Monday, November 19, 2018

"Death Ship"

Picture of the crew of E-89. From left: Jack Klugman, Ross Martin, Fredrick Beir

“Death Ship”
Season Four, Episode 108
Original Air Date: February 7, 1963

Cpt. Ross: Jack Klugman
Lt. Mason: Ross Martin
Lt. Carter: Fredrick Beir
Ruth: Mary Webster
Kramer: Ross Elliott
Mrs. Nolan: Sara Taft
Jeannie: Tammy Marihugh

Writer: Richard Matheson (based on his story)
Director: Don Medford
Producer: Herbert Hirschman
Director of Photography: Robert Pittack
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Assistant to the Producer: John Conwell
Art Direction: George W. Davis & Edward Carfagno
Film Editor: Richard W. Farrell
Set Decoration: Henry Grace & Edward M. Parker
Assistant Director: Ray De Camp
Sound: Franklin Milton & Joe Edmondson
Music: stock
Optical Effects: Pacific Title
Rod Serling’s Wardrobe provided by Eagle Clothes
Filmed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Mr. Richard Matheson lets his typewriter pay us a return visit next time out on Twilight Zone with a story called ‘Death Ship.’ Now, this one is for science fiction aficionados, ghost story buffs, and any and all who file away clues with an eye toward out-guessing the writer. Next on Twilight Zone Messrs. Jack Klugman, Ross Martin, and Fred Beir take an extended trip through space on ‘Death Ship.’"

 Rod Serling’s Opening Narration: 

“Picture of the spaceship E-89, cruising above the thirteenth planet of star system fifty-one, the year 1997. In a little while, supposedly, the ship will be landed and specimens taken: vegetable, mineral, and, if any, animal. These will be brought back to overpopulated Earth where technicians will evaluate them and, if everything is satisfactory, stamp their findings with the word ‘inhabitable,’ and open up yet another planet for colonization. These are the things that are supposed to happen.

“Picture of the crew of the spaceship E-89: Captain Ross, Lieutenant Mason, Lieutenant Carter. Three men who have just reached a place which is as far from home as they will ever be. Three men who in a matter of minutes will be plunged into the darkest nightmare reaches of The Twilight Zone.” 


            The Spaceship E-89 scans an unexplored planet while cruising high above the surface. Lt. Mason sees a blip on the view screen, a possible indication of life on the planet below. The crew, which also includes Capt. Ross and Lt. Carter, gathers around the view screen. Capt. Ross quickly assumes a stern command of the situation and tampers the excitement of the other two men. Though Capt. Ross is wary of landing on the planet, the other men convince him otherwise.
            E-89 makes a smooth landing but the crew is horrified to see a ship exactly like their own crashed nearby. After a show of tension with Lt. Mason, Capt. Ross reluctantly agrees to explore the crashed ship. Inside, the men are further horrified to discover what appears to be their own dead bodies. Capt. Ross dismisses the grisly discovery as deception and orders the men back to their ship.    
            Capt. Ross comes to the conclusion that what they have witnessed is only a possible future, perhaps one created by their passage through a time warp. It is an outcome which will only occur if they take off again. He decides they are to remain on the planet’s surface indefinitely. The other men staunchly oppose this drastic measure but are overruled by their captain.
            Lt. Carter closes his eyes in a moment of despair. When he opens them again he finds himself standing near the road which leads to his home on Earth. Confused, he slowly walks down the road until he is happily met by a man named Kramer, who appears to have been hunting in the nearby woods. The two men are soon met by Mrs. Nolan, a kindly old woman. At the mention of his wife Mary’s name, Lt. Carter runs down the road toward his home, leaving Kramer and Mrs. Nolan behind. Carter arrives at his home but cannot find his wife anywhere. In the bedroom he sees an ominous sign. Laid upon the bed are the black veil and gloves which a woman in mourning might wear. Worse still is a telegram laid beside the veil and gloves. It is from the Space Exploration Agency and states that Carter was killed in the line of duty. Suddenly, Carter is called back by the voice of Capt. Ross and inexplicably finds himself again on the spaceship.
            Cater realizes that the people he met on the road are dead and that he too must be dead. Capt. Ross refutes the idea. Their resultant argument is interrupted when they realize Lt. Mason has vanished.
            Mason awakens in a grove near a lake. He is astonished to see his young daughter Jeannie and gathers her in an emotional embrace. He then rushes to his wife, Ruth, who is setting up for a picnic in a nearby clearing. She asks if he is asleep. “Oh, if I am I hope I never wake up,” Mason replies. Suddenly, Capt. Ross pushes his way through the overgrowth and into the clearing. He’s come to take Mason back to the ship. A fight ensues and Ross manages to drag the other man back to the imprisoning spaceship.
            Capt. Ross removes a newspaper clipping from Mason’s shirt pocket. It tells of how Mason’s wife and daughter died in a car accident. “They’re dead, you’re alive,” Ross insists. Ross has a new theory about their predicament. He believes there are alien lifeforms on the planet and through some unknown method are causing the men to have hallucinations. He is determined that they must go up in order to escape.
            The ship takes off with the crew bracing for a crash. They celebrate once they are free of the atmosphere. Capt. Ross, though, decides that they will go back down now that they have broken free of their delusions. He ensures the other men that the crashed spaceship will no longer be there. Lt. Carter attempts to wrench control of the ship from Capt. Ross, nearly sending them crashing down onto the planet. At the last moment, the men manage to regain control of the ship and make a safe landing.

            To their horror, the cashed ship is still there. Lt. Mason and Lt. Carter have accepted their deaths but cannot convince Capt. Ross of their fates. Ross is determined to go over it again and again until he can reach a conclusion other than the one suggested by his crewmen.
            The Spaceship E-89 scans an unexplored planet while cruising high above the surface. Lt. Mason sees a blip on the view screen, a possible indication of life upon the planet below . . . 

