Wednesday, June 14, 2017

"Person or Persons Unknown"

Pictured here: David Gurney (Richard Long) on a trip to the Twilight Zone

“Person or Persons Unknown”
Season Three, Episode 92
Original Air Date: March 23, 1962

David Andrew Gurney: Richard Long
Dr. Koslenko: Frank Silvera
Wilma #1: Shirley Ballard
Wilma #2: Julie Van Zandt
Sam Baker: Ed Glover
Clerk: Betty Harford
Policeman: Michael Keep
Bank Guard: Joe Higgins
Mr. Cooper: John Newton
Sam the Bartender: Clegg Hoyt
Truck Owner: Bob McCord

Writer: Charles Beaumont (original teleplay)
Director: John Brahm
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: Robert W. Pittack
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Merrill Pye
Set Decoration: Keogh Gleason
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Robert Walker
Film Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:

“Next week we again borrow from the considerable talents of Charles Beaumont and we take a fast trot on the wild side. Picture if you will, a man who wakes up in a strange world, knows everyone, knows every place, feels very much at home. The strangeness comes from the fact that no one knows him. Try this one for size on the next Twilight Zone. It’s called ‘Person or Persons Unknown.’

“Habit is something you do when pleasure is gone, and certainly this is not the way to smoke. I prefer to smoke Chesterfields and get the rich taste of 21 great tobaccos. Blended mild not filtered mild. Smoke for pleasure. Smoke Chesterfields.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:

“Cameo of a man who has just lost his most valuable possession. He doesn’t know about the loss yet. In fact, he doesn’t even know about the possession. Because, like most people, David Gurney has never really thought about the matter of his identity. But he’s going to be thinking a great deal about it from now on, because that is what he’s lost. And his search for it is going to take him into the darkest corners…of the Twilight Zone.”


            David Gurney wakes up in his home after a long night of revelry. His wife Wilma is asleep next to him. After realizing he is late for work he attempts to make himself presentable all the while talking to his sleeping wife. He is regretting the late night and is apparently losing the fight with his hangover.
            When Wilma finally awakens she screams. She looks at Gurney as if he is a total stranger. Believing her behavior to be an act he informs her that he is late for work. She says she has never seen him before in her life. More irritated than shocked, Gurney leaves for work.
            At the bank where he works, Gurney notices a man he does not recognize sitting in his desk. Still believing the strange morning to be part of an elaborate gag, he asks the man with mocking politeness to give him back his desk. The stranger looks at him with a bemused face and does not attempt to move. Gurney tries getting the attention of his co-workers but they all seem to look at him with the same confused expression. Frustrated, he begins to yell at the stranger, demanding that he get up. A security guard escorts him outside where he sees Wilma standing in front of a police cruiser. She identifies Gurney as the man who broke into her apartment earlier that morning. After a fruitless argument, officers arrest Gurney.
            Later, Gurney finds himself in a psychiatric hospital trying to prove his sanity. A doctor named Koslenko tells him that he has created a fantasy life in order to escape his problems. Gurney says he can prove his story and asks for a phone to call his mother. She claims that she does not have a son named David Gurney. He reluctantly gives the phone back to the doctor. He still believes that he can make sense of the situation and prove his innocence. He crashes through a window and takes off running.
            He arrives at a bar, a secret place that he has never mentioned to anyone. Not surprisingly, the bartender fails to recognize him. Gurney can feel his sanity slipping. Then he gets an idea. He races to a photography studio to pick up a photograph of himself and his wife at the zoo. His wife, he says, does not know that the photograph exists. The counter clerk hands him the photograph and he is relieved when he sees his wife in the picture with his arm around her. As he opens the door to leave he is greeted by Dr. Koslenko and several police officers. Gurney hands the doctor the photograph but the doctor’s face remains expressionless. Gurney snatches the picture out of his hands and looks at it. In the photograph David Gurney stands alone, his arm around no one. He collapses to the ground, sobbing.
             Moments later, he wakes up in his apartment. It was just a dream, he realizes, a nightmare. He begins talking to his wife who is in the bathroom. He tells her about his terrifying dream and his hangover. Wilma walks into the bedroom. Gurney stares at her in disbelief. This is not his wife. He has never seen this woman before in his life. Finally fearing that his sanity may have officially left him, he collapses on the bed in horror.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:

“A case of mistaken identity or a nightmare turned inside out? A simple loss of memory or the end of the world? David Gurney may never find the answer, but you can be sure he’s looking for it…in the Twilight Zone.”


