Friday, October 2, 2009

In the Zone

Over at Edward Copeland on Film, you can read a short essay that I cobbled together to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the immortal television classic The Twilight Zone—and if you’re curious as to why I seem to contribute a lot of pieces there, the answer is simple. He asked me. (Well, this is true—but I have nothing but the utmost respect for Ed; he’s a superb writer and a guy you could sit down and have a beer with, discussing classic films while we while away the hours.)

The Sci-Fi Channel (I refuse to refer to it by its new spelling, by the way) kicked off a mini-marathon of TZ episodes beginning at 8:00am this morning, though I don’t know if it was part of its “31 Days of October” promotion or a way to recognize that fifty years have passed since the show’s premiere on CBS-TV October 2, 1959. I managed to catch one episode ‘round noon time (I went on a grocery run to Publix and picked up some KFC—the crack cocaine of fast food—for lunch); a particular favorite of mine from the third season entitled “The Grave” (10/27/61) which features a cast only a classic film buff could love: Lee Marvin, James Best, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef and Stafford Repp as the barkeep. I remember the first time I saw this one I pretty much had the ending doped out (it’s a variation on the old ghost story in which someone is dared to visit the resting place of their sworn enemy) but with the fine acting and superb direction (by Montgomery Pittman, one of the great TZ directors who also contributed Grave’s script) you can see this a hundred times and never be disappointed.

In the TZ essay I wrote for Ed’s blog, I mentioned a few of the series’ classic episodes and after watching Grave again it got me to thinking—what are my favorite installments from the series? I decided I could whip up twenty entries fairly easily and I should warn you that these are my favorites—not necessarily the cream of Zone’s crop (though there certainly could be some overlapping). I tried to include at least one episode from each season (the fourth, which saw the show expand to an hour, was a real toughie) and though I’ll try my best not to “spoil” any of them for anyone who hasn’t seen the show, you have been forewarned. Oh, and to make things easy—“The Grave” clocks in at number 20.

19) The Jungle (12/01/61) – There are two reasons why I love this episode; it’s spooky as all get out (it was written by Zone scribe Chuck Beaumont) and it stars Mister John Dehner as a businessman recently returned from Africa who shrugs off the curse of a local witch doctor…but can’t shake off the strange animal noises he hears on the way home. You watch this one late at night with the lights out and I guarantee you’ll be getting the willies in nothing flat.

18) Jess-Belle (02/14/63) – I had two of the hour-long TZ episodes on this list but I pruned one of them (“Death Ship”) because I already had two others with Jack Klugman. This is inarguably the best of the TZ hours (a show that unfortunately worked best in a half-hour format), with Anne Francis as a young girl who uses witchcraft to win the man of her dreams (James Best)…with tragic results. It’s no doubt the best script future The Waltons creator Earl Hamner, Jr. wrote for Zone, and it’s great to see OTR vets like Jeanette Nolan, Virginia Gregg and Jim Boles among the cast.

17) The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank (02/23/62) – There were quite a few attempts to do comedic-based episodes on TZ and while most of them failed miserably, here’s an example of one that works. The titular character (James Best) has been laid to rest but for some odd reason sits straight up in his coffin in the middle of his funeral. Is he a ghost? A demon? No one knows for sure, but he’s developed an appetite (“I’m mighty hungry!”), a love of hard work and a skill at fisticuffs. Another winner from Monty Pittman, this one features Sherry Jackson, Edgar Buchanan, Lance Fuller (as “Ogram”), Ralph Moody and Dub Taylor.

16) The Midnight Sun (11/17/61) – The Earth has tumbled out of its orbit, and is headed straight for the path of the sun—causing a panic among the planet’s inhabitants (food shortages, riots, desperate treks to cooler climes), including a painter (Lois Nettleton) and her slowly-coming-apart-at-the-seams landlady (Betty Garde). One of the best endings of any Twilight Zone episode, by the way.

15) In Praise of Pip (09/27/63) – By the fifth season, The Twilight Zone was sort of coasting on fumes—it’s no secret that many of the series’ worst episodes show up in this batch, but occasionally Serling managed to hit one out of the park…and this episode (the first of the season) was the one to do it. Jack Klugman is a ne’er do well who’s allowed to spend time with his only son (Billy Mumy) in an amusement park…unaware that the real son is hovering between life and death on an operating table in Vietnam. Quite possibly the first television episode at that particular time to acknowledge the Vietnam conflict.

