With recent developments revolving around COVID-19, this country has found itself in a deadly game of tug-of-war. With people demanding their “freedom” to do whatever they wish in the face of a pandemic that (as of this posting) is still infecting and causing deaths with no signs of a readily-available vaccine, I couldn’t help but feel that even here…I was thinking of a Twilight Zone episode I hadn’t seen in years.
It turns out that on Social Media, some others were thinking the same as I was…leading me to craft this little Retro Recap of the Season 5 episode, The Old Man in the Cave.
In an unnamed town with nary a working automobile or electricity, we see a number of disheveled people huddled around some boxes of canned food. One person claims the food is “pre-bomb,” and safe to consume. However, another says they should wait to hear what The Old Man has to say about the food.
Eventually, a man named Goldsmith (John Anderson) returns to the townspeople to deliver a message from The Old Man in the Cave. Along with advising them all to prepare for inclement weather (which could spread radioactive contamination), Goldsmith says the Old Man has proclaimed that the canned goods are toxic, and are not to be consumed.
It is then that the camera whip-pans, and we find Rod Serling standing in the street, delivering his opening monologue:
What you’re looking at is a legacy that man left to himself. A decade previous, he pushed his buttons, and a nightmarish moment later, woke up to find that he had set the clock back a thousand years. His engines, his medicines, his science, were buried in a mass tomb, covered over by the biggest gravedigger of them all: a bomb. And this is the earth 10 years later, a fragment of what was once a whole, a remnant of what was once a race. The year is 1974, and this…is The Twilight Zone.
As the townspeople begin to dispose of the cans, a Jeep pulls into town, with four armed men. One of them gets out, and introduces himself as Major French (James Coburn). He claims that the town is now to be placed under a Constabulary, and expects full cooperation from the people.
When Goldsmith speaks up against this declaration, French threatens to hang him for insubordination if he doesn’t cooperate. Claiming that there are only around 500 people left alive after the bombing, French says that his command is the new way to retain order in a lawless country. Upon seeing the canned goods, French inquires why the townspeople haven’t partaken of them yet.
Hearing about how The Old Man in the Cave cautioned the town against this, French laughs, telling how he’s heard tales of other “cults” the meager populations across the country have gathered into, and assumes that this is more of the same.
When Goldsmith offers scant details as to the identity of The Old Man in the Cave, French demands they find out more about the town’s reclusive benefactor.
French, his men, and the townspeople are led to the cave, which is sealed shut by a metal door. When French asks how the Old Man can survive inside the cave, Goldsmith claims he does not know…only that notes and messages are given to him, and this information he relays to the townspeople.
French’s men then use a hand grenade to blast open the door, but the metal holds strong. Yelling through the door to The Old Man that ‘this is just the beginning,’ French and his men return to the town with the citizens…where they then start passing out the canned goods to the townspeople!
Goldsmith claims that the canned goods could be poisoned by Strontium-90 (a radioactive isotope), but French calmly eats from one of the cans, and feeling no ill effects, once again claims the stoic man is overreacting.
Goldsmith however, does not relent. He claims that they don’t know where the cans came from or who processed them. If the food has been poisoned by radiation, they’ll be dead in 10 days.
But French’s words and actions, are more than enough to cause the starving townspeople to ignore Goldsmith. He again pleads with them as they begin scooping up the canned foods, before one of French’s soldiers breaks into a store with the words “contaminated” on the door, and starts passing out liquor bottles from inside!
By nightfall, the townspeople (sans Goldsmith), have opened the food and drank from the liquor supplies. During this time, French has a conversation with a man named Jason (John Marley), before Goldsmith comes over to him.
French taunts Goldsmith for not partaking in the food and spirits, claiming he (French) has helped these people, and inquires why the stubborn Goldsmith does not “unbend.”
“You came as intruders,” says Goldsmith, “But now you’re murderers. Only God knows how many people will die because of tonight. The Old Man in the Cave warned us about this food dozens of times. He warned us.”
The talk irritates French who then loudly calls for attention, claiming Goldsmith has lied to the townspeople, and has made up The Old Man to hold sway over them all. Soon, he has riled up the townspeople, and they take Goldsmith back to the cave, demanding he open the metal door.
Once again, Goldsmith pleads for reason, claiming that they should think logically. Though they have suffered hardships over the past 10 years, The Old Man has succeeded in helping to keep them alive. He claims they shouldn’t need to intrude, but his words fall on deaf ears, and he consents to their demands.
Activating a hidden switch in the nearby rocks, the metal door opens, and the townspeople and soldiers rush inside. What they find causes them to come to a halt.
There is no Old Man…only a large computer, it’s lights blinking, and the sound of information processing through it’s system.
French demands that the people need to kill their ‘tyrant’ if they are to be free of it, and Goldsmith quietly watches as the townspeople destroy the machine.
Some time later, we see the town, with it’s citizenry strewn about it’s streets, unmoving…including Major French and his soldiers.
We then hear movement, and see Goldsmith, walking about, quietly looking at those who have been poisoned by the canned food and liquor. As his eyes fall upon French’s corpse, he speaks aloud.
“When we talked about the ways that men could die,” says Goldsmith, “we forgot about the chief method of execution. We forgot faithlessness, Mr French. Maybe you’re not to blame. Maybe if it weren’t you, it would have been someone else. Maybe this has to be the destiny of man. I wonder if that’s true. I wonder. I guess I’ll never know…I guess I’ll never know.”
As Goldsmith walks further among the dead, Serling delivers his closing monologue:
Mr Goldsmith: survivor. An eyewitness to man’s imperfection, an observer of the very human trait of greed, and a chronicler of the last chapter. The one reading, ‘suicide.’ Not a prediction of what is to be, just a projection of what could be. This has been…The Twilight Zone.
And that was The Old Man in the Cave.
The episode does leave several questions unanswered, such as the relationship Goldsmith has with “The Old Man.” The image of the perfect-and-clean machine sitting in a cave feels quite “artificial,” let alone we do not know how the computer stays powered on. Did Goldsmith craft it? Did he know of it’s capabilities prior to the bombing, and hid it in the cave? There are a number of questions here that Serling chooses not to answer, instead focusing on the battle of wills between Goldsmith, and Major French.
Throughout the episode, Anderson’s portrayal of Goldsmith is one that never wavers in his “faith” (or the chiseled, placid look upon actor John Anderson’s face). Though he does give-in and open the metal door in the end, he presides over the townspeople mainly like a priest trying to keep his “flock” alive in these troubled times. He will offer words of encouragement, but he will not strike back at those in the town who come against him.
It is notable how Serling has given these people a man-made savior in the form of the machine, but unlike man himself, it is not prone to emotions like selfishness or greed…just giving calculations and information that is able to keep the people alive, even through the worst of conditions. It’s information looks to be a help to everyone in the town, and survival is not based on a caste or class system.
It is also notable that some in the beginning of the episode, defend The Old Man. It’s prediction at the start of 80% inclement weather shows it doesn’t always get everything perfect, but has gotten enough right to keep the people willing to listen to Goldsmith for over 10 years. There is talk about how the people attempted to grow crops in areas that were deemed unsuitable by The Old Man, resulting in dead or mutated vegetation that most likely made them put more faith in the machine’s messages.
The portrayal of Major French could easily have been turned into a belligerent tyrant, but Coburn imbues his character as a man who is looking for logical answers to Goldsmith’s hold over the people, even as he and his men are brandishing weapons.
We even find out that French went to college and that he seems well-studied, with a personality that is more realist. French has to see The Old Man in order to believe Goldsmith. He has to taste the food before he’ll believe it to be poisoned. Without the proof, French believes he is justified in his actions, and that he is “helping” instead of “hurting.”
The Old Man in the Cave is an episode that uniquely blends together faith and logic, leaving the viewer to ponder the events of what has happened. In the end, with The Old Man destroyed, Goldsmith is on his own, with the viewer to assume that he will most likely try to get by as best he can, but now runs the risk that without guidance, he may die soon.
Much of the episode feels pretty simplified in where it’s going, with the townspeople’s mob mentality putting me in mind of other instances in The Twilight Zone, from the episodes The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, or The Shelter. Unlike those episodes, the violence here does not reach the nightmarish levels we’ve seen before, as the people here are merely looking for hope, guidance, and a possible break from the miserable life they’ve lived after the bombs fell.
Much like Serling’s underrated episode from season 4 titled He’s Alive, The Old Man in the Cave is a story that shows there are themes made almost 50 years ago, that can still resonate in today’s time, but just under different circumstances.
Times may change, but there are certain elements of humanity it seems, that are everlasting…and in some cases, some of those elements can still prove dangerous to many.
When it comes to Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, there are some who say that his being drafted into service during World War II, had a profound impact on his life.
Returning from the war, his mind seemed to be filled with a number of topics that he wanted to get out. From injustice to racism, Serling saw these topics being kept from the public’s eye, and sought to bring them to light via his writings and projects.
The Twilight Zone was where many of these ideas could be brought to life, usually with some form of the supernatural, or science fiction thrown into the mix. In November of 1961, the show would address a real-world atrocity, intermingled within the show’s fifth dimension.
As the show opens, we see a man walk into a hotel and ask for a room. As he signs his name to the guestbook, the woman assisting him grows nervous. When she makes note of the name he’s signed (“Mr Schmidt”), she timidly mentions that the man reminds her of someone during the war.
Mr Schmidt seems amused by the woman’s nervousness, but claims he was actually stationed at the Russian front during the war. When he asks about a prison camp in the village, she claims he is talking about the Dachau Concentration Camp.
“Most of us, would like it burned to the ground,” she claims.