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Picture of a man who will not see anything he does not choose to see, including his own death. A man of such indomitable will that even the two men beneath his command are not allow to see the truth; which truth is that they are no longer among the living, that the movements they make and the words they speak have all been made and spoken countless times before, and will be made and spoken countless times again, perhaps even unto eternity. Picture of a latter-day Flying Dutchman, sailing into The Twilight Zone.” 


“He stood before the bodies. His foot bumped into one of them as he held himself from going down any further, as he shifted his weight on the incline.
            Now he heard Mickey’s footsteps, his voice. A whisper. A bated, horrified whisper.
            ‘Mother of God.’
            Nothing from Ross. Nothing from any of them then but stares and shuddering breaths.
            Because the twisted bodies on the floor were theirs, all three of them. And all three dead.”

                                    -“Death Ship” by Richard Matheson

Ross Elliott & Fredrick Beir
            To this point writer Richard Matheson appeared reluctant to adapt his own short stories for the series. This reluctance abated by the fourth season as five of Matheson’s final six teleplays were adaptations of previously published stories, compared to only one (“Little Girl Lost”) among his first eight scripts. Matheson was a busy writer during 1963, scripting an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“The Thirty-First of February”), two films for American International Pictures (The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors), and four episodes of The Twilight Zone. Whether Matheson felt overworked during this period is difficult to say but it is not unreasonable to assume that Matheson decided to approach previously published material to facilitate quick work without sacrificing quality. Some of Matheson’s most powerful and fondly remembered episodes, “Death Ship,” “Steel,” “Night Call,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” were adaptations of his stories.
            There is also the likelihood that the series expansion to a one-hour format encouraged Matheson to look at expanding some of his stories. Matheson was vocal in his dislike of the hour-long change though he likely relished the opportunity to take another run at some of his older stories with the opportunity to rework the material for the dramatic medium. 

Ed Emshwiller magazine
illustration for "Death Ship"
            “Death Ship” was originally published in the March, 1953 issue of Fantastic Story Magazine. Matheson changed little about the story and the resultant episode functions primarily as an expansion of the material, particularly in relation to the two extended afterlife sequences for the characters of Carter and Mason (absent in the story). Although a decade separated the publication of the original story and Matheson’s adaptation for The Twilight Zone, little needed to be altered in the original narrative to suit the series. Matheson lifted Rod Serling’s opening narration nearly whole from his original story. It reads in the story thus: “In a little while they’d land and take specimens. Mineral, vegetable, animal – if there were any. Put them in the storage lockers and take them back to Earth. There the technicians would evaluate, appraise, judge. And, if everything was acceptable, stamp the big, black INHABITABLE on their brief and open another planet for colonization from overcrowded Earth.”

             Matheson made slight changes to the three principal characters in the tale. There is a clearer delineation between the men in the original story in terms of duty. Ross is the captain and pilot, Mason the navigator, and Carter the engineer. These lines of duty blur a bit in the adaptation, particularly in relation to Mason and Carter. Ross is the only of the three to significantly change in terms of character. In the original story Ross’s fatal flaw is not will but vanity; he is not a man who must be obeyed but a man who believes he is always right. Jack Klugman, when speaking with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation (1998), stated multiple times that he did not care for “Death Ship.” One assumes this is because of Ross’s unattractive characteristics. As dramatized, Ross is not simply an arrogant man burdened by duty and mission but a dominating, villainous force that refuses to let his crew pass into the afterlife, holding the men in a hellish, imprisoning limbo. It is no wonder Klugman would not look back upon this role with fondness, despite his excellent performance, as his sympathies were aligned more with the redemptive characters he portrayed in “A Passage for Trumpet” and “In Praise of Pip.” One ironic characteristic of Ross’s ascent to the role of villain is that, in both story and episode, he must be convinced by the other men to descend to the planet’s surface. Ross does not want to land, does not want to see what caused the blip on the view screen. There is no escape from the situation, of course, but it is interesting to consider that Ross became the monster at least in part because of the will of the Mason and Carter, who set in motion the series of events which forced Ross to see that which he was unwilling to acknowledge.
            Richard Matheson knew that the key to engaging the viewer in a story with little physical action was to lean on the dramatic tension inherent in the ever-widening rift between Ross and Mason, an aspect less fully formed in the story. “Death Ship” largely hinges on the tension between these two men, beautifully played out by Jack Klugman and Ross Martin. In point of fact, the original story displays the decision to remain indefinitely on the planet to avoid a possible crash as agreed upon by all three men in a democratic process. The alteration made for the episode, in which Ross demands they stay in the face of ardent opposition from Mason and Carter, deepens the tension and lends an aspect of non-physical combat to the episode which did not appear to interest the writer a decade earlier. This shift from a focus on the mystery of the narrative to the foibles of character was facilitated not only by the necessary expansion of the material but also by the enclosed nature of the stage upon which the drama played out. In this way, “Death Ship” bears similarities to such previous episodes as “The Shelter,” “The Mirror,” and “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” in which the players are placed in an enclosed environment and the drama is played out through the violence of human tension (which frequently devolves to actual physical violence).

            The director selected to bring out this violence of human tension was Don Medford (1917-2012), who previously appeared behind the camera for such claustrophobic and tension-heavy episodes as “The Mirror” and “Deaths-Head Revisited.” Buck Houghton, who produced four of Medford’s five Twilight Zone episodes, initially recognized the director’s ability to draw out engaging tension between characters when there was little physical action to otherwise engage the viewer. With The Twilight Zone’s limited production budget and economically enclosed settings, this was a skill highly prized by the production and fourth season producer Herbert Hirschman was wise to place Medford on such an episode as Houghton had before. Medford perfected his craft on Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953), a science fiction anthology series which was a significant precursor to The Twilight Zone. Medford directed 36 episodes of the series. Medford’s other genre work includes crime and suspense series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the original and revival series), Climax!, and Suspicion. Jack Klugman and Mary Webster previously worked with Medford on his first Twilight Zone episode, “A Passage for Trumpet.”

