Rod Serling

Night Call (1964, Jacques Tourneur)

Night Call’s pre-Rod Serling tag has lead Gladys Cooper having trouble sleeping through a thunderstorm. She then gets two phone calls at 2 a.m., with just static on the line. The next day, after the Serling intro promising Cooper’s in for a momentous event, Cooper tries reporting the phone calls to the phone company but they’ve been having lots of trouble on account of the storm. The operator kind of dismisses her, as does her day-time caretaker, Nora Marlowe. See, Cooper’s kind of a mean old lady–her family doesn’t want anything to do with her–so she gets zero sympathy from Marlowe and, really, Night Call.

The phone calls continue, with the buzz eventually becoming moaning (a man moaning) and then the moaning just becomes the guy saying “Hello” over and over again. Cooper in a full panic, Marlowe is just as unsympathetic (the utter lack of chemistry between Cooper and Marlowe probably hurts Night Call but it’s hard to even imagine they could have any rapport), the phone company is investigating. All Cooper can do is wait. While the calls keep coming.

And somehow Marlowe’s never around to hear them–she’s convinced Cooper’s lying for the attention or something. Turns out, of course, she’s not. Instead there’s some highly contrived explanation along with some pointless comeuppance–watching Marlowe berate Cooper in one scene seems like elder abuse but also with some sexism thrown in–and a pat, predictable ending.

Cooper’s performance is… mediocre. Better than Marlowe, though Marlowe’s got no character to even hint at playing, but still quite mediocre. Tourneur’s direction is similarly middling. The interior stuff is boring, the exterior stuff is not. Except when Tourneur’s got to hammer in the point for the big finale. Rather nice photography from Robert Pittack (especially outside) and solid editing from Richard V. Heermance.

Night Call doesn’t particularly have anything going for it–acting, directing, writing–it’s kind of fine, but so what.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; written by Richard Matheson; “The Twilight Zone” created by Rod Serling; director of photography, Robert Pittack; edited by Richard V. Heermance; produced by Bert Granet; aired by the Central Broadcasting System.

Starring Gladys Cooper (Elva Keene), Nora Marlowe (Margaret Phillips), and Martine Bartlett (Miss Finch).


Seven Days in May (1964, John Frankenheimer)

Screenwriter Rod Serling really likes to employ monologues in Seven Days in May. John Frankenheimer likes to direct them too. And the actors like to give them. Because they’re good monologues. The monologues give all then actors fantastic material. Everyone except George Macready, who isn’t the right kind of scenery chewer for Seven Days. Maybe Ava Gardner, who gets the thankless role of being the only female character of note in the film; doubly thankless, given her part is of a fallen woman and her monologue is the weakest in the film, writing-wise. She’s at least good and effective, just shoe-horned in. Macready has a choice part and oozes too much through it.

There are a lot of actors in Seven Days, there are a lot of monologues. The only one not to get any monologues (well, within reason, given the size of the part) Kirk Douglas. For the first half of the film, he’s sort of bouncing between monologues as he has a conspiracy thriller discovery arc as well as a “why the heck are there so many facists in the Armed Forces” arc. Douglas works for Burt Lancaster, who’s the top dog general at the Pentagon. Lancaster gets some great monologues. Fredric March is the President of the United States, who’s just signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets. Lancaster thinks March is a weak sister. Douglas thinks the military should stay out of politics and, somewhat naively, believes it does. But he also doesn’t think fascists are okay, so when it seems like there’s something suspicious going on with an upcoming nuclear threat drill–Douglas goes to the White House and tells March there’s a conspiracy for a military coup of the United States.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And it’s a success. Seven Days is great entertainment. It just ought to be a lot better.

When the film starts, it’s Frankenheimer showing off. There’s a fight scene. Protestors for and against nuclear peace. Shocker, all the people against are white males. They throw the first punch. Riot in front of the White House. Frankenheimer shoots it stark, documentary style. There’s some issues with the scale of it, but it’s still an effective sequence. It’s also the only time Frankenheimer does anything approaching vérité. So while it’s distinctive, it’s a rouse. Seven Days isn’t going to be vérité. Though there are occasional later hints, which never pan out.

But then it almost immediately becomes Douglas’s movie. For the first half of the picture, until he tries to seduce Gardner for information to take down Lancaster, Douglas is the protagonist. The movie’s about the conspiracy, sure, but it’s about how he’s reacting to his role working against his commanding officer. After the Gardner seduction, the movie reduces Douglas to a supporting role. It’s got no real lead, just March, Lancaster, Edmond O’Brien, and sort of Martin Balsam. Balsam’s the only other person in the main cast not to get a monologue. He and Douglas are doers. Everyone else is a talker, especially O’Brien, who’s a drunken Southern senator who chows down on every line, sweating profusely and spectacularly. It’s a thin role at times–O’Brien gets to talk the movie version of politics, which hurts everyone who has to expound on it eventually; not even Lancaster and March can make the third act work.