These words cause the man to narrow his eyes at her, before he heads out the front door. It is then that Rod Serling’s opening narration begins:
“Mr Schmidt, recently arrived in a small Bavarian village, which lies eight miles northwest of Munich. A picturesque, delightful little spot one time known for it’s scenery, but more recently related to other events, having to do with the less positive pursuits of man: human slaughter, torture, misery and anguish. Mr Schmidt as we shall soon perceive has a vested interest in the ruins of a concentration camp, for once some seventeen years ago his name was Gunther Lutze. He held the rank of a captain in the SS. He was a black-uniformed strutting ‘animal,’ whose function in life was to give pain, and like his colleagues of the time he shared the one affliction most common amongst that breed known as Nazi’s: he walked the earth without a heart. And now former SS captain Lutze will revisit his old haunts, satisfied perhaps that all that is awaiting him in the ruins on the hill is an element of nostalgia. What he does not know of course is that a place like Dachau, cannot exist only in Bavaria. By it’s nature, by it’s very nature, it must be one of the populated areas…of The Twilight Zone.”
Taking a cab to the abandoned camp, Lutze enters through it’s gates. Exploring the ruins, a smile graces his face, as he imagines the bodies of the dead hanging from now-empty gallows, or recalling how he joyfully denied water to a pleading prisoner.
Suddenly, the sound of a door catches Lutze’s attention, and he finds himself staring at the face of a man in a striped uniform.
Lutze recognizes the man as Alfred Becker, but is surprised how it seems he hasn’t changed since he last saw him, 17 years ago. Lutze assumes Becker is the caretaker of the camp, when a howling sound catches the former officer’s attention, causing him to look uneasy.
When Becker keeps calling him captain, Lutze demands he stop, but Becker claims that it is who the man was.
“I was a soldier, Becker!” bellows Lutze in defense.
“No captain,” replies Becker, “You were a sadist. You were a monster who derived pleasure from giving pain.”
Lutze responds to this by claiming that Becker should not dwell on the past, when the howling sound is heard again.
Becker claims that it is the sound of the victims, moaning their disdain to the man’s denials that he was at all involved in the atrocities that he committed in this place.
Lutze attempts to escape through the front gates, but they are suddenly locked. It is then that Becker reveals some rather unconventional information: Lutze had escaped to South America after the war, but he left that safe haven to return to Dachau..but why?
Lutze confronts this question, claiming he felt enough time had passed, that people would forgive “the little mistakes of the past.”
Becker looks insulted that the deaths of many is considered a “little mistake,” but he explains that since Lutze is now here, he is to be put on trial for his crimes.
These words cause Lutze to attempt to flee once more, but he suddenly finds himself in Compound Six of the camp, with a group of people staring at him, as Becker reads the charges.
Lutze struggles with a nearby door, his voice growing louder as he tries to drown out the indictments being read, before the howling sound of the prisoners overwhelms his own voice, and he passes out.
When he comes to, he finds Becker next to him…telling the man that he has been found guilty. When Becker also claims it is time to pronounce sentence, Lutze merely laughs, claiming that there is noone there to do such a thing, and the caretaker is making something out of nothing.
“They’re in your mind,” sneers Lutze, “You’ve planned your vengeance out of a crazy quilt of your imagination, sewn together with thin level-threats of wishful thinking…why didn’t I kill you when I had the chance!?”
It is then that the man remembers…he did kill Becker, the night the Americans came to liberate the camp. Becker’s death was one of many, in the captain’s desperate attempts to destroy ‘the evidence’ of what had happened there.
Lutze charges at the man, but suddenly finds himself outside in the main area of the compound…where Becker’s voice is heard. The jury’s sentence is that the former captain be rendered “insane.” Soon, Lutze feels the pain of the tortures he inflicted on others: the bullets piercing flesh, the rope of a noose around his neck, and the unspeakable tortures put upon those, behind closed doors.
As Lutze cries out and lays in agony on the ground, Becker walks up behind him.
“Captain Lutze,” he says, “if you can still reason, if there is still any portion of your mind that can still function, take this thought with you: this is not hatred, this is retribution. This is not revenge, this is justice. But this is only the beginning, captain, only the beginning. Your final judgment…will come from God.”
A few hours later, the cab driver returns, and upon finding Lutze unresponsive on the ground, alerts the authorities.
A doctor has Lutze taken to a hospital, but is perplexed: he seems to be insane, but is unsure what could have caused such a thing. As he packs his medical bag, the doctor looks at the dilapidated structures around him.
“Dachau,” he says, with a tinge of distaste. “Why does it still stand? Why do we keep it standing?”
Serling’s voice returns, closing out the episode:
“There is an answer to the doctor’s question. All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes…all of them. They must remain standing, because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone, but wherever men walk God’s Earth.”
Revisiting the episode for this posting, I did notice a few more things than I did during my previous viewings.
While he could bring about intriguing subject matter, Rod Serling could get a bit “wordy” in his scripts, and that does happen quite a few time during Death’s Head. Then again, maybe he feels that Becker explaining things to Lutze, is similar to schooling the naive members of his television audience about what happened in places like this (including Becker showing Lutze a number tattooed on his arm). There may have been some even after all those years, who still weren’t fully aware of what went on in the camps.
Reliving the past or going back to a place (or time) that held special meaning, has been viewed in a number of episodes of The Twilight Zone. However, Serling has shown that in many cases (such as in this episode and The Incredible World of Horace Ford), not all trips down memory lane are like we remembered them.
Watching the episode now, one thing that stood out was how the concentration camp looked more like a re-purposed film set…which it was. Apparently, the studio had built a fort for a western television series, and after a few changes, it became Dachau.
Oscar Beregi Jr plays Lutze in the episode with an aire of pomposity at times (he could almost be seen like a bullying high school jock, coming back to his old stomping grounds). An uncomfortable smile plays across his face, like that on a man who feels he has gotten away with his crimes…though when the tables start turning, one can see that Lutze is very much a coward trying to keep control as the rug is pulled out from under him. Beregi’s bellowing voice also shows him trying to regain some form of authority, as he finds his reality crashing down around him.
What is rather notable about the character, is how he doesn’t seem to question some information that Becker knows (such as how he escaped to South America after the war). This is where the character gets a tad questionable in my eyes regarding how Serling writes him.
Alfred Becker is played by Joseph Schildkraut. An Austrian-born actor, Schildkraut would be better-known for his portrayal of Anne Frank’s father Otto, in the Broadway and film productions of The Diary of Anne Frank. Schildkraut’s role plays Becker as a man who is almost like the voice of a conscience over Lutze’s shoulder. His voice never rises to the volume of the captain’s, but the way he conducts himself with “quieter” movements, seems to show he is in total control of the situation.
In many of Serling’s films, he often had little love for those that were the bullies, or looked down upon others. The Twilight Zone episode here shows Lutze being a man who got an extra degree of punishment for his crimes against humanity, though there is the thought that if punishment escapes men like this on Earth, it will eventually catch up to them after their life has expired.
In the end, Death’s-Head Revisited offers a brief history lesson in an okay episode. One has to wonder, as we seem to be headed into another dark area of human history…can human beings truly learn from the past, or are we forever doomed to be trapped in a neverending cycle?
While there would often be good people within the Twilight Zone who found themselves in circumstances beyond their control, there were also plenty of jerks to be found as well.
The episode that we’re covering today on Retro Recaps, isn’t one of their more memorable ones, but it still manages to rattle around inside my head from time-to-time, with it’s subject matter, and examinations on humanity.
I speak, of Four O’Clock.
In a cramped apartment, lives Oliver Crangle (Theodore Bikel), and his parrot, Pete.
Oliver spends the better part of his day, calling up employers and writing them letters, claiming they have unsavory individuals who should be fired immediately. He also promises to follow-up, and be sure that his “requests” have been carried out.
Hearing Pete squawk for a “nut,” Oliver complies, and then goes over to the nearby window. Looking down at the people below, he mutters aloud about all the ‘evil people’ around him, and how they must be dealt with. However, he feels that his phone calls and threats, are not going far enough.
Looking at a nearby clock, Oliver declares that at four o’clock, he will ‘destroy evil.’
It is then that the camera whip-pans to the right, and Rod Serling addresses us:
That’s Oliver Crangle, a dealer in petulance and poison. He’s rather arbitrarily chosen four o’clock as his personal Götterdämmerung, and we are about to watch the metamorphosis of a twisted fanatic, poisoned by the gangrene of prejudice, to the status of an avenging angel, upright and omniscient, dedicated and fearsome. Whatever your clocks say, it’s four o’clock, and wherever you are, it happens to be…The Twilight Zone.
As Oliver goes over some papers, his landlady Mrs Williams (Moyna MacGill) drops off a package. When she inquires about what he does, he reveals how he collects information on people, to determine whether or not they are ‘evil.’ If he figures they are not, he feels it is his duty to guide those who are ‘misled,’ or ‘naive.’
He also reveals to Mrs Williams, a card of information he has collected on her, which causes her to quickly leave the room.
Soon after, a woman named Mrs Lucas (Phyllis Love) comes and confronts Oliver. She has come to talk to him about his incessant calling and writing letters to the hospital her husband works for, demanding he be fired.
Oliver claims he has information that her husband allowed a patient to die, but Mrs Lucas counters that the ward he was in was understaffed the night it happened. However, her pleas for understanding fall on deaf ears.
“Your husband, is an evil man!” bellows Oliver. “I will not put up with evil in any form! Communists, subversives, thieves, harlots…evil! All of them. And I will not countenance evil.”
Going over to the window, he looks down again at the people outside. As he starts comparing them to bugs and bacteria…he suddenly begins to laugh in an unpleasant manner.
“That’s what I’ll do,” he says. “I’ll turn all the evil people…into little ones!”
As he prattles on about making the evil people of the world two feet tall, Mrs Lucas finally has enough, and leaves.
We next see Oliver dressed in a suit, awaiting a visitor. As he does so, he looks at a framed copy of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Reading aloud a few lines, Crangle underlines the phrase, ‘it is rather for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us.’ He also crosses out the words, ‘all men are created equal,’ with a disgusted growl in his voice.