            Another interesting aspect of Matheson’s story is a veiled homage to Ray Bradbury’s 1948 story “Mars Is Heaven!” a tale later included by Bradbury as “The Third Expedition” in The Martian Chronicles (1950). This occurs when Capt. Ross suggests that there is alien life on the planet upon which they have landed, aliens who haven’t the physical strength to carry out an attack on the interlopers so instead resort to mental suggestion, causing the men to hallucinate and see things which are not really there. This innovative plot device was a key element of the Bradbury story. Bradbury was a mentor to Matheson and a particularly strong creative influence. Matheson later adapted Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles for a television miniseries in 1980. “Mars Is Heaven!” is one of Bradbury’s most frequently anthologized and adapted tales. It was adapted multiple times on radio, most memorably on Escape (1950), and into comic book form in the EC Comics title Weird Science #18 (April, 1953), illustrated by Wallace Wood. Bradbury adapted the story for television on his Ray Bradbury Theater, broadcast July 20, 1990. Another Twilight Zone writer, Charles Beaumont, produced his own homage to the Bradbury story with his 1953 tale “Elegy,” adapted by Beaumont for the first season of The Twilight Zone.

            The legend of the Flying Dutchman forms the broader thematic backbone of Matheson’s story. Matheson calls attention to this parallel in the final paragraphs of his story:

 “Then, in a split second, with the knowledge, he saw Ross and he saw Carter. As they were. And he took a short shuddering breath, a last breath until illusion would bring breath and flesh again.
            “ ‘Progress,’ he said bitterly and his voice was an aching whisper in the phantom ship. ‘The Flying Dutchman takes to the universe.’”

            The folk legend of the ghost ship which can never make port and serves as a portent of doom to other vessels has been around since the late 17th century and proven to be a pliable legend, able to be adapted across a wide range of themes, subjects, and settings. The Twilight Zone approached tales of this type in such episodes as “Judgment Night,” “King Nine Will Not Return,” and “The Arrival.”

            The production design of “Death Ship” will likely be a divisive aspect for the modern viewer. One will either enjoy the retro-future style (perhaps in an unintentionally humorous way) or abhor it as unconvincing and distracting. The uniforms and external ship were borrowed from the MGM production Forbidden Planet (1956), a film whose futuristic props and design permeate the series as Twilight Zone was filmed at MGM and thus had access to the sets, props, and costumes of the studio’s signature science fiction film. Although the series did occasionally use footage from the film to show travel in outer space, such footage in “Death Ship” was original to the production. Other aspects, including some impressive visual effects, stand out as innovative and unique, particularly the scanning effect of the view screen and the launch and landing of the spacecraft, complete with billowing dust and fiery exhaust, an expensive effect conceived by producer Herbert Hirschman and designed by the MGM FX Department using miniatures and painted backdrops.
            The most effective sequences of the episode occur outside the construct of the spacecraft during the afterlife experiences of Carter and Mason. Not only is the emotional impact of these sequences acutely felt but it allowed Don Medford to juxtapose the expansiveness of the open setting with the imprisoning nature of the ship. This juxtaposition is expertly displayed when Ross invades Mason’s passage to the afterlife and physically drags the man back to the ship. The cut from the wide open outdoors to a tight shot of the ship interior is highly effective. There follows a gut-wrenching moment when Mason circles the enclosure of the ship, devastated to have been taken from his wife and daughter.
            Other notable aspects of the production include the use of a varied selection of stock music for the episode. Particularly effective are selections from Jerry Goldsmith’s unnerving composition for Rod Serling’s first season time travel episode, “Back There,” and Bernard Herrmann’s melancholy score for Serling’s “Walking Distance,” utilized for Lt. Mason’s afterlife sequence. Also notable is the work of cinematographer Robert Pittack, an experience photographer who worked on an array of feature-length and short films for major studios before moving into television in 1952. Pittack was brought on board Twilight Zone to alternate the filming of episodes with the show’s principal photographer George T. Clemens due to an increase in the production schedule for each episode. Pittack more than upheld the show’s high standard for black-and-white photography and perhaps no episode better displays this than “Death Ship,” particularly the sequence inside the crashed ship and the discovery of the bodies. The episode offered a number of challenging aspects for the photographer, including a wide range of lighting effects and complex editing techniques such as quick transition cuts and split-screen photography.

            The final anchoring aspect of the episode is, of course, the performances. The performances were always a hugely important aspect on the series but this was especially true in “Death Ship,” which depended greatly upon the tension established between the three men.
Jack Klugman (1922-2012), despite his dislike of the episode, is suitably dominating in the role of Captain Ross, using both physical strength and impenetrable will to imprison his fellow crew members. Klugman is a familiar face to viewers of the series, joining Burgess Meredith as the only actors to be featured in a lead role in four episodes. Klugman previously appeared in Rod Serling’s first season episode, “A Passage for Trumpet,” and George Clayton Johnson’s excellent third season episode, “A Game of Pool.” Klugman saved perhaps his finest performance for last when he appeared as a father who trades his own life for that of his son in Rod Serling’s moving fifth season episode, “In Praise of Pip.” Best remembered for such films as 12 Angry Men (1957) and the television series The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E., Klugman was a staple of early television anthology series. He previously worked with Rod Serling in the Playhouse 90 production, “The Velvet Alley” (1959). Klugman’s genre work includes episodes of Suspense, Inner Sanctum, Climax!, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Kraft Suspense Theatre, and the revival The Outer Limits series. 

