and frustrating that Bradbury was only able to place a single workable script with the series, the troubled third season episode “I Sing the Body Electric.”
            George Clayton Johnson, like his Twilight Zone co-writers Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, was mentored to a large degree by Bradbury while in the early stages of his professional career. Johnson clearly idolized Bradbury, going so far as to tell author Matthew R. Bradley in an interview for Filmfax magazine that through Bradbury’s work he (Johnson) was shown that perfection in writing could be achieved. Johnson would point to “Nothing in the Dark” as his own stake to the claim of perfection, an irony considering its close association with the Bradbury story titled “Death and the Maiden.”
            The similarities between the stories are unmistakable and Johnson admitted as much to author Matthew R. Bradley. When asked about the relationship of "Nothing in the Dark" to Bradbury's "Death and the Maiden," Johnson stated: "It's a perfect Bradbury forgery, too, when you stop to think. He's got a story called 'Death and the Maiden,' in which Death comes up to a castle where there's a beautiful maiden, sings to her about the glories of going off to his kingdom, finally lures her down from the castle, gets her onto his charger, cuddles her close, and races off, and she is then happy as can be. He has not lied to her, he's been very sincere and hasn't used any tricky language to get her to do it. So, you can see that the idea of Death as an innocent person, which is the soul of that story, has got its roots in Bradbury, and I freely admit it."  
            The opening of Bradbury's story, shared from my copy of The Machineries of Joy (1964), illustrates the close relationship between the stories, as it essentially offers the entire setup for "Nothing in the Dark." "Death and the Maiden" begins:

            "Far out in the country beyond the woods, beyond the world, really, lived Old Mam, and she had lived there for ninety years with the door locked tight, not opening for anyone, be it wind, rain, sparrow tapping or little boy with a pailful of crayfish rapping. If you scratched at her shutters, she called through: 
            "God away, Death!" 