Eventually, a Mr Hall (Linden Chiles) arrives from the FBI. As he sits down, Crangle tells how he has also notified Police and Fire departments, but doesn’t fully trust calling anyone in Washington DC…claiming that ‘The Reds’ have taken over the government, as part of a ‘worldwide conspiracy.’
Crangle then tells Mr Hall about his plans regarding four o’clock, and Hall calmly asks how this strange little man will make it happen.
Oliver claims that he merely has to ‘will it’ to happen. He then tells how he even considered ‘willing airplane propellers to go limp,’ before prattling on about how making all evil people little, will render them unable to function in a normal world.
It is about this time that Mr Hall asks Oliver, if he has ever sought out any psychiatric help for himself.
“Help?” asks Oliver, incredulously. “Why should I need help? I’m not evil!”
It is then that Mr Hall decides to take his leave, but claims that the FBI is not planning to do anything regarding what he has just heard.
This response causes Oliver’s eyes to narrow, and he now assumes this man is also working for ‘The Reds!’ As Hall leaves, Oliver yells after him, claiming that he’ll soon be two feet tall!
Soon, it is almost four o’clock, and Oliver happily delights in the transformations he imagines are happening outside his window.
“Nut,” calls out Pete.
“Certainly Peter,” smiles Oliver. “This is kind of a celebration.”
As Crangle turns towards the peanut jar on the window sill…he suddenly finds that he is now two feet tall!
Pete utters the word “nut” one more time, as we see Crangle weeping at what has happened to him, and Serling delivers the closing monologue:
At four o’clock, an evil man made his bed and lay in it, a pot called a kettle black, a stone-thrower broke the windows of his glass house. You look for this one under ‘F’ for fanatic and ‘J’ for justice, in the Twilight Zone.
Four O’Clock is one of those Twilight Zone episodes that seems to have an interesting idea going for it, but it’s execution feels a bit lackluster.
Theodore Bikel portrays Oliver as a fanatically-driven individual, but one is left to ponder what possessed Crangle to go down the path he has chosen. Was it too much time on his hands? Was there something in his past that affected him to seek out ‘the truth,’ and that personal investigating became an overpowering obsession with him? Given his penchant for filing and cataloging information, was he a government clerk that lost his mind?
I’m all for some episodes of the show leaving things unanswered, but when it comes to Crangle, one almost wants a little more information to feel grounded in his ‘reality.’
Oliver’s talk about having the power to ‘will things to happen,’ almost makes him sound like an adult version of Anthony Fremont, from one of The Twilight Zone’s more famous episodes, It’s A Good Life. Anthony had an otherworldly power that held sway over his parents and a small town, and he could wish/will things to happen all with his mind.
However, Crangle’s ‘powers’ do not go quite as far as Anthony’s did (there is no ‘wishing into the cornfield’ when it comes to Crangle getting rid of nosy subversives). For most of the episode, we’ve seen no sign of Oliver possessing any powers, and we can just as easily side with the man from the FBI, thinking he has mentally snapped (in more ways than one).
The episode is based off of a short story by Price Day, and I sought it out afterwards to see how it compared/contrasted with Serling’s adaptation.
Price’s story does have Oliver with some powers, but they are not permanent. He obtains them from time-to-time, and must use them quickly, or they will disappear until the next time he obtains them.
Price’s story is a bit more straight-forward than the episode it’s based on. His version of Crangle is not a man obsessed with poring over information. He just figures there is evil in the world, and he wants to get rid of it using the powers when they come to him again. There is also a parrot named Pet (instead of Pete like in the show), who also makes requests for a “nut” from time-to-time in the story.
The angle of using information and persons giving into unhealthy paranoia, has been reflected in quite a few of the show’s more memorable episodes, such as The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. Following the Red Scare of the 1950’s, Serling seems intent in a number of his scripts to remind people to use their brains, before jumping to unhealthy conclusions…a sentiment that many of us wish some would heed, in this day of information overload.
Given the recent revival of the Twilight Zone by CBS, one could almost see Four O’Clock reworked for today’s audiences. It would be easy to see an Oliver Crangle-like character acting as an internet troll, using social media as his weapon to weed out the people he feels are ‘evil.’ One could imagine him bombarding people with incessant messages or memes, maybe even recruiting others to act as his ‘avenging angels,’ never thinking for a moment what his actions could be doing to those on the other side of a computer monitor or smartphone.
Over the years, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone series would often tell stories about the flaws of human nature. Whether it be pride, arrogance, or greed, many episodes would often show people reveling in their deplorable behaviors, unable to turn the mirror on themselves until it was too late.
As the series wound down in it’s fifth season, there were still plenty of lessons to be learned. And in The Masks, Serling attempted to show what lies beneath the surface, of some of the worst of humanity.
Our episode starts in New Orleans, and wealthy Jason Foster is at death’s door. As a doctor leaves Jason’s bedside, Rod Serling appears, and begins his opening narration:
Mr. Jason Foster. A tired ancient who on this particular Mardi Gras evening will leave the Earth. But before departing he has some things to do, some services to perform, some debts to pay, and some justice to mete out. This is New Orleans, Mardi Gras time. It is also…The Twilight Zone.
We soon find out that Jason has sent for his daughter and her family to be with him in his final hours. However, as they greet the old man, Jason chastises each of them.
His daughter Emily he mocks for being a hypochondriac, claiming she always seems to be ill with something. His son-in-law Wilfred Sr, he mocks for his heartless business sensibilities. His Granddaughter Paula (he notes) has just been fussing over her reflection in the mirror since she arrived, and for his Grandson Wilfred Jr, he calls out his (past) love of torturing small animals.
Jason then sends the family off to have dinner (prepared by his servants), and they then meet him in his study. Here he shows them a series of masks he’s had “created” by an old Cajun. He claims they are worn only during Mardi Gras, and the tradition is that a mask reflect the antithesis of it’s wearer.
Jason then analyzes each of his family members, to determine which mask they shall receive.
Wilfred Sr claims himself to be ‘an affable man,’ and Jason selects a mask for him: a face containing greed, cruelty, and avarice.
For Emily, he bestows the mask of a self-centered coward, which he claims to be her opposite.
Paula’s mask shows vanity and insolence, while Wilfred Jr’s is the face of “a dull, stupid clown.”
For himself, Jason’s mask is a skull, given that he is still alive.
Naturally, none of the family members want to wear the grotesque creations, but that is when Jason points out that none of them even care to be in his presence…except to see him die and claim his estate for themselves. He reveals that their wish will be granted, upon the following condition: the family are to wear their masks until midnight. If any of them removes their mask before then, they will forfeit the inheritance, and be sent away.
The family reluctantly give in to the demand, but as the clock closes in on midnight, they start to complain, demanding this game come to an end. It is then that Jason starts to cough.
When Emily asks her father if he feels weaker, Jason mocks the ‘note of hope’ in her voice.
“Why must you always say such miserable, cruel things to me!?” she demands.
“Why indeed, Emily,” Jason responds sharply, “Because you’re cruel, and miserable people. Because none of you respond to love. Emily responds only to what her petty hungers dictate. Wilfred responds only to things that have weight, and bulk, and value. He feels books, he doesn’t read them. He appraises paintings, he doesn’t seek out their truth, or their beauty. And Paula there lives in a mirror. The world is nothing to her but a reflection of herself. And her brother. Humanity to him is a small animal caught in a trap to be tormented. His pleasure is the giving of pain, and from this he feels the same sense of fulfillment most human beings get from a kiss or an embrace. You’re caricatures, all of you! Without your masks…you’re caricatures.”
It is then that the clock strikes midnight. As Jason’s voice quiets, his body stiffens, and then goes limp. Wilfred checks his pulse, and joyfully declares the old man is dead. He gleefully pulls off his mask…revealing that his face has melded to it’s inner-contours! The same holds for the others when they remove their masks as well.
The head servant then call for the doctor. When he examines Jason’s corpse, the skull mask is removed, but his face remains the same as before.
“This must be death,” remarks the doctor. “No horror, no fear. Nothing but peace.”
As the servant takes Jason’s mask away, we see the now-deformed family members in the foyer, as Serling’s closing narration is heard:
Mardi Gras incident. The dramatis personae being four people who came to celebrate, and in a sense, let themselves go. This they did with a vengeance. They now wear the faces of all that was inside them, and they’ll wear them for the rest of their lives. Said lives now to be spent in shadow. Tonight’s tale of men, the macabre, and masks…on The Twilight Zone.
Growing up, The Masks was one of those Twilight Zone episodes I remembered very well, most notably due to Robert Keith who played the late Jason Foster.
Some episodes could be carried on the backs of some rather eccentric characters, and Keith’s voice has a certain ‘eeriness’ that one could almost mistake for Vincent Price in how he chastises his relations.
What is most notable about Jason Foster, is that his character breaks some of the standards of a Twilight Zone episode. Usually a wealthy, eccentric man such as himself would be the one learning a lesson. I guess since Jason is at death’s door, he is the exception since he can’t take his fortune with him.
The lessons to be learned are instead given to his family members.
Out of all of them, it is Emily (played by Virginia Gregg) who seems to show the most ‘concern,’ though Jason throws all of it back in her face no matter what treacly sentiments she musters.
Wilfred Sr (Milton Selzeer) is the one who tries to grin-and-bear-it through most of the events, most likely trying to keep his ‘eyes on the prize.’ However, the most opinionated notes from the family come from Paula (Brooke Hayward) and Wilfred Jr (Alan Sues). Paula loudly complains about being unable to take part in the Mardi Gras celebration right outside the house, and Wilfred is one of the most vocal when it comes to wearing the masks.