14) The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine (10/23/59) – I wouldn’t be too surprised to see this one show up on a classic movie lover’s list of favorite Zone episodes; Ida Lupino is a former silver screen star living vicariously through her past film performances because she’s unable to cope with real life. This one was directed by movie great Mitchell Leisen, and features a bravura supporting cast in Martin Balsam, Jerome Cowan, Ted de Corsia and Alice Frost.

13) Perchance to Dream (11/27/59) – Because of my lifelong love of cliffhanger serials, I’ve always clutched this particular episode to my bosom; TDOY fave Richard Conte plays a man of ill health whose dreams pick up where they left off and feature a dangerous woman out to kill him. Written by Charles Beaumont (who allegedly dreamt in “chapters” and believed it was possible to die from a dream) and directed by movie veteran Robert Florey, this episode also features the great character actor John Larch and Suzanne Lloyd.

12) Long Live Walter Jameson (03/18/60) – Kevin McCarthy gives one of his finest performances as a college professor who possesses a detailed, infinite knowledge of history…and he’s got a secret that explains why! Another great Beaumont concoction, with direction by radio’s Anton Leader and appearances from Edgar Stehli and Estelle Winwood.

11) Living Doll (11/01/63) – “My name is Talky Tina…and I’m going to kill you…” I don’t think I need to say anymore.

10) Shadow Play (05/05/61) – I know this seems like an odd choice to kick off the Top Ten, but I’ve always been fascinated by this episode’s premise of “Is it or is it not a dream?” Dennis Weaver is a man sentenced to die in the electric chair who attempts to convince a skeptical D.A. (Harry Townes) that they’re in a recurring nightmare and that he will cease to exist once the execution is carried out. John Brahm directed this one, from Chuck Beaumont’s script.

09) The Invaders (01/27/61) – On radio, Agnes Moorehead starred in a tour-de-force entitled Sorry, Wrong Number in which she played a hysterical woman convinced she was going to be killed by murderers. On television, Moorehead starred in a tour-de-force entitled The Invaders in which she played a hysterical woman convinced she was going to be killed by aliens. The only major difference between the two is that Aggie talks a blue streak in Number…and in Invaders, you don’t hear a peep out of her. Yin and yang, even in The Twilight Zone.

08) Eye of the Beholder (11/11/60) – An unsympathetic woman (Maxine Stuart) awaits the outcome of plastic surgery performed on her by “the State” in her final opportunity to be “normal.” Even when you know the ending, it’s still worth watching again and again—prime Rod Serling scripting, directed by television pioneer Douglas Heyes.

07) Deaths-Head Revisited (11/10/61) – A former German SS captain (Oscar Beregi) returns to the concentration camp he commanded in Dachau…only to discover that sometimes the dead do not rest in piece. Another winner from Serling, powerfully directed by Don Medford and featuring a bravura turn by Joseph Schildkraut as a former Dachau inmate.

06) A Game of Pool (10/13/61) – Actor Jack Klugman made four appearances on Zone, and it was with those four guest shots that he established for me a reputation as a superior performer (I had previously only known him from The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E.). I had to fight temptation to include all four of his appearances in this Top Twenty, but I still believe this one is his best—he plays a local-pool-hustler-made-good who aches for an opportunity to play the great Fats Brown (Jonathan Winters…who demonstrated that he had fine acting chops in addition to being an improvisational comedic genius)…and gets his wish, though it may mean his life.

05) A Stop at Willoughby (05/06/60) – I could have cheated on this one and teamed it up with my #1 entry (since their themes are so similar) but ultimately decided that this one deserves its own place. Actor James Daly—father of Tim and Tyne—may have achieved television immortality co-starring with Chad Everett on Medical Center, but he never received his proper due for his portrayal as Gart Williams, a frustrated, ulcer-ridden ad executive who longs for a serene place to escape his rat-race life…and finds such a stop on the commuter train he takes to and from work.