            One can reasonably assume that Johnson read Bradbury’s fiction as it was published and so came upon “Death and the Maiden” in the March, 1960 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is fair to note here that although Johnson all but certainly took the germ of “Nothing in the Dark” from Bradbury’s “Death and the Maiden,” he subsequently crafted an emotionally effective story from that initial inspiration and included enough of a variation of the theme to make the story his own. 
            Bradbury’s story concerns a woman who lives far out in the country and is known in the nearest town by the name Old Mam. Like Wanda Dunn in “Nothing in the Dark,” Old Mam has shut herself away for many years in her home for fear of Death, which has tried many times to lure her out and seal her fate. It is here that the two stories diverge somewhat. “Nothing in the Dark” is about facing the fear of the unknown and the inevitability of death. “Death and the Maiden,” though also approaching these themes, concerns itself more with the idea that one is not truly alive if all the effort of life is spent avoiding death, though Johnson does include a major theme in the Bradbury story: the mournful remembrance of a youth long gone.
In Bradbury’s story, Old Mam is confronted by a young man carrying a vial of bright green liquid. She immediately recognizes the young man as Death and the young man soon acknowledges this as well, claiming that the green liquid contained in the vial is the essence of Old Mam's life at eighteen years old. Death appeals to the vanity of her younger self, when she was a beautiful, energetic woman using her real name, Clarinda. Death offers her a glimpse of her lost youth. He tempts her to taste of the green liquid and promises her twenty-four hours as herself at eighteen years old in exchange for an eternity in the afterlife. Like Wanda Dunn, Old Mam agrees to take the frightening journey hand-in-hand with Death. “Death and the Maiden” was first published in book form in Bradbury’s 1964 collection The Machineries of Joy.
            Bradbury previously approached similar material in a far more ghoulish manner with his story “There Was an Old Woman” from the July, 1944 issue of Weird Tales. This darkly comedic and highly entertaining story concerns a woman who is unwilling to proceed to the afterlife after dying. She is tricked by an ever-patient Death and must doggedly pursue her physical remains before an autopsy is performed. After hounding the mortician, the old woman interrupts her own autopsy and is allowed to reenter her physical body. The story ends with her proudly displaying her autopsy scars. “Not bad sewing, for a man,” she intones. The story is far different in tone from either of the later tales as it was written at the height of that wonderful 1940s period in which Bradbury was firmly committed to crafting his unique style of weird tale, a style of story that would be highly influential to William M. Gaines and Albert Feldstein, the primary architects of the EC line of horror comics Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear. Feldstein adapted “There was an Old Woman” for Tales from the Crypt #34 (Feb/March, 1953) and the story was illustrated by the supreme master of horror art “Ghastly” Graham Ingels. The Feldstein/Ingels adaptation was included in the 1965 Ballantine paperback The Autumn People, which collected the best of the EC adaptations of Bradbury’s weird tales. The story was first published in book form in Bradbury’s first book, Dark Carnival, from Arkham House publishers in 1947, as well as in Bradbury’s famous collection of weird tales The October Country from 1955. 
               Charles Beaumont, another acolyte of Bradbury and an early mentor to George Clayton Johnson, crafted a story similar to "Nothing in the Dark" but of a more humorous cast. It is also possible that Johnson took his inspiration from Beaumont's story as it was published some years before. The story in question is "The Customers," first published in 1957 in Beaumont's collection The Hunger and Other Stories. It concerns an elderly couple who hide away in their home in fear of a visit from Death, whose form they see in every person who comes knocking upon their door. When they are visited by a young man dressed all in black they resign themselves to let him in and get it over with. The humor stems from the fact that the reader understands that the young man is selling cemetery plots and the elderly couple believe him to be death itself. Beaumont's story also contains a strong element of the cold of winter. 
            It is important to remember that these writers were part of a collective group of writers, the Southern California School, who were very close personal friends and frequent collaborators in which the exchange of ideas was constant. One telling example of this is the story of Ray Bradbury and Charles Beaumont driving along one day in the early 1950's and both noticing a sign on the side of road advertising "free dirt." From this sprung one of Beaumont's most acclaimed short stories, "Free Dirt," published in 1955 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. More than forty years later Bradbury tried his own hand at a story titled "Free Dirt," sparked from the same memory of that sign on the side of the road. It appeared in his 1996 collection Quicker Than the Eye. All of this is a way of saying that the exchange of ideas among this group of young writers was frequent and perhaps not beholden to common views on plagiarism, although Bradbury did take exception to "Nothing in the Dark."
            Unfortunately, Rod Serling, who was only a peripheral member of the Group, was not given as much leeway when his work crossed thematic lines with the work of the other writers on the series. As a result, "Nothing in the Dark" became a focal point for the slow dissolution of the relationship between Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury. It was a relationship which began in 1958 but began to dissolve as Bradbury struggled to get his work produced on The Twilight Zone while also coming to believe that Serling was freely lifting his story ideas for his own episodes. With "Nothing in the Dark," both Bradbury and Charles Beaumont warned Clayton Johnson about the similarities between his story and Bradbury's "Death and the Maiden." Bradbury did not want the script produced. When the episode finally aired and was seen to be such a moving and memorable episode, Bradbury largely held Serling accountable for knowingly producing a plagiarized work.
            Despite its debt to similar works of fiction, “Nothing in the Dark” remains an episode that rises far above the novelty of its surprise ending and contains enough thematic and symbolic material to appease even the most demanding viewer of the show. It also showcases the debuts of Lamont Johnson (in production, not broadcast), one of the three or four finest directors for the series, and Glayds Cooper, who must be counted in the absolute front rank of performers on the series. It is a justifiably famous episode that manages to perfectly capture that unique blend of melancholy and optimistic that distinguished the series from similar television material.

Grade: A+

-Lamont Johnson directed seven additional episodes for the series, including the exceptional season three episodes “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” and “Kick the Can.”
-Gladys Cooper appeared in two additional episodes, “Passage on the Lady Anne” from season four and “Night Call” from season five.
-“Nothing in the Dark” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Marshall Allman and Roz Alexander. The adaptation is by M.J. Elliott and is one of the finest offerings of the series. It includes an interesting opening sequence in which Wanda suffers a recurring nightmare where she is lost outside in an unfamiliar place. There, she meets a man who soon reveals himself to be a terrifying incarnation of Death.
--Grateful acknowledgement to George Clayton Johnson's Twilight Zone Scripts and Stories for information on the original story treatment of the episode.