One interesting fact about the episode, is that it is the only original Twilight Zone episode directed by a woman. Ida Lupino starred in one of the series’ first season episodes, but her simplicity in telling an “intimate story,” really keeps things in perspective here.
Rarely are all of the characters ever in a single frame, and most of the time, their faces take up quite a bit of a scene. Plus, there are some nice little character moments and camera choices to be had. A prime example comes when one of Jason’s servants hears his relatives are coming, and she quickly shoves a flower into a vase, showing just how she feels about them.
The Masks is one of a few Season 5 episodes (along with Nightmare at 20,000 Feet) that often ends up on a number of Top 10 lists for The Twilight Zone. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 55 years since it debuted, but like a number of episodes made back in the day, it seems there are still lessons to be learned from it…even if the person giving the lesson isn’t much better than those he’s teaching.
Over the years, you’ve probably seen a number of television tropes in the different series you’ve watched. From an annoying relative that comes to visit, or a character developing amnesia, there are some tropes that show-runners just love to dip into over and over again.
One trope that would appear in some older television shows, was “the love potion trope.” This would usually result in someone getting their hands on the fabled concoction…only for their plan to backfire, as the “be careful what you wish for” storyline played out.
31 episodes into The Twilight Zone’s first season, The Chaser would bring this trope to Rod Serling’s anthology series. However, despite it’s themes of love, the episode would premiere on May 12th, 1960, and not on Valentine’s Day of that year.
As the show starts, we see a young man in a phone booth, dialing a phone number, trying over-and-over again to get through to someone. Outside of the booth, a small line of people are impatiently waiting their turn to use the phone. As the young man continues to dial, we hear Rod Serling’s opening monologue:
Mr Roger Shackleforth. Age: youthful 20’s. Occupation: being in love. Not just in love, but madly, passionately, illogically, miserably, all-consumingly in love, with a young woman named Leila who has a vague recollection of his face and even less than a passing interest. In a moment you’ll see a switch, because Mr Roger Shackleforth, a young gentleman, so much in love, will take a short but very meaningful journey…into the Twilight Zone.
After some time, Roger manages to connect with Leila. She calmly listens to Roger’s declarations of love, before telling him to “take a flying jump at the moon,” and hanging up.
Before Roger can call her back, the man behind him muscles the lovesick young man out of the booth. He gives Roger a business card, claiming the man on the card can help Roger with his problems.
Roger follows the card’s address to the door of Professor A Daemon. Daemon reveals himself to be an apothecary, and at first figures Roger is there seeking his help to gain wealth or power…but grows morose when he finds out Roger just wants help getting a girl to love him.
Daemon claims he has something that will do the trick, but tries to entice Roger with a pricey concoction he calls, “the glove cleaner.” Roger claims he just wants the love potion, and Daemon sells it to the young man…for a dollar.
“Love potions are my cheapest item,” mutters Daemon. “And they’re overpriced at that.”
Roger next heads to Leila’s with some champagne and flowers. Begging her to let him have a drink with her, she begrudges his request. While she is away in another room, Roger pours Daemon’s potion into her glass. A few moments later, she eagerly rushes into the young man’s open arms!
The next scene shows six months have passed since the two were married. Now it seems the tables have turned, with Leila being overly-passionate towards Roger, and him having become annoyed by her constant attentions. As Leila fawns over him, Roger suddenly declares he forgot he has an appointment, and rushes out of their apartment.
Roger returns to Daemon’s residence, and asks him if there is a way to possibly dilute the love potion, but is informed that “the glove cleaner,” is the only solution.
Handing over a check (already written out for the exact amount!), Roger receives the old man’s specialty. Daemon also warns him that Leila must drink all of it, and Roger must not hesitate to administer it…otherwise, he’ll lose his nerve to ever use it again.
“Always the same way,” smiles Daemon, as Roger leaves. “First the stimulant…then the chaser.”
Returning to Leila, Roger prepares them champagne, secretly pouring “the glove cleaner” into her glass. However, as he prepares to hand her her glass, Leila claims she has a surprise for Roger, and mischievously shows him some baby booties she’s been knitting…causing him to spill the drinks!
As he mutters to himself that he couldn’t have gone through with the whole thing anyways, Leila smiles lovingly, telling him that they’ll be together for the rest of their lives.
The final shot shows Professor Daemon, relaxing in a lounge chair. As he blows a heart-shaped smoke-ring, Serling delivers the closing monologue:
Mr Roger Shackleforth, who has discovered at this late date that love can be as sticky as a vat of molasses, as unpalatable as a hunk of spoiled yeast, and as all-consuming as a 6-alarm fire in a bamboo-and-canvas tent. Case history of a lover boy, who should never have entered…The Twilight Zone.
Throughout it’s history, The Twilight Zone has never shied away from storylines with a “be careful what you wish for” premise, and The Chaser certainly has a little fun with it.
George Grizzard plays Roger with un-thinking aplomb at the start…and an unhealthy obsession that would probably land him a restraining order in this day and age. As the episode goes on, we soon see that he definitely gets more than he bargained for.
Patricia Berry’s role as Leila, is little more than the object of Roger’s desire. For the first half of the show, she “politely tolerates” his requests, and then in the second half, she becomes so lovesick due to the potion, that she is unable to do most things on her own.
It is in John McIntire’s role as Professor A Daemon, where there’s truly some fun to be had. With his questionable name and intriguing abode, the character shows a man who enjoys playing devil’s advocate, but seems to also enjoy some mischief.
One can make out that the professor has had experience with being blinded by young-love in his own life, but Roger is too foolish to take any of his hints. There’s also some dark humor with Daemon’s constant talk about “the glove cleaner.” Traceless and odorless, the old man even gleefully claims it to be called, “the eradicator.”
The Chaser is actually based on a short story of the same name, by John Colliers. Much shorter than the Twilight Zone episode, it deals with a young man going to the Daemon character (though he is not given a name). The young man has come on the promise of a love potion, though the old man does tell him of the more expensive “glove cleaner,” hinting that later on in life, some of his customers come back to purchase it.
The episode’s title also contains a dual meaning. On one hand, it could refer to Roger as “the chaser” of Leila’s affections. On the other hand, the term “chaser” can sometimes refer to a secondary drink, often used to quell the strong taste of hard liquor. Daemon himself mentions this, after Roger purchases “the glove cleaner.”
The Chaser is definitely one of the simpler episodes of The Twilight Zone’s first season. It doesn’t get as introspective as The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, but I believe there’s a charm in it’s simplicity. Plus, I still enjoy watching McIntire’s performance as Daemon, a man who’s seen what reckless young love can do, but whose warnings often fall on deaf ears.
When it comes to Rod Serling’s television series The Twilight Zone, the episodes that most often come to people’s minds, are those that deal with some of the darker elements of humanity.
However, buried within it’s 156-episodes, there are some stories that tend to stick in our minds, that often don’t rely on aliens, or humans turning on each other.. One that I’ve seen show up in some people’s favorite episodes list (and that I recall watching with my Dad over the years), premiered on February 9th, 1962.
The episode opens at Sunnyvale Rest, a home for the aged. As the camera shows us it’s tired residents, we see Charles Whitley (Ernest Truex), happily proclaim that his son is taking him home today.
When Charles’ son arrives, he explains to his father that he only meant to talk with him about the possibility of going home, and the two quietly part ways.
As his son drives away, Charles sees several kids playing a game of kick-the-can across the street from Sunnyvale. One of them kicks a dented tin can towards him, and Charles picks it up. As he holds it close, Rod Serling emerges from behind a bush, and delivers his opening monologue:
Sunnyvale Rest, a home for the aged. A dying place, and a common children’s game called kick-the-can, that will shortly become a refuge for a man who knows he will die in this world, if he doesn’t escape…into The Twilight Zone.
We next see Charles talking with a friend of his at Sunnyvale, named Ben Conroy (Russell Collins). While Charles holds the tin can from earlier (maybe he traded the kids for another in the home?), Ben complains how noisy the kids are outside their window.
Charles reminds him that the two of them were just as noisy as youngsters, but begins to wonder if those games they played, and some of what they believed in those younger days…may be the key to staying young.
Ben just dismisses these ideas, telling Charles that they’re old men now, but Charles dwells on his thoughts.
Concerned for his friend’s sanity, Ben tells the rest home superintendent Mr Cox (John Marley) about his fears. Things don’t get much better when the two observe Charles trying to act young, first shoving an empty wheelchair across the living room, and then running through the sprinkler outside! Mr Cox has Charles placed in bed, and warns Ben that his friend may need to be isolated for observation, unless he behaves himself.
Ben tries to explain the predicament to his friend, but Charles claims he doesn’t want to become “a vegetable” like a number of those in the home. When Ben snaps at his friend and tells him to “use his brain,” Charles quiets down…before looking at the tin can on his night table.
Later that evening, Charles wakes up a few of the residents, and they convene in a small room. When he stirs up memories of the games they played in their youth, their faces light up. Charles eagerly makes them buy into his request to play a game of kick-the-can in the summer evening, and soon the group is quietly waking up the other residents to join them.
Charles personally attempts to get Ben to join them, but Ben once again claims they’re too old to be doing such things. Even his request that his friend help him try to rekindle the lost magic of their youth does nothing to sway the old man, and Charles quietly leaves his friend’s bedside.
One of the seniors has a stash of hidden firecrackers, and sets some off outside to distract the night nurse. Once she leaves, Charles and the others rush outside.
Ben goes to Mr Cox’s office door, and tells what Charles has done. The two rush outside to bring in the seniors, but only find a number of children playing kick-the-can under the streetlight!
Mr Cox rushes off behind the house to search for his missing residents, when Ben sees a little boy who looks just like Charles did in his youth!
Ben realizes that his friend was right, and pleads with Charles to let him play too. But the boy merely looks upon Ben as a stranger, and he and the other kids rush off into the night, their voices echoing on the wind.
