Over the five seasons of his anthology series The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling never failed to deliver cautionary tales. Oftentimes he would remind the viewers that despite all the luxuries and distinctions that wealth and power could bring…deep down, every one of us is human, and who we choose to be, can be an incredibly important choice.
With the Season 3 episode One Last Pallbearer, Serling once again chose to enter into the mind of a wealthy eccentric, with some particular plans of his own design.
As the camera fades in, we see Mr Paul Radin (Joseph Wiseman), taking an elevator to a bomb shelter in the basement of his personal office building. Speaking with an electrician, he is assured that the installation of a large projection-screen television and sound system, have just been completed.
Radin then tests the system. As we see a large metropolitan city disintegrated in a few moments by an atomic blast on the screen, the sound of the explosion reverberates off the walls. He then tells the curious electrician, that the installation is for “three special guests,” who will be visiting him on this very night.
After their exchange, we see the elevator doors open, revealing Rod Serling. He then delivers his opening monologue:
What you have just looked at takes place three hundred feet underground, beneath the basement of a New York City skyscraper. It’s owned and lived in by one Paul Radin. Mr. Radin is rich, eccentric and single-minded. How rich we can already perceive, how eccentric and single-minded we shall see in a moment, because all of you have just entered…The Twilight Zone.
When the show continues, we see that Radin’s guests have arrived via elevator, curious as to being summoned urgently to this place. Radin does not meet them personally, but addresses them via an intercom system. As the heavy metal door of the bomb shelter opens “theatrically,” they enter into the special room. The door closes behind them, and Radin is revealed, sitting placidly before them.
He then identifies his guests by name:
– Colonel Hawthorne (Trevor Bardette), whose command Radin once served under while in Africa
– Mrs Langsford (Katherine Squire), who was one of Radin’s high school teachers
– Reverend Hughes (Gage Clarke), who one can assume was probably associated with a church Paul attended as a young man
Starting with Hawthorne, Radin jogs the Colonel’s memory, when he reminds him how he (Radin) was court-martialed after serving under his command.
Hawthorne recalls, and explains it was because Radin refused to follow a direct order to lead an assault charge, which could have cost the lives of a number of men under the Colonel’s charge. The court-martial that followed, saw Radin “dishonorably discharged.” However, the Colonel claims that if it was up to him, Radin would have been shot for his insubordination.
Radin next turns his attention to Mrs Langsford, claiming that when he was her student, she flunked and humiliated him in front of her class. However, the teacher tells the others that there were reasons behind her actions.
She explains how Paul was caught cheating, and rather than take responsibility for his actions, he tried to frame another student in her class. She then called him out before the entire class regarding his actions. Given what she has seen so far, she still considers Paul “a devious, dishonest troublemaker.”
The Reverend Hughes is finally addressed, with Radin claiming the holy man placed a scandal over his head, which destroyed his reputation. Hughes claims it was due to Radin’s actions causing a girl to commit suicide, and his feelings that the young Mr Radin did not hold honor in high regard.
This final blow against his character causes Radin to angrily retort that his guests can “go to the devil,” claiming none of them showed him the compassion or understanding that he feels was owed to him in these past situations.
It is then that Radin tells his guests about the room they are in: a specially-designed fallout shelter that has generators, electricity, and a warehouse full of food and supplies. Being a man of high importance and knowing people in powerful places, he claims that tonight, an overseas power is planning to attack the country, which will set off a nuclear war. Unseen by the group, he presses a button.
A few moments later, air raid sirens are heard over the speakers, and an announcer’s voice tells people to take shelter. Radin smugly smiles at the worried looks on his guest’s faces and mocks them, asking for words of comfort or wisdom.
He then offers them a deal: they may stay in his elaborate shelter to survive the coming attack…on the condition that they beg his forgiveness, and get down on their hands and knees to do so.
“Pretty please with sugar on it,” says Mrs Langsford, only the request is not to beg for Radin’s forgiveness, but to open the door, claiming she’d rather spend her last moments with total strangers above-ground.
Hawthorne and Hughes also demand to leave the shelter, and Radin’s smug expression falters, realizing his scheme is not bearing the fruit he had expected to pluck.
“All you have to do is to say a sentence,” he says, a trembling in his voice. “Just a string of silly stupid words like a command, Colonel, or like a lesson, Teacher, or like a prayer, Reverend. All you have to say is you’re sorry!”
But there comes only silence, leading Radin to give in to their demands and open the metal door, but loudly proclaiming that they’ll be back soon enough.