04) The Howling Man (11/04/60) – John Carradine’s performance as a demented monk is the reason why I love this episode so; H.M. Wynant plays a traveler who takes refuge at a hermitage and discovers an imprisoned man (Robin Hughes) who demands to be let out. The other monks say no can do—the man is in actuality the Devil! (I know this list is a bit top-heavy with Charles Beaumont episodes, but let’s be honest—he wrote some of the best scripts in the series.)

03) Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (10/11/63) – As I relate at the end of the essay over at Ed’s blog, the first time I caught sight of the “gremlin” in this classic I did a back flip (from a sitting position, of course) it scared me so much. It still gives me the willies; a fine example of Zone’s central theme (the fear of the unknown working on you) and writer Richard Matheson’s best contribution to the series.

02) The Monsters are Due on Maple Street (03/04/60) – With The Twilight Zone, creator Rod Serling achieved his goal in presenting sobering reflections on the human condition without having to kowtow to producers or sponsors about whether or not the content of his plays would “offend” audiences. In this classic—a full realization of Walt Kelly’s observation that “we have met the enemy and they is us”—a suburban neighborhood goes berserk when little things like temporary loss of electricity and cars starting by themselves affect the mindset of the neighbors, who are convinced that one amongst them is an alien. This one features Claude Akins, Jack Weston, Barry Atwater, Amzie Strickland and future M*A*S*H director-producer-writer Burt Metcalfe.

01) Walking Distance (10/30/59) – As I wrote in the essay: “My personal favorite—and in many ways the quintessential Zone episode—is 'Walking Distance,' a bittersweet drama about a jaded, tired business executive (Gig Young) who finds himself back in the hometown of his youth. He achingly yearns to stay in a time of summer carnivals and soda shops, but his father (Frank Overton) implores him to return back to the present, advising him “there’s only one summer to every customer.” The mere mention of this poignant dramatic piece brings tears to my eyes…and if I happen to catch it on a repeat…Niagara Falls."

Honorable mention (episodes I wanted to include but had no room for): “The Purple Testament,” “Mirror Image,.” “The Big Tall Wish,” “Static,” “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” “The Obsolete Man” and “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.”

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J.C. Loophole said...

I loved many of the episodes, but two that have always stood out to me that don't get as much attention are Mr. Garity and the Graves (written by ol' Rod hisself) where John Dehner stars as a man passing through a western town claiming to be able to raise the dead-
and "The Seventh is Made up of Phantoms" where a modern Tank crew out on manouvers goes back in time at Little Big Horn.
Great article here and at Ed's

Craig Zablo said...

What? No "To Serve Man"???

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

What? No "To Serve Man"???

I considered this one for the list (maybe I should have included it among the also-rans) on the basis that I'm always using the line in the "plot twist" in comments and conversation. Man's major failing, however, is that it telegraphs its socko ending at the beginning of the episode...robbing the episode of its dramatic tension.

Stacia said...

I love "The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank". LOVE. IT. James Best became one of my favorite actors simply because of that episode, his intensity and energy are amazing.

Andrew Leal said...

Yeah, though "The Jungle" is creepier, "Mr. Garity and the Graves" would have made my list too. It's a successful little comedy, dark even, with less social subtext than some but the underlying premise, the casual or in some cases more than hypocrisy about the "dear departed." Dehner's deadpan attempts at blackmail with the likes of the chinless sheriff and Stanley Adams' barkeep are great, and it's one of J. Pat O'Malley's best showcases on the Zone (out of several). Though little Percy Helton almost steals the episode with his line about how peaceful his wife looked when she was buried, so let's keep her that way.

Hal said...

"Mr. Garrity and the Graves" is a personal favorite of mine too, albeit a sloppily executed one. For example, everyone in the bar has at least $500 on him, with some carrying over a grand!

"Elegy" was the first episode to scare the Hell out of me as a child.

I agree that "Jess-Belle" is the finest of the hourlong episodes, but two others would make my top 20: "The Bard", in which Jack Weston and Burt Reynolds are both hilarious (my favorite TZ comedy) and "On Thursday we Leave for Home".

Elisson said...

Unto this day, the Missus gets the willies whenever she even thinks of "The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank." It scared the living crap out of her when she was a little girl... and she still hasn't forgiven Rod Serling!