Sadly, Ben finds the discarded tin can, and realizes that his mindset has doomed him to be what he claimed to be: an old man…one who has now lost one of the last friends he had.
As Ben walks back to the now-empty house, Rod Serling delivers the closing monologue:
“Sunnyvale Rest, a dying place for people who have forgotten the fragile magic of youth. A dying place for those who have forgotten that childhood, maturity and old age, are curiously intertwined and not separate. A dying place for those who have grown too stiff in their thinking, to visit…The Twilight Zone.”
Over the course of it’s 5 seasons, The Twilight Zone would sometimes deal with the topics of youth, and age. Out of all of them, Kick the Can could probably be considered one of the most treacly of them all.
For much of the episode, the Camera never strays very far from Charles Whitley. Ernest Truex’s role definitely has some small memorable moments, but for much of the episode, one can’t help but wonder if Charles really has mentally started to lose his grip on reality. It could be easy to imagine that his talk about children’s games and magic keeping one young, is him trying to come to terms with the thought that he is never going to leave Sunnyvale Rest. Even so, Charles’ attempts to wish for something innocent is rewarded, and does not backfire on him like in some of the episodes, where wishing for vengeance or selfish desires, backfires on a number of “adult” figures.
Speaking of adult figures, Charles’ friend Ben is front-and-center as the “cantankerous old man” in the episode. However, he is not totally without heart. There is still the friendship he and Charles share, and he almost acts like a big brother figure at times. This comes to mind when he tries to get Charles to “act normally,” lest Mr Cox and the home’s nurse isolate Charles because of his actions.
The episode was written by George Clayton Johnson, a science fiction writer who seemed to write about age and time quite a bit. Along with writing an additional eight episodes of The Twilight Zone, he co-wrote the screenplay to Logan’s Run, in which a man tries to escape his societal fate, once he turns 30 years old.
In 1983, Kick the Can got a second chance at life, when Steven Spielberg directed a more up-to-date version of the story, for his portion of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie.
In this version of the story (also written by the original episode’s writer), the magic of playing kick-the-can is brought to the Sunnyvale Rest Home in Florida, by a man known as Mr Bloom (played by Scatman Crothers). Bloom gets a number of the old folks to play the game, but unlike the television show’s episode, the regressed elderly people still retain their memories. Though they soon wish to return to their actual ages, the chance to experience their youth again has energized them to make the most of their remaining years.
The film even attempts to do it’s own version of the Charles and Ben friendship. This comes in the form of a person named Agee, who decides not to return to his old age, and wishes to have a second chance at youthful adventure. A friend of his named Leo Conroy (Bill Crowley), who didn’t partake in the game of kick-the-can, has second thoughts and wants to to go off with Agee. However, the now-young-man tells Crowley that he cannot go with him, and he vanishes out an open window, as freely as if he were Peter Pan.
Much like it’s 1962 counterpart, the 1983 version feels much more innocent when put next to the film’s adaptations of more popular episodes like It’s a Good Life, and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
Seeing Kick the Can after all these years, makes me feel that it has slipped a few notches in my list of favorite Twilight Zone episodes, but some of what it preaches to the audience, can still be something to consider.
Even if many of us in the lasts few generations have never played a game of kick-the-can, the story’s request that we allow ourselves to not forget who we once were, can end up keeping us young, in ways that may not be seen by the naked eye.
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.
Throughout the years, the concept of love and relationships has popped up in many shows, often as Valentine’s Day approaches.
In February of 1963, it just so happened that the broadcast date for a new Twilight Zone episode, fell on that fated day. And with it, brought the tale of an Appalachian love triangle, between flaxen-haired Ellwyn Glover (Laura Devon), the handsome Billy-Ben Turner (James Best), and the raven-haired Jesse-Belle Stone (Anne Francis).
At the Glover’s annual barn dance, Luther Glover (George Mitchell) praises the bountiful harvest that he and his neighbors have collected, along with an announcement: his daughter Ellwyn Glover, is to be wed to Billy-Ben Turner.
However, not everyone in attendance is happy for the couple, notably Jess-Belle Stone, who quickly leaves. Billy follows her outside, where Jess claims that she still longs for the time when they were together. She feels that Billy is only marrying Ellie for her family’s wealth, but Billy claims that isn’t so.
Before he returns to the dance, Jess asks Billy to tell his bride-to-be, not to start making her wedding dress just yet.
“Why should I tell her a thing like that?” replies Billy, curiously.
“She ain’t married you yet, Billy-Ben,” says Jess, sternly. “Maybe she never will.”
It is then that Rod Serling’s voice is heard, as we see Jess watch the lovers embrace, before storming off:
The Twilight Zone has existed in many lands in many times. It has it’s roots in history, in something that happened long, long ago and, got told about and handed down from one generation of folk to the other. In the telling the story gets added to and embroidered on, so that what might have happened in the time of the Druids is told as if it took place yesterday in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Such stories are best told by an elderly grandfather on a cold winter’s night by the fireside, in the southern hills, of the Twilight Zone.
Jess-Belle is next seen at the home of a woman named Granny Hart (Jeanette Nolan), whom the locals claim to be a witch. Granny just laughs this off, and inquires why the girl has come to her.
Jess claims she wants the old woman to help her make Billy-Ben love her again, but upon being asked for money for the old woman’s services, the girl claims she has none…but is willing to pay ‘any price.’
With those words, Granny pulls out a small bottle from a covered shelf. Jess drinks it’s contents, but suddenly flinches! After a few moments, her eyes open, and Granny Hart claims that once Billy sees her, he’ll never have eyes for another.
Jess-Belle then returns to the barn dance, where she interrupts a dance-circle, and catches Billy’s eye. Just as Granny Hart promised, he becomes enchanted by her, and as Ellwyn and the others watch, the two walk out of the barn!
Ellwyn’s mother and father immediately have harsh words for Billy turning his back on their daughter, but Ellwyn claims she knows what happened: “Jess-Belle bewitched him.”
Some ways off, Jess-Belle and Billy lay in a field, talking of their future together. Suddenly, Billy notes the moon overhead going down, causing Jess to suddenly claim she has to get home.
Once there, she rushes for her room, ignoring the entreaties of her mother. As the clock tolls The Witching Hour, Jess collapses to the floor of her room, and in a puff of smoke, turns into a leopard.
Some time later, Billy comes to Jess, and gives her the ring he had given Ellwyn, claiming it now belongs to Jess. He also speaks how he has made plans with a preacher, and how her mother will make her a wedding dress, but Jess seems perturbed by all this.
She claims she needs to go away, but as Billy grabs her arm not wanting her to leave, she lashes out a hand at him…leaving three claw marks raked across the side of his face!
She then rushes back to Granny Hart, claiming she feels an emptiness inside. It is then that Granny claims that she really is a witch, and reveals the price Jess paid for Billy-Ben: her soul. Granny also reveals that because of this, Jess has also become a witch!
“You paid the price,” she tells the girl. “Take what you paid for.”
After several days of doubt, Jess puts aside her fears, and decides to heed the old woman’s advice, soon giving in to Billy’s request to be wed soon.
Sometime later, Jess-Belle comes across Ellwyn Glover picking wildflowers. The two trade ‘quiet barbs’ with each other, before Jess tells Ellwyn to watch out for a wildcat that’s been seen in the area.
However, Ellwyn claims her father is rounding up a number of men (including Billy) to take care of the creature, before morning the next day.
Jess returns home, where her mother works to hem her wedding dress. When she claims she saw Ellwyn out in the fields looking ‘sickly,’ her mother thinks maybe she should take the girl some tonic.
“You and your tonics,” laughs Jess. “You’re worse than Granny Hart-”
The slip of her tongue causes an awkward silence between mother and daughter. When Jess’ mother finds out her daughter has knowledge of the old woman, she soon deduces what her daughter has done in getting Billy to love her again.
When the girl reveals the price she paid, her mother says they should pray for her, but Jesse claims that will do not good. Instead, she asks her mother to lock her room door, so that she cannot get out until morning.
Though her mother does as she wishes, Jess (in her leopard form), escapes out her bedroom window, and ends up in the Glover’s barn, spooking the horses, and scaring Ellwyn.
The girl’s screams attract her father and the men hunting the cat. Billy and another man fire at it, and are surprised as the creature vanishes in a puff of smoke!
“A witch,” exclaims Ellwyn’s father. “That cat, was a witch!”
Billy examines where the wildcat disappeared, and finds the ring he had given to Jess. As the other men leave, Billy begins speaking to Ellwyn…a sure sign that his connection with Jess-Belle has been severed.
A year passes, and Ellwyn and Billy are set to be wed. As Billy prepares for the wedding, he is visited by Jess-Belle’s mother, who gives him her daughter’s silver hairpin as a gift…along with a warning.
As talk turns to Jess-Belle, her mother claims that she does not believe her daughter is dead. Though Billy claims one of his bullets hit the wildcat in the Glover’s barn, Mrs Stone tells how she saw a toad in her daughter’s room, and upon trying to kill it, it turned to smoke, and flew away!
Billy tries to put this thought out of his mind, but at the wedding, he notices a spider crawling on Ellie’s veil. Plucking it off and holding it in his hand, it then disappears in a puff of smoke, leading Billy to believe that Mrs Stone was right.
After the ceremony, the newlywed couple returns to Billy’s house, where strange things begin to happen. Ellie finds herself attempting to slap Billy, and a clock in the room suddenly falls to the floor! Billy then gives Ellie their Bible, and tells her not to leave the house, as he rushes off.
Billy seeks out Granny Hart, wanting to know how to kill a witch. She asks for a lock of his hair as payment, but Billy instead pays her in coins. Hart then tells Billy that he needs to make a figure of the girl, wearing something she wore, then stab it in it’s ‘heart’ with something of silver.