-Jordan Prejean              

Friday, November 11, 2016

Veterans Day

Spend Veterans Day in The Twilight Zone with this guide to the episodes concerning war and political conflict. To all the brave men and women who have served: Thank you for your service. 

A passenger on an ocean liner during World War II gets the uneasy feeling that the ship is doomed in Rod Serling's eerie thriller, "Judgment Night"

A WWI pilot who fled a chance at heroism is given an opportunity for redemption in Richard Matheson's time travel fantasy "The Last Flight."

A war-weary lieutenant is given the terrible gift of foresight in Rod Serling's melancholy fantasy "The Purple Testament."

A WWII pilot is transported into a nightmare in Rod Serling's unnerving episode, "King Nine Will Not Return."

Two survivors from opposing sides of a world-ending war try and find hope among the ashes in Montgomery Pittman's tense and touching episode "Two."

Two survivors of the Civil War meet at an eerie crossroads in Rod Serling's haunting and dream-like episode "The Passersby."

The sadistic commander of a concentration camp during WWII gets his comeuppance in Rod Serling's frightening revenge tale "Deaths-head Revisited."

Confederate soldiers receive a lesson in war and witchcraft in Rod Serling's adaptation of Manly Wade Wellman's "Still Valley."

A brash young lieutenant is made to understand the value of human life in Rod Serling's affecting WWII fantasy "A Quality of Mercy."

A U.S. naval destroyer intercepts a ghostly signal in Rod Serling's first offering of the fourth season, "The Thirty Fathom Grave."

A regretful father offers the ultimate sacrifice when his son is wounded in Vietnam in Rod Serling's heartbreaking drama, "In Praise of Pip." 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

"A Quality of Mercy"

Albert Salmi and Dean Stockwell
“A Quality of Mercy”
Season Three, Episode 80
Original Air Date: December 29, 1961

Lt. Katell/Lt. Yamuri: Dean Stockwell
Sgt. Causarano: Albert Salmi
Watkins: Rayford Barnes
Hanachek: Ralph Voltrian
Hansen: Leonard Nimoy
Sgt. Yamazaki: Dale Ishimoto
Japanese Captain: J.H. Fujikawa

Writer: Rod Serling (based on an idea by Sam Rolfe)
Director: Buzz Kulik
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Editor: Jason H. Bernie
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week Mr. Dean Stockwell makes his journey into the Twilight Zone, playing the role of a platoon lieutenant on Corregidor during the last few hours of World War Two. What happens to him provides the basis of a weird and yet we think haunting excursion into the shadowland of imagination. On the Twilight Zone next week Mr. Dean Stockwell stars in ‘The Quality of Mercy.’” *
*In his preview narration Rod Serling clearly states the title of the episode as “The Quality of Mercy” rather than “A Quality of Mercy,” the latter of which is the title of the play as displayed during its broadcast. The Shakespeare quote from which Serling borrows the title begins “The quality of mercy. .  .”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:

“It’s August, 1945, the last grimy pages of a dirty, torn book of war. The place is the Philippine Islands. The men are what’s left of a platoon of American infantry, whose dulled and tired eyes set deep in dulled and tired faces can now look toward a miracle; that moment when the nightmare appears to be coming to an end. But they’ve got one more battle to fight and in a moment we’ll observe that battle. August, 1945, Philippine Islands. But in reality it’s high noon in the Twilight Zone.”

            It is August 6, 1945, and on the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay a group of war-weary American infantrymen are positioned on a ridge overlooking a cave in which some two dozen sick and wounded Japanese soldiers are holed-up. The American infantry is observing for a mortar company that is attempting to force the Japanese soldiers into surrender by use of explosives. It is not going well. The war is all but decided in favor of the Allied Forces and still this group of Japanese soldiers refuses to give up. The infantrymen fervently hope they will not be called upon to storm the cave on foot and risk senseless bloodshed.

