Sunday, April 25, 2021

Calling The Twilight Zone

Philip Abbott in "Long Distance Call"

Telephonic Terror in the Fifth Dimension

             Today is National Telephone Day, and this provides me with an opportunity to observe something interesting about The Twilight Zone.

I recently began considering the importance of the telephone on the series, not only as an element of set decoration or as a simple plot device, but also as a genuine mode of narrative transition, or as a means for strangeness and suspense. After consideration, I arrived at the conclusion that the telephone is the most potent recurrent symbol on the series.

I started along this line of thinking while writing my recent review of the fifth season opener, “In Praise of Pip.” One of my small observations, but hardly mine alone, was that a telephone call marked a definitive turning point in the story, not only from one act to the next but also in the emotional transition of the principal character. This occurs when Max Phillips receives a call from his landlady, Mrs. Feeny, informing him that a telegram arrived from the Army reporting that Max’s son, Pip, was seriously wounded in Vietnam.

Before receiving this call, Max behaves as though emotionally deceased. He smiles ruefully into the mirror, speaks hypothetically about this or that, gently teases the kind-hearted Mrs. Feeny, lazes about his one-room apartment, and appears completely apathetic to the problems of a young man named George who comes to him for help. Later, Max visits his employer, Moran, and lazes about Moran’s hotel room, casually smoking a cigarette and remaining indifferent to everything around him, including George’s fate, even as the young man, badly beaten, is dragged into the room.

Max then receives Mrs. Feeny’s telephone call. All of the emotions he has buried come roaring to the surface: sadness and regret at not being a better father, anger at having wasted his life working for Moran, melancholy provoked by an amusement park. From this point in the episode, Max is an open wound of emotion. The character who pleads for God to spare his son, weeping while dying in a deserted amusement park, is hardly recognizable as the character we meet at the beginning of the episode. It is a stark transition, beautifully played by Jack Klugman, and it begins with a telephone call.

Intrigued by this thematic notion, I searched other episodes for moments in which a telephone played a key, perhaps even pivotal, role in the story. The results were some of the most memorable sequences of the series. In celebration of National Telephone Day, then, let’s trace a journey through some other moments in which a telephone sends a character spiraling into that “fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man.”


“Where Is Everybody?”

Season One, Episode 1 (October 2, 1959)

Written by Rod Serling

Directed by Robert Stevens

Starring Earl Holliman

Our first call arrives during the first act of the pilot episode, when the amnesiac Mike Ferris rushes to a telephone booth to answer a ringing phone and receives only silence on the other end. Ferris deposits a coin and dials the operator. Desperate for human contact, Ferris mistakes the recorded operator for a living voice.

The moment arrives after a deliberate buildup of incidents in which Ferris, devoid of personal memory, wanders into a deserted town that, it turns out, is a construct of his fractured mind under pressure from an isolation chamber. The flat, impersonal voice of the special operator is another blow to Ferris’s sanity in a progressive line of maddening signs of almost life: a jukebox playing to an empty café, a lifelike mannequin sitting in a department store van, a smoking cigar resting in an ashtray. Night eventually falls and brings with it a suffocating sense of paranoia. Ferris cracks under the strain and the curtain is finally pulled back on his plight.  

 “And When the Sky Was Opened”

Season One, Episode 11 (December 11, 1959)

Written by Rod Serling, based on a story by Richard Matheson

Directed by Douglas Heyes

Starring Charles Aidman, Rod Taylor, James Hutton

Three astronauts find themselves slowly fading from existence after returning home from a mission in an experimental spacecraft. The episode is told in nonlinear fashion and we are shown, via flashback, the method by which the first of these astronauts, Colonel Ed Harrington, vanished.

 A celebratory drink in a bar turns to nightmare as Harrington senses a growing feeling that he’s physically fading away. Harrington does what anyone would do in the situation. He telephones home to hear a familiar voice and try to shake the dreadful feeling. Except Harrington’s parents claim not to have a son and they hang up on who they assume to be a prank caller. Harrington has time to impart his fears to his crewmate, Lieutenant Colonel Clegg Forbes, before vanishing, taking along any and all memory of him. Forbes alone remembers, and he spends the remainder of the episode futilely attempting to conjure another’s memory of Harrington and prevent himself from suffering the same fate.