Mary Webster and Ross Martin
            Ross Martin (1920-1981), who gives a powerful performance as the tortured Lt. Mason (we rated it #19 on our list of the 20 greatest performances on the series), also previously appeared on the series as one of Arch Hammer’s “faces” in Rod Serling’s adaptation of George Clayton Johnson’s “The Four of Us Are Dying.” Here, Martin is given a much larger role and runs with it, eliciting an emotional response in the viewer perhaps unrivaled on the series. Martin was born in Poland and immigrated to the Unites States as a child, his family settling on the Lower East Side of New York. An incredibly learned man who spoke multiple languages, Ross followed his passion for acting into a prolific television and film career. Best known for the role of Artemus Gordon on The Wild, Wild West, Martin also appeared in episodes of Lights Out, Suspense, One Step Beyond, and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Martin provided the voice of the main character in the Academy Award-nominated short animated film Icarus Montgolfier Wright (1962), adapted from Ray Bradbury’s 1956 short story by Bradbury and George Clayton Johnson. Martin also featured in the 1973 television film Dying Room Only, adapted by Richard Matheson from his 1953 short story. 

            Although Fredrick Beir (1927-1980) only appeared in this one episode of the series, he is likely a familiar face to television viewers from his frequent guest appearances. Among those appearances was plenty of genre work as Beir featured in episodes of One Step Beyond, Men into Space, Thriller, The Outer Limits, The Munsters, The Time Tunnel, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Beir is given the difficult task of portraying the young, idealistic Lt. Carter in “Death Ship,” a man who suffers a clear mental break when confronted with the image of his own death. There is a disturbing and effective quality to Beir’s performance, particularly his physical mannerisms and his shocked, open-eyed expression.
            The three performances are highly symbolic of fundamental aspects of the human personality, the mental makeup of the rational and willful (Ross), the sensitive and melancholy (Mason), and the fearful and childlike (Carter). The performances are singularly impressive but are more effective when taken as a unit, with one meeting the other meeting the next in an emotionally resonate way.

            “Death Ship” is Twilight Zone at its most successful: an existential nightmare presented by an engaging script, performed by excellent actors, under strong direction, aided by innovative production design and special effects. The story is a perfect blend of horror and science fiction with an emotional resonance brought to its zenith by a devastating twist which keeps the viewer playing out mental scenarios long after the play is over. It remains an episode which lends itself to multiple viewings and a sterling example from the much-derided fourth season which can stand with the best of the series.

Grade: A

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following:

-Richard Matheson’s The Twilight Zone Scripts, Volume Two, edited by Stanely Wiater (Edge Books, 2002)

-The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR, 2008)

-The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (2nd edition, Silman-James, 1992)

-Interview with Jack Klugman conducted by Sunny Parich (5/1/1998) for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation.

-The Internet Movie Database (

-The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (

Illustration by Karel Thole
for Urania #322, an Italian SF magazine
which included "Death Ship" as
"Il relitto," or "The Wreck"
--Richard Matheson’s original story appeared in the March, 1953 issue of Fantastic Story Magazine. The story was collected in Shock! (Dell, 1961). Most often anthologized as a time travel tale, it appeared in The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg (Del Rey, 2005) and The Time Traveler’s Almanac, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer  (Tor, 2014).
--Don Medford also directed “A Passage for Trumpet,” “The Man in the Bottle,” “The Mirror,” and “Deaths-Head Revisited.”
--Jack Klugman also appeared in “A Passage for Trumpet,” “A Game of Pool,” and “In Praise of Pip.” Klugman also appeared in Rod Serling’s Playhouse 90 episode, “The Velvet Alley” (1959).
--Ross Martin also appeared in “The Four of Us Are Dying” and the segments of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery titled “Camera Obscura” and “The Other Way Out.”
--Mary Webster also appeared in “A Passage for Trumpet.”
--Ross Elliott also appeared (uncredited) in “In Praise of Pip.”
--The road which leads to Carter’s home in his afterlife sequence is the same road used to stage Philip Redfield’s (Ed Nelson) crash into an invisible barrier in “Valley of the Shadow.”
--“Death Ship” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring John Schneider.


Monday, November 5, 2018

The Twilight Zone and Film Noir

Illustration by Gregory Cannone for
George Clayton Johnson's "All of Us Are Dying"
Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine, May, 1982

In recognition of Noirvember, a celebration of classic Film Noir held annually in the month of November, here are a baker's dozen of The Twilight Zone episodes that display the show’s rich Noir heritage.

Film Noir emerged from postwar Hollywood with a series of films that established the genre’s overriding themes and style: dark, melodramatic, urban crime dramas filmed with a shadowy palate and populated by drunken private eyes, small-time crooks, femme fatales, dirty cops, deadly doctors, thieves, psychopaths, con men, and hustlers. The film titles tell the story: Night and the City, The Asphalt Jungle, In a Lonely Place, Kiss Me Deadly, Nightmare Alley. It was a stylistic genre which saw interpretation from an impressive array of talent on both sides of the camera.

Sources generally agree that John Huston’s 1941 film The Maltese Falcon, the third cinematic adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, was the first major Film Noir. Sources differ on the end of Film Noir’s classic era. A frequently cited end date is 1960 and the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel. Hitchcock borrowed elements from Film Noir (black-and-white cinematography, a murder mystery, a woman on the run, the grizzled private eye), as he had for such previous films as Strangers on a Train (1951) and The Wrong Man (1956), and delivered a shocking psycho-sexual nightmare which heralded the arrival of a more daring and ferocious type of film thriller. One of the most transitional works in the history of cinema, Psycho was an enormous influence on subsequent crime and suspense films, not to mention literature and illustrative arts. A year before Psycho was released to theaters, The Twilight Zone premiered on American television.

The Twilight Zone, too often narrowly categorized as a science fiction program, approached a wide array of styles in fantasy storytelling. Prime among these were the supernatural crime drama and the psychological thriller. With George T. Clemens’s Emmy Award-winning black-and-white cinematography (the zenith of the form on television) and a creative freedom rarely matched on other programs, The Twilight Zone attracted the finest writers, directors, and actors to the series, many of whom were significant contributors to the classic era of Film Noir. 