            Lieutenant Katell soon arrives to take control of the situation. Katell is young, clearly inexperienced, and overly eager to prove his worth as a commanding officer through the unnecessary killing of the Japanese soldiers trapped in the cave. Katell is unsympathetic to the weariness of the other American soldiers and quickly puts together a plan to storm the cave and kill the Japanese soldiers despite the protestations from the infantrymen. His bloodthirst and foolish eagerness borders on lunacy at this point in the conflict, and Sargent Causarano informs Katell that they could easily bypass any conflict with the Japanese soldiers in the cave without it affecting the outcome of the war in the least way. Katell does not care to hear about avoiding conflict with the Japanese. He is going to treat this day as though it were the first day of the war.
            Katell drops his binoculars. A subtle change is felt and he stoops to retrieve them. Katell discovers that it is now daytime and he is surrounded by Japanese soldiers. What Katell cannot see is that he too is a Japanese soldier by all appearances. He panics and takes off running toward an open area near the mouth of a cave. Gunfire halts his progress and he hides behind a rock. He sees an American firing at him from the entrance of the cave.
            Katell is told that he is Lieutenant Yamuri and that it is May 4, 1942. The Japanese are preparing to storm the cave and overtake the group of wounded Americans that have taken refuge there. The commanding officer believes
Katell/Yamuri has lost his nerve when the young lieutenant attempts to dissuade the captain from attacking the weakened Americans trapped in the cave. The captain tells Katell/Yamuri the same thing Katell told the American soldiers. There will be no mercy.
          Again, Katell/Yamuri drops his binoculars and finds himself back in 1945 with the American company. The company receives word that the Americans have dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. There is now no need to attack the Japanese soldiers in the cave, much to Katell’s relief in light of his newfound perspective.        

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.’ Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice. But applicable to any moment in time, any group of soldiery, to any nation on the face of the Earth. Or, as in this case, to the Twilight Zone.”