“The Hitch-Hiker”

Season One, Episode 16 (January 22, 1960)

Written by Rod Serling, from the radio play by Lucille Fletcher

Directed by Alvin Ganzer

Starring Inger Stevens

In one of the most haunting and atmospheric sequences on the series, Nan Adams, a young woman on a cross-country drive, calls home from a lonely roadside telephone booth and discovers that her mother has suffered a nervous breakdown. The breakdown was brought on by the death of her daughter in a car accident while traveling across country. The shabby hitchhiker whose preternatural presence has pursued Nan on her journey is revealed to be the shade of Mr. Death himself. “I believe you’re going . . . my way?”


“A World of Difference”

Season One, Episode 23 (March 11, 1960)

Written by Richard Matheson

Directed by Ted Post

Starring Howard Duff

Arthur Curtis is a contented man. He has a loving wife, a young daughter, a successful business, and is soon leaving on a much-needed vacation. Curtis sits down and attempts to place a telephone call. The phone seems to be disconnected. Frustrated, he rises from his chair. Suddenly, he hears someone call “Cut!” Inexplicably, Curtis finds himself on the set of a movie. The life he has known is stripped away in an instant. It will take all of Curtis’s strength to escape from this nightmare world.


“The Chaser”

Season One, Episode 31 (May 13, 1960)

Written by Robert Presnell, Jr., from a story by John Collier

Directed by Douglas Heyes

Starring George Grizzard and Patricia Barry

The lovesick Roger Shackleforth holds up a line to use a public telephone while trying to score some time with Leila, a beautiful, shallow woman who wants nothing to do with him. Roger eventually resorts to a love potion, purchased in the apothecary of Professor A. Daemon, and receives more than he bargained for in the process.


“Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room”

Season Two, Episode 39 (October 14, 1960)

Written by Rod Serling

Directed by Douglas Heyes

Starring Joe Mantell

One of Rod Serling’s favorite storytelling devices was to place a single character in a small setting with only a telephone to contact the outside world. The template was set with this second season offering in which the cowardly, low-level criminal Jackie Rhoades is prevented from committing a dangerous act by his braver, wiser, alter ego. A battle of wills occurs between Rhoades and his reflection in the mirror of a dingy hotel room.

The telephone acts as the method by which Jackie is pushed towards the dangerous act and subsequently the means by which John Rhoades, that braver, wiser side, announces his arrival into the world. He phones the front desk of the hotel and, in a classic bit of Serling dialogue, tells the clerk: “This is John Rhoades, room 14, I’m checking out. No, I’m not coming back. No, as a matter of fact, nothing’s all right. The room’s too hot, too small and too dirty. It’s just the place for bums, but not for me.”


“A Thing About Machines”

Season Two, Episode 40 (October 28, 1960)

Written by Rod Serling

Directed by David Orrick McDearmon

Starring Richard Haydn

Bartlett Finchley calls up an old flame for some company as he feels the house and everything in it begin to viciously turn on him. To his displeasure, he learns that this old flame, who he has not bothered to telephone for some time, has gotten married and wants nothing to do with him. Finchley angrily rips the phone from the wall. This does not, however, prevent the telephone from communicating its hatred of him. “Get out of here, Finchley!” it repeatedly crows at him. It serves as a call to arms as the gadgets and appliances that Finchley has abused over time come alive to take their revenge.


“Nick of Time”

Season Two, Episode 43 (November 18, 1960)

Written by Richard Matheson

Directed by Richard L. Bare

Starring William Shatner and Patricia Breslin

A telephone call moves the viewer into the conflict: Don Carter’s self-imprisonment through superstition brought on by a penny fortune-telling machine. Don feels anxiety about a job promotion. He feeds a penny into the machine and inquires about the job. “It has been decided in your favor” is the message he receives. This sends Don rushing to the telephone to verify the message. The message from the machine is confirmed. All of Don’s anxiety about the job promotion is transferred to the fortune-telling machine, figuratively chaining him to a table in a restaurant in Ohio.