Actors on The Twilight Zone with Film Noir appearances include Dana Andrews, Richard Basehart, William Bendix, Neville Brand, Charles Bronson, Dane Clark, Steve Cochran, Richard Conte, Robert Cummings, Howard Duff, Dan Duryea, Jack Elam, Thomas Gomez, Earl Holliman, Phyllis Kirk, Cloris Leachman, Ida Lupino, Lee Marvin, Burgess Meredith, Vera Miles, Cliff Robertson, Mickey Rooney, and Franchot Tone. Some performers, such as Duryea and Lupino, are primarily remembered for their Noir work. The Twilight Zone was also fortunate to have directors such as John Brahm, Robert Florey, Ida Lupino (the only person to star in one episode, “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine,” and direct another, "The Masks"), Mitchell Leisen, and Jacques Tourneur behind the camera.  

 Perhaps the most important element on The Twilight Zone was the writers. Series creator Rod Serling, always creatively concerned with the losers, the dreamers, and the doomed, was naturally at the forefront of the Noir influence on the series, but he also recruited writers who were sensitive to the literary style from which the cinematic genre was born. Richard Matheson began his career as a novelist with the James M. Cain-inspired effort Someone Is Bleeding (1953) while Charles Beaumont and John Tomerlin collaborated (as Keith Grantland) on a novel, Run From the Hunter (1957), which bore the influence of David Goodis’s 1946 novel Dark Passage, which likely inspired the man-on-the-run television series The Fugitive (1963-1967). Meanwhile, a young writer named George Clayton Johnson arrived in Hollywood fresh off the sale of a film treatment which became the popular, Noir-influenced heist film Ocean’s 11 (1960). These writers were responsible for the show’s most overtly Noir-influenced output. 

Although dozens of episodes contain the Film Noir style in terms of photography and lighting effects, I have chosen to focus on episodes which explore the principal themes of the cinematic genre. This has naturally led to the omission of several episodes, such as “Eye of the Beholder,” “The Trade-Ins,” or “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” which will be of interest to those who wish to further explore the show’s connection with Film Noir. 

Episodes are listed in order of original broadcast date. 

       “Perchance to Dream” Season one, Episode 9 
Written by Charles Beaumont, Directed by Robert Florey, Starring Richard Conte, Suzanne Lloyd, and John Larch (November 27, 1959)

For his series debut writer Charles Beaumont adapted his story from the October, 1958 issue of Playboy into a tense thriller concerning Edward Hall (Richard Conte), a man with a heart condition whose overactive imagination has turned his dreaming state deadly. Hall’s recurring nightmare centers on a carnival roller coaster and the beautiful but dangerous Maya the Cat Girl. Conte, who built a career playing gangsters in films such as Under the Gun (1951) and The Big Combo (1955) is given the unenviable task of acting manic for half an hour yet pulls it off brilliantly. Throw in a psychiatrist (John Larch), a seedy carnival, and a femme fatale in the form of Canadian actress Suzanne Lloyd (in an unforgettable performance as the alluring yet psychopathic Maya the Cat Girl) and “Perchance to Dream” wears its Noir influence on its sleeve. The knockout punch is the weird musical score from Nathan Van Cleave and director Robert Florey’s twisted camera work, which combine to perfectly illuminate Edward Hall’s deteriorating mental state. “Perchance to Dream” is an underrated episode overall but for those interested in the influence of Film Noir on the series it is essential viewing.

Read our full review of “Perchance to Dream” here. 

“What You Need” Season one, Episode 12 
Written by Rod Serling, from a story by Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore, Directed by Alvin Ganzer, Starring Ernest Truex and Steve Cochran (December 25, 1959)

Rod Serling stripped Kuttner’s and Moore’s 1945 short story of its science fiction trappings in favor of a Noir-flavored urban fantasy highlighting Serling’s skill at characterization. Steve Cochran, who made his name playing gangsters and heavies in Film Noir (Private Hell 36, The Chase) is tailor-made for the role of an embittered bully who intimidates a meek old man possessed of second sight (Ernest Truex). Kuttner’s and Moore’s story was previously adapted on Tales of Tomorrow, a significant precursor of The Twilight Zone, but it lacked the dark urban atmosphere of Serling’s adaptation.

Read our full review of “What You Need” here.  

“The Four of Us Are Dying” Season one, Episode 13 
Written by Rod Serling from a story by George Clayton Johnson, Directed by John Brahm, Starring Harry Townes, Ross Martin, Phillip Pine, Don Gordon, and Beverly Garland (January 1, 1960)

This most overtly Film Noir-influenced episode is a Rod Serling adaptation of an unpublished story by George Clayton Johnson about a criminal named Arch Hammer who can change his appearance at will. The tough dialogue is straight out of a paperback novel and the players are Film Noir standbys: the conman, the gangster, the jazz musician, the washed up boxer, the lonely nightclub singer. The episode’s strength is in the production design and photography, including a dazzling floating neon sequence. It remains a memorable debut for George Clayton Johnson on the series, whose jazzy writing was perfectly filtered through Rod Serling’s remarkable gifts for characterization and dialogue. Johnson’s story was later published in the October, 1961 issue of Rogue.

See our full review of "The Four of Us Are Dying" here.

“Mirror Image” Season one, Episode 21 
Written by Rod Serling, Directed by John Brahm, Starring Vera Miles and Martin Milner (February 26, 1960)

The tale of the pursued and antagonized young woman was a favorite subject of film thrillers of the forties and also of series creator Rod Serling, who approached the material several times throughout the course of the series. These included such episodes as “The Hitch-Hiker,” “The After Hours,” and “Twenty Two,” all of which show the influence of Film Noir, but “Mirror Image” particularly captures the oppressive atmosphere essential to the genre. Vera Miles, who gave a memorable performance in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), is mesmeric as the doomed young woman battling an evil double in an out-of-the-way bus station in the middle of the night. Martin Milner plays the rational man who gets the shock of his life after having Miles committed to the men in the white coats in one of the show’s more grotesque twist endings. This one is a sleeper and comes highly recommended.