“Person or Persons Unknown,” Charles Beaumont’s twenty-four minute urban nightmare about mistaken identity, could be considered the quintessential Twilight Zone episode for its premise illustrates the theme present in the majority of the show’s darker efforts: a person inexplicably faced with a situation beyond their comprehension inducing a terror that they cannot share with anyone else. Rod Serling often described the most devastating type of fear as a fear of the unknown that affects only one person, a fear which that person cannot share with anyone else. Richard Matheson described the thematic element running throughout the majority of his work in a similar manner: “an individual isolated in a threatening world, attempting to survive.” If the main focus of the show was to explore this particular part of human psychology then it makes sense that its three main contributors would all have a substantial interest in the same area. The way they approached the subject, however, was unique to each writer.
Serling often approached the theme in a very humanistic manner, where a character’s fate is determined by their own moral compass. The good guys are rewarded with a happy ending and the bad guys usually suffer a less appealing fate. Matheson was fascinated with social interaction and exposing the affectations people wear around others by placing his characters in unfamiliar situations. His stories usually focus on how people react to their surroundings. Beaumont possessed an unquestionable fascination with human psychology, particularly in how our subconscious influences our personality and our interpretation of the world around us.
The plot of this episode bears a strong resemblance to Serling’s “And When the Sky Was Open,” which is a loose adaptation of Richard Matheson’s story “Disappearing Act,” and Matheson’s own “A World of Difference.” The basic premise of “Person or Persons Unknown” actually feels more like a Matheson idea than a Beaumont idea. The most terrifying thing about this story is that at no time does it attempt to explain what is happening or why. So the audience knows exactly what David Gurney knows and they experience the same sense of absurd bewilderment that he is experiencing. Why has this happened? Who or what is causing it to happen? Is Gurney insane or is he in an alternate reality of some kind? Beaumont never tells us. Matheson excelled at this type of story.
Beaumont brought his personality to the story by having a psychiatrist provide a possible explanation for Gurney’s predicament. Depressed or unhappy with his own life, our hero has manufactured a fictional character named David Gurney and given him a happy, normal life to substitute for his own. Beaumont often used psychiatrists as a way of probing a character’s subconscious. “Perchance to Dream,” “Miniature,” and “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You”—in which Long coincidentally plays an absurdly flamboyant psychiatrist named Sigmund Friend—all feature doctors of the mind in varying degrees of authority.
Beaumont also had a life-long obsession with dreams and how they represent our personality. In an interview with the San Diego Union Beaumont said that as a child he would dream episodically, with a different episode each night. He examined this in his very first teleplay for the show, “Perchance to Dream,” where protagonist Edward Hall is experiencing a reoccurring nightmare which inches along each time he falls asleep, eventually ending with his death, both in the dream and in real life. This is the first of a trilogy of episodes written by Beaumont which explore the process of dreaming, the second being his season two episode “Shadow Play” and the third being “Person to Persons Unknown.” All three episodes explore basically the same theme, although in the latter two the characters and images change from one dream to another, but the fear is always the same: the hero is trapped in a nightmare which he cannot escape. Beaumont ends “Persons to Persons Unknown” by letting the audience briefly think that they have arrived at an explanation only to leave them, and David Gurney, back where they began. He awakens from a nightmare into a nightmare.
No matter the device he used to explore it, Beaumont seemed to be endlessly fascinated with the subconscious mind for this theme occurs again and again throughout his work. His story “The Hunger” is about sexual repression. “Fair Lady” explores repressed loneliness. “In His Image” explores the process of rediscovering forgotten memories—even though they turn out to be someone else’s memories. Beaumont had an immense interest in the make-up of the human mind. Had his life not been cut tragically short he likely would have produced a novel-length work on the subject.
“Person or Persons Unknown” has one of the most clever twist endings in the show’s history (it was number 18 on our 20 best twist endings countdown). It is also one of the most subtle which, unfortunately, may diminish its shock value upon a first viewing. The main reason it is lost on many viewers is that the first Wilma doesn’t have much screen time. By the time the audience is introduced to Wilma #2, the original Wilma hasn’t been on screen for almost fifteen minutes. And for much of her screen time she is wearing a head wrap so the dramatic switch in hair color, which is the main visual indicator that it is a different actress, does not pack the punch that it should. It is a brilliant idea on paper but one that slightly loses its impact on the screen.
This is likely due to the somewhat lackluster direction from Twilight Zone stalwart John Brahm. This is atypical direction for Brahm whose signature dark, dream-like style, evident in episodes like “Judgement Night” and “Shadow Play,” is a perfect fit for the show. Instead of focusing on the dream aspect of this story Brahm takes a more realistic approach to what is happening. Instead of shadows and dark imagery, the entire episode takes place in the middle of the day with many exterior scenes under bright burning sunlight. This cheats the episode of the moody atmosphere needed in this type of story. Brahm does make interesting use of close head shots of Richard Long, showcasing his animated facial expressions.
Long is without a doubt the best thing about this episode. He gives David Gurney a slightly off-putting personality which actually helps to make him a more relatable character. Instead of losing his mind due to having his life pulled out from under him he remains defiant and rational until the end. As mentioned, Long appears in Beaumont and John Tomerlin’s fifth season episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” where he plays several different characters. Long started acting while still in his teens, first appearing in the film Tomorrow is Forever with Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert in 1946 and then in Welles’s The Stranger that same year. He also appeared in four of the Ma and Pa Kettle films. As an adult he appeared in several memorable horror films including William Castle's House on Haunted Hill (1959). He is probably best remembered for his roles in Bourbon Street Beat, 77 Sunset Strip, and The Big Valley. He also appeared in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. In 1974 he suffered several heart attacks within weeks of each other and died at the age of 47.
            While it has its share of flaws “Person or Persons Unknown” is still an enjoyable episode. Beaumont’s script is solid and Long’s performance is immensely entertaining to watch. It’s an episode which strips the show’s thematic thread to its rawest form and illustrates what it strove to say about fear and the human condition, that man’s greatest and oldest fear is simply being alone.