            It is obvious to regular viewers of the series that Rod Serling found the theme of war well suited to exploring the particular type of moral allegory he found appealing as a writer. Stories of war were a constant and integral part of the series and the theme was explored in a wide range of efforts from the Civil War (“Still Valley,” “The Passersby”) to tales of futuristic warfare (“Two”). Though other writers for the series dabbled in war themes (Richard Matheson’s “The Last Flight” and Montgomery Pittman’s “Two”), the vast majority of war episodes were penned by Serling. The Second World War in particular was the conflict of most concern, being fresh in the minds of both the viewing audience and the show’s creators, many of whom found themselves thrust into military service at the time of the conflict.
            “A Quality of Mercy” is the second Rod Serling episode to explore the Pacific Theater of the Second World War and, more specifically, to examine the emotional and physical toll war takes from a soldier. The first season episode “The Purple Testament” was another Serling offering with a similar setting and theme which was boosted by a haunting performance from William Reynolds as a lieutenant that can foresee the deaths of other soldiers by way of a ghostly light which illuminates their faces shortly before death.  With “A Quality of Mercy,” Serling is exploring much of the same ground in a new and interesting way, one which connects his efforts in this mode all the way back to his 1958 play “The Time Element.”  
            “A Quality of Mercy” is boosted by an excellent cast, especially in the form of Albert Salmi as the war-weary Sargent Causarano who desires nothing more than to see the end of the conflict, and Dean Stockwell as the brash young lieutenant. Salmi is the avatar for Serling himself in the episode. Serling was a strong supporter of the war effort while still in high school and immediately enlisted upon graduating, going against the advice of one of his teachers. It would quickly become apparent to his commanding officers that Serling was too sensitive a person to be considered a “good” soldier (i.e. a soldier that could put his emotions away long enough to kill without thought of the action).
            Serling spent three years in the 11th Airborne Division of the Army, from 1943 until his discharge in 1946. Serling took up the hobby of boxing while training in Georgia as part of the 511th Parachute Infantry. His company headed to the Pacific Theater aboard the U.S.S. Pike in 1944. Serling saw combat in November of that year not as a paratrooper but as a member of light infantry. Serling was transferred to the demolition platoon of the 511th due in part to his commanding officer’s belief that Serling’s temperament was unfit to make a good soldier. It was while serving in this capacity that Serling experienced the horrifying accidental death of a close friend when a supply crate fell upon the unaware soldier. It was an incident which clearly illustrated to Serling the absurd and senseless nature of a death in war.  
            Despite the image of Serling as an unsuitable soldier, he was twice wounded before deploying to Tagaytay Ridge in 1945 to march on Manila. After a month, the Americans reclaimed the city and began a celebration with local inhabitants. It was during one such celebration that the celebrants came under fire from Japanese artillery which Serling braved in order to save a performer. Serling’s cumulative actions while serving would yield him the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Philippine Liberation Medal by the time of his discharge in 1946.  
            Serling clearly related to both the William Reynolds character from “The Purple Testament” and the Albert Slami character in “A Quality of Mercy” in that both characters are emotional and weary soldiers that paint a completely opposite image from the largely propaganda-based image of a trigger happy, cigar chewing American soldier of the time. Serling’s soldiers are sensitive, intelligent, and possess individual personalities. An air of doom surrounds all of Serling’s war episodes, undoubtedly influenced by Serling’s own harrowing experiences during the war. It is interesting to note as well that both of the aforementioned episodes are stories of transition, and not only from life to death or from war to peace. They are stories about internal transitions and transformations in which one is forced to see within another and experience the world through another's eyes. The war was a time of ultimate transformation for Serling, from a child into a man, from innocence to experience, and it signaled the death of childhood in many ways. When Serling came home from war, his father, Stanley, was gone, dead of a heart attack in 1945. Once opportunity his stint in the armed forces did afford is the opportunity to get an education. Serling enrolled in Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio on the G.I. Bill and, after briefly studying for a career in physical education, refocused his attentions on writing and literature. Serling had written since an early age and wrote dramatic material for the Armed Forces Radio Network during the war. 
            Albert Salmi, here portraying Sargent Causarano, has become a recognizable face from the series, having previously appeared as a murderous cowboy in Rod Serling’s adaptation of George Clayton Johnson’s “Execution” from the first season. Salmi would also have a meaty role as a ruthless and jaded business tycoon in the fourth season episode “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville,” Rod Serling’s adaptation of Malcolm Jameson’s short story “Blind Alley.” Salmi began acting on stage, making it to Broadway by the mid-50s, and would establish himself as one of the more prolific character actors of his generation. Salmi suffered from alcoholism and clinical depression and tragically killed his estranged wife before turning the gun on himself in 1990 at the age of 62.
            Of course, the star of the episode is Dean Stockwell, well-known to science fiction fans as Al Calavicci from Quantum Leap (1989-1993), an engaging time-travel series which owes much to The Twilight Zone in general and episodes such as “A Quality of Mercy” in particular. A Hollywood native, Stockwell has been acting since he was a child on contract to MGM. For many years he retained a youthful appearance which leant itself to his portrayals of inexperienced characters which find themselves in over their heads. Earlier in 1961, Stockwell starred as just such a character in one of the finer offerings of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the sixth season episode “The Landlady,” scripted by Robert Bloch from the story by Roald Dahl and directed by Hitchcock himself.