See our full review here.

“The Big Tall Wish” Season one, Episode 27 
Written by Rod Serling, Directed by Ron Winston, Starring Ivan Dixon (April 8, 1960)

Professional boxing is unquestionably the sport of choice in Film Noir. In films such as Body and Soul (1947), The Set-Up (1949), and Champion (1949), boxing is viewed through the lens of loyalty, honor, criminality, and consequence. Rod Serling’s writing career was launched into the stratosphere with his Playhouse 90 effort “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1956), about a washed up boxer trying for a second chance in life, and he returns here to tackle the sport through a lens of fantasy. The result is a heartbreaking meditation on faith and forgiveness performed by a groundbreaking group of African American performers who broke through the color lines of American television. It remains one of Serling’s most underrated efforts on the series and comes highly recommended.

See our full review here.  

“Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” Season two, Episode 39 
Written by Rod Serling, Directed by Douglas Heyes, Starring Joe Mantell and William D. Gordon (October 14, 1960)

Director Douglas Heyes was up to the challenge for this technically challenging two-man play showcasing Rod Serling’s concerns with the doomed and the redeemed. It is another example of Serling’s ability to combine the crime drama with fantasy as Joe Mantell plays a cowardly small-time crook who comes face-to-face with the hidden self beneath the surface. William D. Gordon, later to play the lead doctor in Serling’s masterpiece, “Eye of the Beholder,” is suitably slimy as an antagonistic thug. Though clearly influenced by Film Noir, Serling’s redemptive ending is unique in a typically nihilistic genre.

See our full review here.  

“Shadow Play” Season two, Episode 62 
Written by Charles Beaumont, Directed by John Brahm, Starring Dennis Weaver (May 5, 1961)

“Shadow Play” is the second in Charles Beaumont’s informally termed Dream Trilogy, comprised also of “Perchance to Dream” and “Person or Persons Unknown.” All of these stories contain that essential Noir element: the man on the run. Beaumont’s preoccupation with dreams and nightmares led him to create several tales which placed an everyman into the spiraling depths of an altered reality. “Shadow Play” takes this a step further as the viewer is never shown reality but only the recurring nightmare which sends Adam Grant (Dennis Weaver) to the electric chair night after night. It becomes even more powerful in the hands of director John Brahm, the man behind such moody psychological thrillers as The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945). “Shadow Play” was remade for the first revival Twilight Zone series in 1986.

See our full review here. 

“A Game of Pool” Season three, Episode 62 
Written by George Clayton Johnson, Directed by Buzz Kulik, Starring Jack Klugman and Jonathan Winters (October 13, 1961)

This masterfully performed episode takes that Noir standard, the pool hall hustler, and creates from it an epic game of life and death which tackles such heavy topics as legends, dreams, cowardice, and redemption. Jack Klugman, perhaps the performer most associated with the series, is at his absolute best here and is matched by comedian Jonathan Winters as pool hall legend Fats Brown. Winters delivers Clayton Johnson’s jazzy dialogue with a confident attitude that belied his nervous disposition while filming. In the process he created one of the truly enduring characters from the series. Despite an ending with too much levity (tacked on without Clayton Johnson’s approval) the episode still manages to mesmerize and impart the hard knocks of Noir wisdom. It remains essential viewing. “A Game of Pool” was remade, with Clayton Johnson’s original ending, for the first revival Twilight Zone series in 1985.

To read our full review go here. 

“Dead Man’s Shoes” Season three, Episode 83 
Written by Charles Beaumont and OCee Ritch, Directed by Montgomery Pittman, Starring Warren Stevens (January 19, 1962)

Functioning almost as a darkly humorous remake of George Clayton Johnson’s “The Four of Us Are Dying,” “Dead Man’s Shoes” finds bum Nate Bledsoe (Warren Stevens) steal a pair of shoes off a murdered gangster who’s been dumped in an alley. A game of switched identities ensues as Bledsoe becomes the murdered man as long as he wears the shoes. Warren Stevens’s deadpan acting style perfectly complements Montgomery Pittman’s direction as does the jazz-inflected cues from the stock music. The supporting cast is rounded out by Richard Devon as a long-faced mobster and the statuesque Joan Marshall as the dead gangster’s girl. “Dead Man’s Shoes” was remade, as the entertaining “Dead Woman’s Shoes,” for the first revival Twilight Zone series in 1985.

Read our full review here. 

“In Praise of Pip” Season five, Episode 121

Written by Rod Serling, Directed by Joseph M. Newman, Starring Jack Klugman and Bill Mumy (September 27, 1963) 

This affecting drama concerns an alcoholic bookmaker, Max Phillips, who receives a telegram informing him that his son the soldier, Pip, is wounded and dying in South Vietnam. Max is shot during a confrontation with a crime boss and wanders wounded into an amusement park after hours. Amazingly, Max meets his son in the deserted park, but Pip is somehow ten years old again. They spend a wonderful hour together before Pip has to leave and return to his adult body to die. Max is filled with regret for a lifetime of poor parenting and makes a deal with God, his life for Pip’s. Max dies and Pip survives. Rod Serling’s powerful meditation on parental love is anchored by a potent performance from Jack Klugman and juxtaposed against the seedy underworld of two-bit bookies and conmen. The moody atmosphere of the deserted amusement park and the mournful, jazz-inflected score by Rene Garriguenc (conducted by Lud Gluskin) add a haunting, noir-ish quality to the drama. Workmanlike director Joseph M. Newman was no stranger to Film Noir, having directed 711 Ocean Drive (1950), Lucky Nick Cain (1951), Dangerous Crossing (1953), and The Human Jungle (1954), as well as several episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. 