Billy then goes to Jess-Belle’s home, where her mother gives him the wedding dress she hemmed for her daughter. before he leaves, she tells Billy that she is sure her daughter would appreciate what he is trying to do.
Billy returns to his house, where he finds Ellwyn standing outside. He tells her that he knows how to be rid of Jess’ spirit, but is shocked when Ellie starts speaking, with Jess-Belle’s voice!
Billy rushes into the house and locks the door (with the possessed Ellwyn pounding on it from the outside). Putting the dress on a seamstress’ mannequin, he then stabs it in the heart-area with the silver pin. Suddenly, Jess-Belle materializes, before the figure crumples to the ground and disappears, leaving behind the empty dress.
Billy then finds Ellwyn outside, having no recollection of what happened since her wedding. As he embraces her, the girl’s eye is drawn to the heavens, where she witnesses a star, streaking through the sky.
My mama says when you see a falling star,” she tells Billy, “that means a witch has just died.”
“So I’ve heard tell,” replies Billy, sure that he and Ellwyn are now safe, and that Jess-Belle is truly gone, but also finally at peace.
I’ve often been a fan of stories with a “be careful what you wish for” storyline. Of course, this wasn’t the first Twilight Zone episode to handle the concept of love and potions.
In Season 1, there was the modern-day story called The Chaser, where a young man gets a love potion to get a girl he lusts after, to love him. In the end however, her constant fawning over him gets to be too much, and he ends up paying for something called, “the glove cleaner,” to fix his dilemma.
Writer Earl Hamner Jr, wrote eight episodes during the last few seasons for The Twilight Zone, and in one interview, he claimed that Jess-Belle was his favorite one to write.
It was also done relatively quickly. When another script fell-through, Hamner pitched, wrote, and finished Jess-Belle in a week’s time (with no time for revisions!).
There was also an issue with the kind of cats considered for Jess-Belle’s nightly transformation. The original idea for a tiger was dropped, when the producer Herbert Hirschmann claimed they were hard to work with. After this, there was consideration for a black leopard (to match the color of Jess’ hair), but none could be found, leaving the production to settle on the spotted leopard in the episode.
Along with writing the episode, Hamner also wrote the lyrics to several musical interludes throughout. As the story progresses, a female voice sings bits of a small ‘ballad,’ about the story. It is notable that in place of a closing narrative by Serling, we get a reprise of part of the ballad, heard in the beginning of the episode:
Fair was Elly Glover, dark was Jess-Belle.
Both they loved the same man, and both they loved him well.
Hamner also uses some creative wordplay, when it comes to Jess and Ellwyn. They never get into a shouting match over their love of Billy-Ben (being decent young women), but Earl gives them a small moment of trading barbs, through wordplay.
This comes when Jess-Belle finds Ellwyn in a field by herself.
“Lots of wildflowers around here,” notes Jess. “Saw a patch of ‘old maid’s fern’ up on the mountain.”
A few moments later, Ellwyn responds with: “I notice a lot of ‘vixen-wort’ around here m’self.”
Buzz Kulik, the director, also was a Twilight Zone alumni, directing nine episodes during the show’s run.
In several of his episodes, he had a way of having the camera play among people’s faces, having the actors say plenty with just their expressions.
This type of storytelling is seen in the opening scene especially, when we see Billy-Ben looking a bit nervous, locking eyes with Jess-Belle, after his and Ellwyn’s engagement is announced.
It’s the look of a young man who seems to have possibly made a snap-decision, without telling the other party.
The overall story plays out almost like an Appalachian ‘fairy-tale,’ but it does feel like it stretches the story a bit long for the hour-long format of Season 4. Some areas feel a little repetitive, though one wonders if maybe there could have been more of Jess-Belle in her leopard form, and how her late-night presence affected the locals.
Word is that Earl Hamner was also planning to adapt the story into a musical at one point. When Anne Francis (who played Jess-Belle) heard this, she told him she’d love to play the role of Granny Hart in it…only for him to say he didn’t feel she would have been right for the role. However, this venture was never completed (as far as I know).
Out of all the characters in the episode, it is Jess-Belle and Granny Hart that stand out the most.
The character of Jess-Belle could easily have been a vindictive and over-the-top girl who is willing to knock aside anything and anyone in her way. One can easily see the girl’s name is a take on the word ‘jezebel’ (meaning ‘an impudent, shameless, or morally unrestrained woman,‘ according to Merriam-Webster), but the character here is crafted to be little more than a young woman, whose yearnings end up being her downfall. She thinks all her troubles are behind her once she has Billy-Ben, but it feels like everyday after, she is stuck living with the consequences of her actions, making her a tragic figure.
Jeanette Nolan seems to have the more ‘fun’ role in the episode, as she plays Granny Hart as a witch with a spirited personality. There is a devilish mischief Nolan imbues on the old woman. She seems to delight in causing mischief, and a naive young woman who wishes for a man’s love, gives her some entertainment. It doesn’t help that she seems to smile a great deal, a Cheshire grin that makes one wonder what is going on in her mind.
There is even an interesting juxtaposition, as we first see her in black robes conjuring something, before she pulls the robes away, and simply looks like a kindly old woman, expecting company.
Jess-Belle is not one of the more popular episodes of The Twilight Zone, but it feels like it was somewhat ‘experimental’ in it’s execution. And for that, it sticks out in my mind.
It’s cautionary tale about how love can sometimes blind people to the consequences of their actions, proves to be an intriguing story that the episode’s cast and crew, wove together, all those years ago.
I like to think when it came to some areas of entertainment regarding popular culture, I inherited some of my tastes from my parents. While my Mom turned me on to the wonders of Walt Disney and his animation studio, my Dad I feel, opened my eyes to adventure, and science fiction.
One series that we often watched over the years when it’d show up on television, is Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Serling’s anthology series enthralled my Dad as a young man, and during my early years, they came to entrance my own imagination as well.
As I got older, I found myself drawn to Serling’s tales that explored humanity, and oftentimes, how simple it could be for things to break down, or even how dangerous some people could become, for want of attention or respect.
Serling’s hand was often behind many of those introspective tales. In The Twilight Zone’s 4th season, he explored the possibility that an enemy that was once thought to have been extinguished after the second World War, could very well be lying in wait, ready to instigate those seeking power, or manipulate those who are easily led astray…
As the episode starts, we see that it’s a hot night on a city street corner, and a small group of neo-Nazis are giving a speech to a small crowd.
Presiding over the gathering, is a young man named Peter Vollmer (Dennis Hopper). Peter preaches about ‘foreign control,’ and that a conspiracy is under way by minorities, to take over the country.
Several people throw vegetables at Peter and laugh at him, causing him and his men to rush out into the crowd, where a fist-fight breaks out.
The ruckus causes the Police to show up, and the citizens scatter. When they inquire to Peter who started the fight, he nonchalantly claims they were ‘all Communists,’ and walks away.
Peter and his men reconvene in a side alley. One of them claims that the heat brings out ‘the stiffs in the crowd,’ but Peter blames himself, claiming he couldn’t verbally get through to the people he saw.
As Peter sulks, Rod Serling appears, delivering our opening monologue:
“Portrait of a bush-league Fuhrer named Peter Vollmer, a sparse little man who feeds off his self-delusions and finds himself perpetually hungry for want of greatness in his diet. And like some goose-stepping predecessors he searches for something to explain his hunger, and to rationalize why a world passes him by without saluting. That something he looks for and finds is in a sewer. In his own twisted and distorted lexicon he calls it faith, strength, truth. But in just a moment Peter Vollmer will ply his trade on another kind of corner, a strange intersection in a shadowland called, The Twilight Zone.”
Peter then heads to the apartment of a man named Ernst Ganz (Ludwig Donath).
Upon seeing Peter, Ernst demands that he wash his face, and provides him with some medication for his wounds.
The older man begins to lecture Peter on getting into trouble, but the young man doesn’t want to hear it. However, he requests if he can stay the night at the old man’s place.
Peter claims that he and the old man are ‘good friends,’ but one can see Ernst is questioning that statement. Ernst recalls how as a young boy, he’d take Peter in: a rock in the storm of an abusive father, and a mentally-deficient mother. He recalls how Peter was a scared, lost little boy.
“Now, you peddle hate on street corners, as if it were popcorn,” he sighs.
It’s not hate,” defends Peter. “It’s, ‘a point of view.’ It’s a, ‘philosophy.'”
Ernst claims there were men who said the same thing…and because of it, he ended up in the Dachau Concentration Camp for nine years.
After Ernst leaves Peter to go to bed, Peter gets a strange feeling, like he’s being watched. Going to the nearby window, he sees a man in shadows, standing on the sidewalk.
When Peter asks who he is, the figure claims he’s ‘a friend,’ and wants to talk. Going downstairs, the figure tells Peter that he believes in much of what he was talking about earlier, and wants to help his cause.
The shadowy figure then gives Peter speaking tips, claiming he should speak to the people, like he was one of them.
“Speak to them in their language, on their level,” says the dark figure. “Make their hate, your hate. If they are poor, talk to them about poverty. If they are afraid, talk to them of their fears. And if they are angry, Mr Vollmer…if they are angry, give them objects for their anger.”
Peter takes the figure’s advice, and at the next meeting in a local hall, he claims that many say his group is biased towards minorities. Peter takes these words and turns them around, telling those in attendance, that ‘they’ are the minorities! He tells them that ‘patriotism’ and ‘love of country’ is not a majority notion anymore, and that his group, will make it so again.
This draws applause, and Peter’s associates are also energized by his fiery rhetoric.
The shadowy figure returns a little while later to help Peter, quietly giving him the money he needs to keep speaking at the hall, and praising how he speaks to the people.
It is then that the figure claims their ‘party’ needs something more, in order to ‘cement the organization’: they need a martyr.
“How do you find a martyr?” asks Peter.