“Long Distance Call”

Season Two, Episode 58 (March 31, 1961)

Written by William Idelson and Charles Beaumont

Directed by James Sheldon

Starring Philip Abbott, Lili Darvas, Patricia Smith, Bill Mumy

Few episodes dealt with material as disturbing as that of “Long Distance Call.” A grandmother on the edge of death gives her young grandson a toy telephone for his birthday and tells him that he can speak to Grandma any time he wants. Her love for the boy is overbearing, a wedge between her son and daughter-in-law and their only child. Grandma’s love is so strong that when she dies, the toy telephone becomes a conduit through which the boy continues to communicate with her in the afterlife. This is alarming on its own, but Grandma has further plans. In perhaps the most unsettling sequence on the series, the boy is compelled by the dead grandmother to take his own life so that they may be together again. As the boy hovers between life and death, the father takes up the toy telephone and makes a final, desperate plea for his son’s life.


“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”

Season Two, Episode 64 (May 26, 1961)

Written by Rod Serling

Directed by Montgomery Pittman

"Wintry February night, the present. Order of events: a phone call from a frightened woman notating the arrival of an unidentified flying object . . ." 

Rod Serling provides a fantastic twist to the “one among us is a murderer” mystery story. Snowbound bus travelers stranded at the Hi-Way Café work with the counterman and a pair of state troopers to uncover an alien in their midst. The wily extraterrestrial possesses the mental powers to cut the lights, explode sugar dispensers, start up a jukebox, and cause the telephone on the wall to ring.

A pivotal moment, and a clever sleight-of-hand, occurs when one of the state troopers answers the ringing telephone to be informed that a bridge leading out of the area is now passable. Unfortunately, the bridge isn’t passable. The police car and the bus plunge into the cold river below, killing everyone. Everyone except the alien, that is. He returns to the diner, leading to one of the most bizarre, ironic, and iconic endings on the series.


“The Jungle”

Season Three, Episode 77 (December 1, 1961)

Written by Charles Beaumont, based on his story

Directed by William F. Claxton

Starring John Dehner

Charles Beaumont spins a tense tale of supernatural pursuit, pitting a modern man in New York City against the primal magic of the African jungle. Once Alan Richards confiscates protective talismans from his wife and carelessly tosses them into the fire, it is open season on trespassers and nonbelievers. “The Jungle” contains an unnerving extended sequence in which Richards frantically moves through an eerily deserted city, trying to get home before the increasingly suffocating presence of the jungle takes physical form and swallows him up.

The sequence begins when Richards attempts to place a call from a telephone booth on the corner of a deserted city street. He is unable to make a call and belatedly notices the “out of order” sign. Richards leaves the booth only to be called back by the ringing telephone. It is the jungle calling, and the phone emits the growling and chattering sounds of animals into his ear.


“Person or Persons Unknown”

Season Three, Episode 92 (March 23, 1962)

Written by Charles Beaumont

Directed by John Brahm

Starring Richard Long

David Gurney awakens from a night of drinking to a world where no one knows him. His wife, his friends, his coworkers, and his mother all deny any knowledge of him. Gurney is placed in the care of Dr. Koslenko, who allows Gurney use of the telephone in an effort to prove the life that exists in Gurney’s head isn’t real. Gurney calls a friend from his schooldays and his own mother, but neither claim to know him. Gurney breaks out of the hospital, desperate to find the one detail of his life neglected by whoever, or whatever, erased his existence.