            Ironically, Stockwell was initially considered for the lead role in “The Purple Testament” and was forced to bow out due to a scheduling conflict. Producer Buck Houghton and Serling thought highly enough of Stockwell to bring him back for “A Quality of Mercy,” an episode very similar in tone and content. In the latter episode, however, Stockwell would be required to play an entirely different type of character from William Reynold’s emotionally weary lieutenant. Stockwell brought an effective verisimilitude to his portrayal of the inexperienced, brash young lieutenant eager to prove his worth by inflicting pain and death. The story is almost too big for the constricted time frame of the episode and both Salmi and Stockwell are forced to established believable characterizations in a very short amount of time.
            A greater challenge to Stockwell was to portray a Japanese soldier, which he accomplishes with surprising sensitivity due in part to the subtle yet effective makeup which completes his transformation. Stockwell’s character goes back in time through a non-mechanized mode of time travel (similar to that seen previously in the Civil War-era episode “Back There”) to May 4, 1942, the day before the Battle of Corregidor, a battle which allowed the Japanese to take control of the island in order to have access to the harbor at Manila Bay. The purpose of Stockwell’s trip is, of course, to allow the bigoted American lieutenant to experience a situation not only from the other side of the conflict but one which elicits an emotional response within him. By displaying passion to save American lives he learns the lesson that all life, even in war, is of value. Serling was never one to shy away from a controversial topic and this episode much have struck a chord with audiences of the time.
            Having learned his lesson, the lieutenant is brought back to August 6, 1945 and news that the Americans have dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, effectively ending any need of further engagement with Japanese soldiers. America would drop another atomic bomb, this time on the city of Nagasaki, on August 9. The Japanese surrendered six days later. It is interesting that Serling chose to have the decision of whether or not to attack the helpless Japanese soldiers taken out of the lieutenant’s hands. Though it is clear he has a newfound outlook on life after his time travel experience, it would perhaps have been more impactful for the lieutenant to call off the attack rather than be saved by the deus ex machina ending Serling chose to cap the episode. The unusual choice doesn’t spoil the effectiveness of the episode, however.
            One aspect of the episode that is highly effective is the setting, a lush jungle that is convincingly vast in scope. According to multiple sources, the jungle set on “A Quality of Mercy” was filmed at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, California. The studio was torn down just a couple years after the filming of the episode. Roach was a producer from New York who moved to Hollywood in 1912 and used an inheritance to begin a film production company during the silent era. Roach became famous as the producer of the Laurel and Hardy and The Little Rascals series of films.
            Sam Rolfe, who provided Rod Serling with the idea for “A Quality of Mercy,” was an accomplished screenwriter beginning in the early 1950s who soon moved into television, co-creating the long running western Have Gun-Will Travel (1957-1963) and contributing both conceptually and in actual script production for the first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968).
            It has been suggested in some writings that “A Quality of Mercy” was the basis for “Time Out,” the first segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. The segment was directed by John Landis and concerns a racist (Vic Morrow) who is sent back in time to experience the plight of the oppressed in areas such as Nazi Germany, the American South, and Vietnam. Although the two segments contain similarities, there is no evidence that Landis, who scripted “Time Out,” was directly influenced by “A Quality of Mercy.” No credit to Rolfe is given in the film and it is the only segment of the film which is not a direct remake of an episode of the original series. As is well documented, Vic Morrow, along with two child actors, was killed while filming “Time Out.” The scene was to show the racist character save two Vietnamese children and thus redeem himself. An explosive special effect ignited a close-flying helicopter which then spun out of control and crashed down into the water on top of Morrow and the children, killing all three. The accident resulted in a prolonged trial which eventually exonerated John Landis from any wrongdoing. Landis used a more downbeat ending from existing footage which changes the tone of the segment.
            In all, “A Quality of Mercy” may be the finest war episode produced on the series, with its sensitive script, strong cast, and excellent sets, it remains a reminder that the show still had some gas left in the tank when it came to producing original and engaging content. It would be remiss to not mention Leonard Nimoy’s part in the episode. Nimoy is seen here in an early role as Hansen, the radio operator, who is given a single line of dialogue. Nimoy will forever be famous for his portrayal of science officer Spock on the original series of Star Trek (1966-1969).

Grade: B

Grateful acknowledgement is made to for information on Rod Serling's military career. 

Thanks also to authors Marc Scott Zicree and Martin Grams, Jr. for the information on the connection to the Hal Roach Studios. 


-“A Quality of Mercy” was directed by Buzz Kulik, who also directed d 8 additional episodes, including “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” and “A Game of Pool.”

-Albert Salmi also appeared in the first season episode “Execution” and in the fourth season episode “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville.” He appeared in the episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "The Waiting Room."

-J.H. Fujikawa also appeared in the third season episode “To Serve Man.”

-Dean Stockwell also appears in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "Whisper."

-Leonard Nimoy also appears in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "She'll Be Company for You." 

-“A Quality of Mercy” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Robert Knepper.

-The title is taken from William Shakespeare's 1599 play The Merchant of Venice. The quote can be found beginning on line 184 of Act IV, scene i. The dialogue is delivered by the heroine of the play, Portia. 

--Jordan Prejean