“You do not ‘find’ one, Mr Vollmer,” the figure replies. “You ‘choose’ one. You take one of no value, and you make him into a symbol. You wrap him in a flag, and you make his death work for you. Find a man who is of no value while he’s alive, but who can serve you when he is dead.”
Of the men in his employ, Peter decides that one named Nick, will be their martyr. Peter then lies to a cohort named Frank, telling him that Nick has been telling the Police about their meetings, and must be taken care of.
Frank does as he’s told, and some time later, the Police find Nick’s body in an alley, with a note pinned to his jacket, making it look like someone is trying to send ‘a message’ to Peter’s group.
Though Frank and Pete are able to put Nick out of their minds, their associate Stanley misses his friend. Trying to act stoic, Peter claims that Nick was a traitor, and not worthy of being mourned.
However, moments later, Peter is using Nick’s death to electrify the crowd, claiming that those in the room, will carry on in his honor. His words do their trick, and the audience applauds loudly!
We then cut to some time later, to a candy shop across the street from the hall. Ernst is sitting at the counter talking to the store’s proprietor, while across the street, Peter’s voice bellows out from the open door, over which hangs a large portrait of the young man in uniform. As Peter’s voice continues to spill out into the night, Ernst and the proprietor have a conversation.
“Used to be, people would laugh at him,” says the man behind the counter. “But lately, he gets the crowd…and not many people laugh, either.”
“I’ve seen it before,” says Ernst, thoughtfully. “I’ve seen it all before.”
“That was another time, Mr Ganz,” says the proprietor. “Another place. Another kind of people! That doesn’t go here.”
“That’s what we said, too,” says Ernst, bowing his head. “We called them ‘brown scum.’ ‘Temporary insanity,’ part of the passing scene, too monstrous to be real. So, we ignored them, or laughed at them….because we couldn’t believe there were enough insane people to walk alongside of them! And then one morning, the country woke up from an uneasy sleep…and there was no more laughter. The ‘Peter Vollmers’ had taken over. The wild animals had changed places with us in the cage!”
As he thinks, Ernst rises from his seat, and goes to the window.
“But not again,” he says, a tone of defiance rising in his voice. “It mustn’t happen again. We can’t let it. We simply can’t let it happen again!”
Determined to do something, Ernst enters the crowded hall through the stage entrance, and catches Peter off-guard.
Ernst tells Peter that he’s heard these kinds of rantings before. Peter quietly pleads with Ernst to stop talking, but the old man addresses the audience, with Peter watching, unsure just what to do.
“Let me tell you about ‘this one,” preaches Ernst, pointing at the scared young man. “About the breed, the species. They’re all alike…they’re all alike! Problem children. Sick, sad neurotics, who take applause like a needle!”
Peter once again pleads for Ernst to be quiet, but the old man threatens to tell about Peter’s ‘weaker’ side, claiming the young man can only find strength in the ‘show’ he puts on…leading Peter to strike the man (whom he called ‘a friend’) across the cheek!
“The only sort of answer ‘your kind’ know how to give,” says Ernst, before walking out through the front door, followed by the audience.
Afterwards, Peter is alone in the hall, when he hears the shadowy figure call to him. Peter is still upset at what has transpired between him and Ernst, but the figure shows no sympathy, sharply criticizing Peter for his timidity at what took place.
“And you…what are you!?” cries out Peter. “You direct traffic from the darkness! You plan the battles and you’re never there when they’re fought! Why don’t you come out in the light? Why don’t you come up here alongside of me!? Why don’t you give me a name, and a face, and a reason WHY!?”
“Mr Vollmer!” responds the figure, sharply. “I was making speeches before you could read them. I was fighting battles, when your only struggle, was to climb out of a womb! I was taking over the world, when your universe was a crib! And as for being in darkness, Mr Vollmer…I, INVENTED DARKNESS!!”
It is then that the figure steps into the light, and Peter’ eyes go wide with fear, when he sees that his mysterious benefactor…is Adolf Hitler!
When Peter claims that Hitler picked him, the dictator claims it to be the other way around.
“You chose my ideas,” he says. “You invoked my name, you stole my slogans! So now, you must take whatever else comes with it.”
The old dictator then gives Peter a gun, and orders him to kill Ernst, promising that if he does not, the old Jew will keep returning to ruin their meetings.
Peter then goes to Ernst’s apartment, where the old man claims he showed the crowds how weak Peter really is. When Peter pulls his weapon on Ernst, the old man falters slightly, claiming that the young man won’t kill him.
“Just goes to show you don’t know me very well, Ernst,” claims Peter.
“I know you,” says Ernst, quietly. “From a ravaged little boy wanting love, to a torn man, craving respect, identity, pride. Peter…I don’t fear you. So you may do what you have in mind, anytime you wish, but this last reminder to you: you can never kill an idea with a bullet, Peter…never.”
“I’m all steel now,” Peter stoically counters. “Ernst, I’m made of steel. No sentiment, no softness…just purpose, and will.”
With that, Peter fires, and Ernst collapses to the floor.
As he dies, the old man utters his last words: “All steel. All Strength…but at the expense of the thing most other men have. Some…fragments of decency, to tell them right from wrong. To make them feel guilt at dishonor…to make them…that make them love. Yes, Peter, you have steel…but you have no heart.”
Peter then returns to the hall, where he tells his Fuhrer, that killing Ernst made him feel “immortal.”
“Mr Vollmer,” screeches Hitler’s voice. “WE! ARE! IMMORTAL!!”
Suddenly, the hall’s lights come on (and Hitler disappears). Peter turns towards the doorway, to see several Policemen, who have come to arrest him in regards to the murder of his comrade, Nick.
However, when face-to-face with the Police, Peter does not act as an “immortal,” but as a coward, fleeing through the nearest door! The Police chase Peter into the nearby alleyway, where he is shot, and falls into a pile of trash.
As the officers come over to him, Peter looks at his hands, covered in blood.
“There’s something, very wrong here,” he gasps. “You’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m made out of steel. Don’t you understand…that I’m made out of steel?”
The officers walk away to radio in what happened, but as they do, Hitler’s shadow falls over Peter’s dying body, and slowly, walks away. As he does so, Serling’s closing monologue is heard:
“Where will he go next, this phantom from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare. Chicago? Los Angeles? Miami, Florida? Vincennes, Indiana? Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace, where there’s hate, where there’s prejudice, where there’s bigotry. He’s alive. He’s alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He’s alive because through these things…we keep him alive.”
It is notable that in his closing narration, Serling strays from his regular path. The closing narration would normally make mention of The Twilight Zone, but here, Serling chooses not to tell us that what we’ve witnessed has safely been contained in another dimension. His narration confirms, the ‘monster’ of this episode is alive…and he is walking amongst us!
When I saw the episode many years ago, it was not one that stuck out in my mind, but after recent events, I revisited it, and found it to be surprisingly eerie, regarding the story that Mr Serling had written (and broadcast over 50 years ago).
Sometimes people say Serling’s writing can become a little heavy-handed, and it feels that way with the character of Ernst. Then again, Serling portrays Ernst as Peter’s ‘last friend,’ the one who may still see some small shred of humanity in him…and when he dies, so too it seems, does any hope of redemption for Peter. While Peter did order Nick to be killed as a martyr, it is Ernst who dies by his hand.
I’ve never been a big fan of Dennis Hopper. For much of his career, he seemed to usually end up being cast as “the crazy guy,” in everything from Easy Rider, to Apocalypse Now. With his role as Peter Vollmer, this may be the most ‘toned down’ I’ve ever seen Hopper (in his quieter moments anyways).
Hopper manages to sell the desperation, and the longing to be somebody. He channels Vollmer’s ‘strength-through-repression,’ with the character dismissing these faults as if they were just overreactions.
It is notable that we encounter Vollmer a ways into the movement he’s taken a part in. Serling keeps it ambiguous if Peter originated this movement, or maybe, it was ‘inherited’ from another neo-Nazi on the streets. I could see that possibly being the case, and maybe Peter was enthralled by those same ‘poisonous promises.’
Of course when it comes to the figure of Hitler, Serling keeps it ambiguous if his spirit is still alive, or if he is just a figment of Peter’s imagination, almost like a ‘devil’ on his shoulder, in the guise of an ‘angel,’ claiming to show him ‘the right path’ to go down.
Over the years, television show and film viewers have often found pieces of popular-culture, and elevated them to a new status, given ‘current events.’
While many are quick to point out more popular Twilight Zone episodes like The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, or To Serve Man, I feel He’s Alive may gain more traction these days, given it’s cautionary tale (of course, the big question is: is it too late?).
Even though he brought the story to his anthology series, Rod Serling was also considering giving Hes Alive a second life, as a longer, feature-length film.
Th film would have added an FBI agent, investigating Vollmer’s ‘movement.’ However, the film proposal was turned down.
Even so, one has to wonder what Serling would make of current world events, and maybe even wonder if we truly have all been spirited away into…The Twilight Zone.
One of writer Rod Serling’s most famous contributions to popular culture, may have been his television anthology series, The Twilight Zone.
For 5 seasons, Serling’s show would often take unsuspecting people into ‘another dimension,’ where all manner of strange and unusual things could happen. These tales would go on to inspire a number of people, including Steven Spielberg, and Stephen King.
Along with it’s tales of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, many of the show’s episodes often reflected on ‘the human condition,’ providing cautionary tales, in the same way as fairy tales.
One of the traits that can be both a blessing and a curse to humanity, has been ‘control.’ For centuries, we’ve seen human beings do horrible things, often at the behest of their own petty whims. Once in power, some are thinking of only a select few, and ignoring the needs of the many, that surround them.
That seemed to be what Serling was looking to convey, in his Season 3 episode, The Little People.
In a rocky canyon on an alien world, a rocket has touched down. Standing outside of it are two men: William Fletcher, and Peter Craig. Both are at odds with each other, over what has brought them to this place.