“The Last Night of a Jockey” Season five, Episode 125 

Written by Rod Serling, directed by Joseph M. Newman, starring Mickey Rooney (October 25, 1963)

Thematically related to "Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room," and taking place in one of the most noir-ish of settings, a flea-bitten one-room apartment, Rod Serling’s morality tale is that of Grady, a diminutive jockey who loses his livelihood when caught doping horses. Now he wallows in his own grief and anger, until he is visited by his alter ego, an impish double who appears to first taunt Grady and then to grant Grady’s wish to be big. Grady becomes a giant, steadily growing from first eight feet tall then ten feet tall. When the head of the racing commission telephones to inform Grady that he’s been cleared to ride again, Grady realizes with horror that he’s now too big to ride. His most fervent wish has sealed his doom. It doesn’t get more noir than that. 

“Night Call” Season five, Episode 139 
Written by Richard Matheson, Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Starring Gladys Cooper (February 7, 1964)

Richard Matheson lobbied to get Jacques Tourneur, with whom he had recently worked on The Comedy of Terrors, behind the camera for an episode of The Twilight Zone. The result was this tense, moody, and heartbreaking meditation on guilt and fear. Tourneur directed one of the classics of Film Noir, Out of the Past (1947), as well as a series of Noir-infused Gothic Horrors for producer Val Lewton: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943). “Night Call” remains a genuinely suspenseful supernatural thriller which careens into an effective, emotional melodrama in its final act. 

“The Masks” Season five, Episode 145 
Written by Rod Serling, Directed by Ida Lupino, Starring Robert Keith, Milton Selzer, Virginia Gregg, Brooke Hayward, and Alan Sues (March 20, 1964)

“The Masks” is one of the most atmospheric episodes of the series largely thanks to director Ida Lupino, a performer and artist intimately associated with Film Noir. Lupino appeared in a handful of essential films in the genre and directed the gritty and effective low-budget thriller The Hitch-Hiker (1953). Lupino skillfully utilized her talented cast of character actors and the suffocating atmosphere of an old New Orleans mansion (with excellent sound design in the form of a Mardi Gras parade outside its walls) to tell Rod Serling’s story of the otherworldly comeuppance on a group of narcissistic, gold-digging relatives who descend on a dying man. Makeup effects artist William Tuttle and sculptor Charles Schram tie the tale together beautifully with their unforgettable designs for a set of ghoulish carnival masks. "The Masks" remains chillingly effective and stands as Rod Serling’s final great script for the series.

“The Jeopardy Room” Season five, Episode 149 
Written by Rod Serling, Directed by Richard Donner, Starring Martin Landau and John Van Dreelen (April 17, 1964)

As Film Noir moved into the fifties so did the genre’s preoccupation with the Cold War. “The Jeopardy Room” combines Rod Serling’s talent for social commentary and characterization while also remaining an entertaining espionage thriller. Serling cuts the fat off the typical spy tale and gets right to a game of cat and mouse staged between two motel rooms. If the narrative jumps logic in a few spots it is suited to the type of pulp novel on screen Serling and company were trying to achieve. Although this episode is sometimes dismissed as a tale better suited to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it is unmistakably the work of Rod Serling and displays the range of the series. Director Richard Donner was the last great director to arrive on the series and here shows his skill in staging a violent and paranoid thriller. Donner embraces the staged quality of the script with some innovative camera work which keeps the dialogue-heavy action moving forward. The episode also benefits from the presence of Martin Landau, one of the finest actors of his generation, and John Van Dreelen in a pleasingly over-the-top performance as the villainous Commissar Vassiloff.

So ends our journey down the dark alleys and side streets of The Twilight Zone. We hope you enjoyed the trip and made it through with your sanity intact. For more Film Noir I recommend Eddie Muller’s Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998), as well as the Muller-hosted TCM series Noir Alley. 


Appendix: Selected Noir Filmography:

This filmography is intended as a generous selection of Film Noir which featured performers, writers, or directors who later worked on The Twilight Zone. Appearances on The Twilight Zone are noted.

They Drive by Night (Warner Bros., 1940)
-Features Ida Lupino (“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” director of “The Masks”).

High Sierra (Warner Bros., 1941)
-Features Ida Lupino (“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” director of “The Masks”).

Street of Chance (Paramount, 1942)
-Features Burgess Meredith (“Time Enough at Last,” “Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” “The Obsolete Man,” “Printer’s Devil”).

The Leopard Man (RKO, 1943)
-Directed by Jacques Tourneur, director of “Night Call.”

The Woman in the Window (MGM, 1944)
-Features Dan Duryea (“Mr. Denton on Doomsday”).

Ministry of Fear (Paramount, 1944)
-Features Dan Duryea (Mr. Denton on Doomsday”), Alan Napier (“Passage on the Lady Anne”), and Cyril Delevanti (“A Penny for Your Thoughts,” “The Silence,” “A Piano in the House,” “Passage on the Lady Anne”).

Phantom Lady (Universal, 1944)
-Features Franchot Tone (“The Silence”), and Thomas Gomez (“Escape Clause,” “Dust”).

Laura (20th Century Fox, 1944)
-Features Dana Andrews (“No Time Like the Past”), as well as Vincent Price, who appeared on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery in “Class of ‘99” and “The Return of the Sorcerer.”

Fallen Angel (20th Century Fox, 1945)
-Features Dana Andrews (“No Time Like the Past”), and John Carradine (“The Howling Man”).

Scarlet Street (Universal, 1945)
-Features Dan Duryea (“Mr. Denton on Doomsday”), and Vladimir Sokoloff (“Dust,” “The Mirror,” “The Gift”).

Detour (PRC, 1945)
-Written by and based on the novel by Martin Goldsmith, writer of the fifth season episodes “What’s in the Box” and “The Encounter.”

The Blue Dahlia (Paramount, 1946)
-Features William Bendix (“The Time Element”).