Grade: B

Grateful acknowledgement to:

--The Twilight Zone Scripts of Charles Beaumont, Volume One, edited by Roger Anker (Gauntlet Press, 2004)

--Richard Matheson: Collected Stories edited by Stanley Wiater (Dream
Press, 1989)

--The Twilight Zone Definitive Edition DVD Season One (Image Entertainment, 2004)

--Original Pilot Version of “Where Is Everybody?”

--Rod Serling 1975 Lecture at Sherwood Oaks College


--Richard Long also appears in the season five episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” co-written by Beaumont and John Tomerlin.
--John Brahm directed twelve episodes of The Twilight Zone, more than anyone else—Douglas Heyes and Buzz Kulik are tied for second place with nine episodes each. He is also the only director to contribute to all five seasons of the show. His credits include season one’s “Judgement Night,” “Mirror Image,” and “The Four of Us Are Dying,” season two’s “Shadow Play” and season four’s “The New Exhibit.”
--This is the first of twenty episodes for director of photography Robert W. Pittack. His other contributions to the show include the classics “Death Ship,” “Jess-Belle,” “Miniature,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and “Living Doll.”
--Listen to the Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring John Schneider.



  1. I always mix this one up with "A World of Difference" for some reason. My work on the Hitchcock series has lessened my appreciation for John Brahm, who seems to have been going through the motions some of the time.

  2. The plots and general tone of both episodes are very similar. Brahm was usually a pretty dependable director. His work in the first two seasons of the show is spectacular. His episodes after that do seem a bit uninspired with the exception of "The New Exhibit." He was very skilled at a certain type of story and unfortunately he was sometimes hired to direct episodes that didn't adhere to his usual dark, dream-like style. I'll have to brush up on his work for AHP/AHH. I still need to see his version of The Lodger as well.

  3. "Had his life not been cut tragically short" - this comment made me Google Mr. Beaumont. The fact that he may have passed from Alzheimer's (and/or Pick's Disease) makes it all the more interesting (and sad) that he wrote this story in which a person ends up not recognizing the face of a loved one.

    1. When I first became a fan of the show in college I was almost totally unfamiliar with Beaumont. As I discovered his catalog of work over the next few years I became equally as interested in his stories and essays as with Beaumont himself. His life was endlessly fascinating and incredibly tragic. Much of Beaumont's work is a reflection of his personality and in some cases an eerie foreshadowing of his life. If you are interested in his work his career retrospective THE HOWLING MAN, edited by Roger Anker (Tor, 1992) with essays from those closest to him, is probably the definitive collection of his work. Unfortunately, it is a bit pricey these days, like most of his books, but you can still get a decent copy for around $30. His first short story collection THE HUNGER is also really good and was recently re-issued by Valancourt Books for an affordable price. Thanks for the comment!