As the three board the elevator, Radin desperately rushes at it’s door, claiming they’re throwing their lives away if they leave.
“Life is very dear, Mr Radin,” says the Reverend Hughes, “infinitely valuable. But there are other things that come even higher. Honor is one of them…perhaps the most expensive of them all.”
“Amen,” says the Colonel, quietly backing up the holy man’s words.
Mrs Langsford attempts to offer some form of help to the desperate man, telling Paul to counter the loneliness in the shelter by putting up mirrors.
“Then you’ll have the company of a world full of Radins,” she promises. “It’ll be a fantasy of course, but then, your whole life has been a fantasy: a parade of illusions. Illusions about what people have done to you, illusions about what justice is, illusions about what is the dignity of even the lowest of us. A fantasy, Mr Radin…and now you can have it all to yourself.”
No it’s not a fantasy!!” Radin bellows as the doors close…when suddenly, the sirens and defense announcer’s voice ring out, but not by his pushing of a button! As he wanders back into the main room, the shelter’s large screen shows the city, rocked by a nuclear explosion!
“THAT’S QUITE ENOUGH!!” he yells, smashing the speakers and destroying the screen. However, a few moments later, he panics and rushes outside.
Emerging from the building, his eyes go wide with shock as around him, his building and the city have been reduced to rubble!
As he breaks down in heavy sobs, the scene dissolves to what has really happened: Radin’s grip on reality has snapped, and the world has not been obliterated…just in his mind.
As he sobs at the fountain outside of his building, an officer tries to help him, but Radin’s mind is trapped in it’s own world of desolation, and he doesn’t hear the officer or the people around him.
“I didn’t want it this way,” he babbles. “Anybody, won’t somebody listen to me?”
It is then that we hear Serling’s voice over the closing scene:
Mr Paul Radin, a dealer in fantasy who sits in the rubble of his own making and imagines that he’s the last man on earth. Doomed to a perdition of unutterable loneliness, because a practical joke has turned into a nightmare. Mr. Paul Radin, pallbearer at a funeral that he manufactured himself…in The Twilight Zone.
Written by Serling, One More Pallbearer is probably not one of his stronger episodes, but there is something intriguing to me about the characters within it.
Broadcast on January 12, 1962, it would be the second episode during the show’s third season, to utilize a fallout shelter. However, unlike that episode where desperate neighbors turned hostile to get into a shelter, the people in Pallbearer are desperate to get out of one, and willing to risk death if it will bring them some form of human compassion above-ground.
Joseph Wiseman’s portrayal of Paul Radin would come just months before he would be seen as an eccentric villain in the first James Bond film, Dr No. Wiseman’s voice and demeanor definitely give the air of a pompous businessman who feels he can have anything, and make anyone do anything. However, it shows just how twisted Radin is that he tries to “scare” an apology out of these three people. Then again, one wonders if this plan had succeeded…maybe there would be others he would have attempted to scare as well?
Given how Radin shrugs off not following orders, cheating, and even driving a woman to suicide as being nothing more than character assassination, Serling shows us how twisted the man is. This is someone with an inflated sense of self-entitlement, and most importantly, one who has been unable to mature and move beyond thinking of these people that he feels have wronged him (or even felt the need to better or improve himself after these events).
It is rather satisfying to watch Radin’s demeanor crack, and we get to see what a pathetic little man he really is when his plans fall apart. He tries to mock and bully his guests into staying, even claiming that just saying they are sorry would be nothing more than “silly stupid words,” when in truth they’re fool’s gold to pay off his desperate ego.
In the end, the guests prove to be much stronger than their host. The Reverend Hughes tells how important honor is, while Mrs Langsford seems to try and offer a shred of pity to Radin, though it sounds like she doesn’t hold out much hope that he can be saved from what he has become. They may not chew the scenery as much as Wiseman’s character, but their resolve holds in the face of their captor’s demands.
When Paul snaps and actually believes in the illusion he’s created, this is where I feel the episode gets a little “wobbly.” Given that the final scene takes us back inside Radin’s mind, I can’t help but feel this was a late addition to drive home just what he was seeing in his head, maybe revealing to the viewer why he isn’t acknowledging the people crowding around him in reality.
Once again, One More Pallbearer is definitely food-for-thought when it comes to some episodes of The Twilight Zone that don’t crack the shows’s Top 10 best episodes lists, but still have something important to say.
It’s lessons about sticking to integrity and basic moral principles, are important takeaways to remember in this day and age.