While Craig chastises his commander for landing them in a canyon, Fletcher counters that Peter got them into this mess, by navigating them into a meteor storm, causing them to seek a place to land for repairs.
Craig continues to complain (even about the food rations), leading to Fletcher demanding that he stop with the attitude. While Craig sees negatives, Fletcher is the optimist: they’ve walked away from their ship in one piece, and are on a planet that is able to sustain them while they make necessary repairs to their craft.
While Craig gives an affirmative to being told to ‘knock it off,’ Fletcher notes that taking orders seems to not be one of his co-pilot’s strong suits. When Craig mentions how he’d like to make ‘a few changes,’ the commander plays a game with him.
“What do you hunger for most, Craig?” he asks, introspectively.
“Try this one, Fletch,” says Craig. “I’d like a whole lot of people at my elbow. The more, the merrier. The louder, the better. And I’d like Yankee Stadium right alongside…but I’d like them on ‘my terms.'”
“That’s what I’m getting at,” replies Fletcher, looking into Craig’s face. “What are ‘your terms?'”
“I’d like to be the number one ‘straw boss,” he answers. “I’d like to give the orders.”
“I’ll bet you would,” replies the commander.
As the conversation trails off, Craig begins to look around, claiming he hears a strange sound, that sounds like…people.
The camera then whip-pans over to Serling, as he delivers his opening monologue:
“The time is the space age. The place is a barren landscape of a rock-walled canyon that lies millions of miles from the planet Earth. The cast of characters, you’ve met them: William Fletcher, commander of the spaceship; his co-pilot, Peter Craig. The other characters who inhabit this place you may never see, but they’re there, as these two gentlemen will soon find out. Because they’re about to partake in a little exploration into that gray, shaded area in space and time…that’s known as the Twilight Zone.”
When we return to Fletcher and Craig, we find a few days have passed. Fletcher is still making repairs, while Craig seems to have given in to shirking his duties, and has returned from another trip away from their landing site.
As he looks up at the twin suns beating down on them, Fletcher realizes that for how hot it is, he hasn’t seen Craig dip into their rations, and finds his canteen is still full!
Fletcher suspects that Craig is holding out on him, and has found a source of water. Craig soon gives in, claiming he was simply testing it to make sure it was drinkable, but Fletcher isn’t so easily convinced. He also finds some small plants that his co-pilot has collected.
While Craig claims they’re “just lichen,” Fletcher examines them under a magnifier, and finds something startling: they’re clumps of miniature trees!
Realizing that his secret’s out, Craig pulls something out of his jacket, and shows it to the commander. Though it is the size of an ant, looking through the magnifier, Fletcher finds the tiny object to be a truck!
Craig seems to be enjoying the look of awe in his commander’s face, and soon leads Fletcher to another part of the canyon. Spread out on the ground, is what appears to be a small civilization, complete with miniature houses, and even a marina (observed by Fletcher through his magnifier).
Craig tells how he’s still deciphering their language, but they do understand mathematics. He goes on to tell how cooperative the little people are, and in looking for edible plants, they directed him to the trees that Fletcher was looking at.
As Craig continues to talk about the people they are observing, his voice quivers with excitement.
“They’re scared, Fletch,” he says. “Petrified. And so they do as they’re told! Because this giant, is like some avenging angel to them. I’ve graduated, Fletcher, from a slob with a slide rule to…to…to a god!”
“Craig, they’re people,” replies Fletcher, trying talk sense to his co-pilot. “They’re flesh and blood. In that respect, they’re no different than us.”
“Sure they are,” says Craig, his eyes growing wider. “Because they’ve been created, ‘in my image!””
Mad with power, Craig begins stomping down on the miniature world. Trees and houses collapse beneath his feet, as a chittering cry rises up from the unseen masses below! Fletcher is forced to knock out his partner to stop his ‘reign of terror,’ and the co-pilot collapses to the ground nearby.
“You’re no god, Craig,” he says. “That’s not what you are at all! The only trouble is, that by now you’ve probably gotten them to believe in the devil.”
Fletcher addresses the little people, telling them that he’s sorry, hoping they can forgive them for what has happened.
Some time afterwards, We see Fletcher making final repairs to the ship. Calling out to Craig, he receives no answer. Returning to the spot where the little people are, he comes across a life-size statue of Craig, towering over the miniature landscape!
As he looks over the statue, Craig smugly tells how the little people, constructed it overnight.
It’s too bad they don’t know who they’re breaking their backs for,” says Fletcher.
“Meaning what?” asks Craig, the smile disappearing from his face.
“Meaning they’re worshiping a heartless slob whose insides are made out of the same stuff as that statue,” replies Fletcher. “Yeah, it’s a good likeness, Craig…and an hour from now they can sell it for junk!”
Fletcher then tells Craig that with the ship fixed, conditions are right for them to blast off soon. However, Craig pulls his laser-pistol on his partner, claiming he isn’t going back.
Fletcher tries to reason with his co-pilot, claiming that left alone, he’ll end up losing his mind, but his pleas are met with a laser-blast from Craig’s gun, that knocks the head off the statue.
“This is a monotheistic society here,” claims Craig. “Just room for one god.”
Soon afterward, Fletcher takes off, and Craig glowers over his miniature ’empire,’ a look of ‘mad power’ spreading across his face.
Declaring that ‘The Age of Peter Craig’ is upon them, he proclaims that there will be a lot of projects for his little minions to begin work on.
Craig gleefully stamps down on parts of the miniature world again, claiming that he will continue to give these ‘little reminders’ periodically, to remind them to be subservient to his whims.
Suddenly, the sound of a ship can be heard overhead. Craig claims it’ll quickly go away, but he soon plugs his ears, as the sound of the craft reaches a fever pitch! Finally, the sound dies away, but is replaced by an earth-shaking, rumbling sound. As Craig looks around for what is causing the sound, he is shocked!
Above him, stand two men, towering giants to his eyes, dwarfing the canyon walls!
“Go away!” demands Craig, trying to keep some semblance of control. “Don’t you understand?! I’m the god! I’m the god, don’t you understand?! I’m the god!!”
Craig screams in terror as one of the giants notices him, and reaches down to pick him up. However, in the process, the enormous man accidentally crushes him to death. As the giant looks down at the now-silent Craig, his partner tells him that they have repairs to make. And like a dead fly, the giant tosses Craig’s lifeless body to the ground, where he lands in a crumpled heap, not far from the little people’s world.
Some time afterward, we see a number of small ropes attached to Craig’s statue, and small, triumphant cries go up, as it comes crashing down, breaking across the body of the dead ‘tyrant.’
Rod Serling’s voice then returns to us, closing out the segment:
“The case of navigator Peter Craig: a victim of a delusion. In this case, the dream dies a little harder than the man. A small exercise in space psychology that you can try on for size, in the Twilight Zone.”
Size and scale have often factored into a number of episodes of The Twilight Zone, though of course, the logic of what is shown here may be a bit ‘pedestrian.’
Though we are dealing with a miniature civilization on another world, it is strange that they would have such Earthly creations as trucks and boats. However, given that we don’t actually spend time among the little people, this may have been a simplified way to make us feel sympathy and association, for the unseen masses that Craig mistreats.
The effects work in the episode may seem primitive by our standards (Fletcher’s staring at the sun is simply a static image of two ‘lights’), but it is in how both of the actors sell the piece that makes it work.
The episode is one of many, written by Serling himself. Much of the story is contained in several little ‘moments,’ as we cut to scenes that actually matter to the story. It’s possible the episode could have been stretched out in the longer, Season 4 format, but for fitting into the 25-minute frame work of the 3rd season, It gets the job done.
Both Claude Akins and Joe Maross are veterans of The Twilight Zone series, with each of them having starred in a Season 1 episode (The Little People would be their final appearances in the show).
In this episode, the voice of reason, falls on Claude Akins as Commander William Fletcher. Akins had already appeared in another cautionary episode of The Twilight Zone, with the first season’s The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. In both cases, he tried to serve as the calming voice, though in this story, he manages to escape with his sanity and reasoning intact. Akins’ voice had that deep, commanding tone I heard in a number of things from the 50’s, and it works well when he tries to talk sense into his delusional co-pilot.
Maross’ first role in the series, was in the first season’s Third from the Sun episode. There, he played a more calm role, while here, he gets to act quite unhinged. There are times in his performance, where one wonders what the space agency was thinking, pairing him up with someone like Fletcher. Given how Craig doesn’t like to take orders, it seems odd that he’d be cleared to co-pilot the ship….but then again, maybe in this world, there are less restrictions on who gets to go into space.
Maybe it’s the pacing of the episode, but Craig’s delusional rantings of becoming a god, feel like they come on a bit too quickly. At times, he chews the scenery, much like some over-the-top Stephen King villains do…though one has to wonder if maybe Mr Craig, may have inspired some of the crazies in King’s novels.
Like most Twilight Zone episodes, the concept of The Little People found it’s way into popular culture.
On the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel Robinson would sometimes use Peter Craig’s cries of “I’m the god,” when he’d riff on some film characters in the cheesy movies they’d watch.
Even TV show creator Matt Groening’s series The Simpsons and Futurama, borrowed from the episode.
The Simpsons had a Treehouse of Horrors segment titled The Genesis Tub, which saw Lisa Simpson create a miniature society, and her brother Bart quickly caused mayhem within it.
In an episode of the Futurama series titled Godfellas, the robot Bender ends up floating through space, where a stray asteroid crashes into him, upon which are a number of tiny creatures. They think him to be a god, and Bender revels in having a number of tiny underlings that will do whatever he commands…however, he soon finds out there are consequences to his actions.
Though a simple episode, The Little People still serves as a good cautionary tale, about size and power, and like many of Serling’s works, it’s a story that can still be used to teach morals and lessons today.