The Chase (United Artists, 1946)
-Features Robert Cummings (“King Nine Will Not Return”), and Steve Cochran (“What You Need”).

Out of the Past (RKO, 1947)
-Directed by Jacques Tourneur, director of “Night Call.”

Brute Force (Universal, 1947)
-Features John Hoyt (“The Lateness of the Hour,” “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”) and Howard Duff (“A World of Difference”).

Sorry, Wrong Number (Paramount, 1948)
-Written by and based on the radio play by Lucille Fletcher, author of the radio play “The Hitch-Hiker,” adapted by Rod Serling for The Twilight Zone.

Road House (20th Century Fox, 1948)
-Features Ida Lupino (“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” director of “The Masks”).

Moonrise (Republic, 1948)
-Features Dane Clark (“The Prime Mover”), and Clem Bevans (“Hocus-Pocus and Frisby).

He Walked by Night (Eagle-Lion, 1948)
-Features Richard Basehart (“Probe 7, Over and Out”), and John Dehner (“The Lonely,” “The Jungle,” “Mr. Garrity and the Graves”) in an uncredited role.

Force of Evil (MGM, 1948)
-Features Thomas Gomez (“Escape Clause,” “Dust”).

Thieves’ Highway (20th Century Fox, 1949)
-Features Richard Conte (“Perchance to Dream”).

The Crooked Way (United Artists, 1949)
-Directed by Robert Florey (“Perchance to Dream,” “The Fever,” “The Long Morrow”).

Criss Cross (Universal, 1949)
-Features Dan Duryea (“Mr. Denton on Doomsday”), Alan Napier (“Passage on the Lady Anne”), and Richard Long (“Person or Persons Unknown,” “Number 12 Looks Just Like You”).

The Accused (Paramount, 1949)
-Features Robert Cummings (“King Nine Will Not Return”), and Sam Jaffe (Night Gallery pilot film segment “The Escape Route”).

D.O.A. (United Artists, 1949)
-Features Beverly Garland (“The Four of Us Are Dying”), and Neville Brand (“The Encounter”).

Too Late for Tears (United Artists, 1949)
-Features Dan Duryea (“Mr. Denton on Doomsday”).

Woman in Hiding (Universal, 1950)
-Features Ida Lupino (“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” director of “The Masks”), and Howard Duff (“A World of Difference”). Lupino and Duff were married the following year. They divorced in 1984.

The Damned Don’t Cry (Warner Bros., 1950)
-Features Steve Cochran (“What You Need”), and Hugh Sanders (“Judgment Night,” “The Jungle,” “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville”).

Where the Sidewalk Ends (20th Century Fox, 1950)
-Features Dana Andrews (“No Time Like the Past”), Gary Merrill (“The Valley was Still”), and Neville Brand (“The Encounter”) in an uncredited role.

No Man of Her Own (Paramount, 1950)
-Directed by Michell Leisen (“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” “Escape Clause,” “People Are Alike All Over”), features Phyllis Thaxter (“Young Man’s Fancy”).

Quicksand (United Artists, 1950)
-Features Mickey Rooney (“The Last Night of a Jockey”), and Jack Elam (“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”) in an uncredited role.

The Strip (MGM, 1951)
-Features Mickey Rooney (“The Last Night of a Jockey”).

On Dangerous Ground (RKO, 1951)
-Features Ida Lupino (“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” director of “The Masks”).

Fourteen Hours (20th Century Fox, 1951)
-Features Richard Basehart (“Probe 7, Over and Out”), Agnes Moorehead (“The Invaders”), Joyce Van Patten (“Passage on the Lady Anne”) in an uncredited role, and Paul Douglas, who originally appeared in “The Mighty Casey” before his death resulted in reshoots which eliminated him from the play.

Under the Gun (Universal, 1951)
-Richard Conte (“Perchance to Dream”), Sam Jaffe (Night Gallery pilot film segment “The Escape Route”), and Phillip Pine (“The Four of Us Are Dying”).

Beware, My Lovely (RKO, 1952)
-Features Ida Lupino (“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” director of “The Masks”).

Kansas City Confidential (United Artists, 1952)
-Features Neville Brand (“The Encounter”), and Jack Elam (“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”).

The Hitch-Hiker (RKO, 1953)
-Directed and co-written by Ida Lupino, star of “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” and director of “The Masks.”

The Big Heat (Columbia, 1953)
-Features Lee Marvin (“The Grave,” “Steel”), Jeanette Nolan (“The Hunt,” “Jess-Belle”), and Adam Williams (“The Hitch-Hiker,” “A Most Unusual Camera”).

Crime Wave (Warner Bros., 1954)
-Features Phyllis Kirk (“A World of His Own”), and Charles Bronson (“Two”).

Private Hell 36 (Filmmakers Releasing Organization, 1954)
-Features Ida Lupino (“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” director of “The Masks”), who also co-wrote the film, Steve Cochran (“What You Need”), Howard Duff (“A World of Difference”), and Dean Jagger (“Static”).

The Big Combo (Allied Artists, 1955)
-Features Richard Conte (“Perchance to Dream”), Lee Van Cleef (“The Grave”), Earl Holliman (“Where Is Everybody?”), and John Hoyt (“The Lateness of the Hour,” “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”).

Kiss Me Deadly (United Artists, 1955)
-Features Strother Martin (“The Grave”), Jack Elam (“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”), and Cloris Leachman (“It’s a Good Life”).

The Wrong Man (Warner Bros., 1956)
-Features Vera Miles (“Mirror Image”), Nehemiah Persoff (“Judgment Night”), and Charles Aidman (“And When the Sky Was Opened,” “Little Girl Lost”) in an uncredited role. Aidman also narrated the first two seasons of The Twilight Zone revival series.

Touch of Evil (Universal, 1958)
-Features Dennis Weaver (“Shadow Play”), and Kennan Wynn (“A World of His Own”) in an uncredited role.