“Four O’Clock”

Season Three, Episode 94 (April 6, 1962)

Written by Rod Serling, based on the story by Price Day

Directed by Lamont Johnson

Starring Theodore Bikel

Price Day conjured a wonderfully Dickensian name, Mr. Crangle, to brand the vitriolic crusader for morality brought brilliantly to life by Theodore Bikel in Rod Serling’s adaptation. An element not contained in the original story is Crangle’s use of the telephone to reach out to the world and spread his well-intentioned evil by exposing those he deems subversive or morally corrupted. As we have seen before, Rod Serling enjoyed the dramatic possibilities of placing a single character in an isolated setting with only a telephone to contact the outside world. Although other characters briefly appear, this is Crangle’s stage to play out his intense internal drama.


“The Last Night of a Jockey”

Season Five, Episode 125 (October 25, 1963)

Written by Rod Serling

Directed by Joseph M. Newman

Starring Mickey Rooney

A counterpoint to the play on size in “Four O’Clock” is this tale of Grady, a diminutive jockey who loses his livelihood when caught doping horses. Now he wallows in his own grief and anger, spewing venom into the telephone at a journalist and an ex-girlfriend. Grady is visited by his alter ego, who grants his wish to be big. Grady becomes a giant, 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.


“Living Doll”

Season Five, Episode 126 (November 1, 1963)

Written by Jerry Sohl (as by Charles Beaumont)

Directed by Richard C. Sarafian

Starring Telly Savalas and Mary LaRoche

“I’m Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you!” In arguably the most iconic moment on the series, Erich Streator, a bitter, impotent man with an inferiority complex, answers the telephone and hears the voice of his stepdaughter’s wind-up doll threaten to kill him. Streator convinces himself that it’s a cruel practical joke perpetrated by his wife, Annabelle, as revenge for the harsh way Streator treats his stepdaughter, Christie. It is only later, when he realizes that Annabelle could not possibly have placed the threatening call, that Streator comes to grips which the frightening truth. Talky Tina is alive and out to get him.


“Night Call”

Season Five, Episode 139 (February 7, 1964)

Written by Richard Matheson, based on his story

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Starring Gladys Cooper

During a stormy night, Miss Elva Keene is disturbed by a series of telephone calls. At first, she hears only static on the line. Soon, however, she can hear a voice. It is a man’s voice, struggling to speak. Miss Keene is frightened. She tells the caller to leave her alone. The telephone company traces the call to a fallen line in the local cemetery. Miss Keene reveals the terrible tragedy that, many years ago, befell her fiancé, Brian, a week before their intended wedding. Ms. Keene admits that she was controlling and that Brian always did what she wanted. She insisted on driving one night, lost control of the car, and Brian died as a result. Now, however, she can speak with him again on the telephone. She has so much she wishes to tell him. That night the telephone rings. Miss Keene eagerly answers the call. Brian has called one last time to remind her of a difficult truth. Miss Keene told him to go away, and he always does what she wants. The line is disconnected.


“The Jeopardy Room”

Season Five, Episode 149 (April 17, 1964)

Written by Rod Serling

Directed by Richard Donner

Starring Martin Landau and John van Dreelen

Rod Serling’s Cold War thriller is a claustrophobic game of cat and mouse between Major Ivan Kuchenko, a defecting KGB agent, and Commissar Vassiloff, a refined assassin tasked with Kuchenko’s demise. Vassiloff is assisted by the gunman Boris. The telephone establishes a line of communication between Kuchenko, holed up in a cheap hotel room, and Vassiloff, who watches from a room in the building across the alley. In a game of sadistic sportsmanship, Vassiloff drugs Kuchenko and places a bomb in Kuchenko's hotel room. If Kuchenko can uncover the location of the bomb within three hours, he will be allowed to leave, unharmed.

Vassiloff has hidden the bomb in the telephone, but there’s a catch. The bomb will only detonate if an incoming call is answered. Vassiloff telephones Kuchenko’s room to watch his handiwork in action. Kuchenko resists answering the call. He cannot be tricked into picking up the receiver while the phone is ringing. Kuchenko escapes from the hotel. Later, he calls the hotel room as Vassiloff and Boris are clearing the evidence. Boris unwittingly answers the phone, setting off the bomb.

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