See, Seven Days is able to get away with its American exceptionalism but not warmongers movie politics because Serling and Frankenheimer never double down on them. The thriller aspect is bigger. There’s even a military sand-crawler chase sequence. For a while in the second act, right after the film drops Douglas down, it seems like it might get action-packed. Then it doesn’t. It goes through a series of false endings and hinges the whole thing on the movie politics and how well Serling can write monologues about them.

And he chokes a little. There are too many monologues in the third act and they’re all too long. Lancaster gets away with one too long monologue. Poor March gets two.

Acting-wise, almost everyone’s fantastic. Not Macready. Andrew Duggan’s got a great small part. Lancaster’s great, March is great, Douglas is great. The problem is Serling’s switch from specific protagonist–Douglas–to a general one witnessing the events, which ends up being March most often. Serling fumbles that switch in perspective, but he and Frankenheimer keep the narrative distance about the same. So it’s not successful, but far from a failure.

Gardner’s good. The part’s crap. Even in the context of the story, the part’s crap–she’s Lancaster’s former now drunk mistress, who Douglas exploits for information. She’s got like three scenes, interacting with no one but Douglas. Again, shoe-horned in. Still, she makes the part work. It’s just she and Douglas really get boned by the script in the second half.

O’Brien’s kind of amazing. He’s a little broad, but he and Balsam as globe-trotting spies is one of Seven Days’s nicer second act touches. Balsam’s good too, he’s just got a far less showy part.

The film’s got great production values–big scale from Frankenheimer–amazing editing from Ferris Webster, good photography from Ellsworth Fredericks, solid Jerry Goldsmith score. It’s great entertainment.

It’s just a little thin.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Frankenheimer; screenplay by Rod Serling, based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II; director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Cary Odell; produced by Edward Lewis; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kirk Douglas (Col. Martin ‘Jiggs’ Casey), Fredric March (President Jordan Lyman), Burt Lancaster (Gen. James Mattoon Scott), Edmond O’Brien (Sen. Raymond Clark), Ava Gardner (Eleanor Holbrook), Martin Balsam (Paul Girard), Whit Bissell (Sen. Frederick Prentice), George Macready (Christopher Todd), Hugh Marlowe (Harold McPherson), Richard Anderson (Col. Murdock), Bart Burns (Secret Service White House Chief Art Corwin), and Andrew Duggan (Col. William ‘Mutt’ Henderson).


A Long Time Till Dawn (1953, Richard Dunlap)

A Long Time Till Dawn is usually able to keep disbelief completely suspended. It’s a television play and Rod Serling’s teleplay is more ambitious than the budget or the constraints of the medium. Most of the sets are interiors and fine–a diner, a living room, a bedroom. They can even get away with a front porch, though it is where Dawn stretches its visible credulity the most.

The porch scenes are also a stretch due to Ted Osborne’s performance. Osborne is just a small town man. His daughter-in-law (Naomi Riordan) has suddenly come to live with him, running away from New York City, back to small town New Jersey. It just happens she leaves New York the day before her husband (James Dean) gets out of a six-month stint in prison.

Riordan’s timing never gets discussed. It’s apparently just narrative efficency, not her trying to hide from Dean. Though when Rudolf Weiss, playing Dean and Riordan’s kindly New York neighbor (a delicatessan owner), tells Dean about Riordan leaving it’s like a) she doesn’t want Dean to know where she went and b) she’s been gone a while.

Weiss tells Dean about Riordan’s departure just after copper Robert F. Simon has stopped by the diner to warn Dean not to become a repeat offender.

So of course Dean has to beat up Weiss to find out where Riordan has gone. Then he heads home to Osborne and Riordan’s dread and hope. Simon follows soon after to investigate Weiss’s assault. Because even though everyone can just drop everything and go to small town New Jersey, Dean and Riordan never did it before Dean’s small time crook phase.

From the dialogue, it seems like that phase was about a sixth of the three years Dean and Riordan spent in New York. Serling’s teleplay has very, very little logic going for it. Ditto Dunlap’s direction (the finale has Osborne talking about some character who was just onscreen but Dawn forgot to take notice).

At its best, Dunlap’s direction is utterly mediocre. More often it’s a problem. Dean’s excellent, Simon’s excellent, Weiss is excellent. Riordan is okay. Osborne is not. He gets these lengthy monologues and he clutches the melodrama heartstrings so tightly their effectiveness withers.

Up until the third act, though, it really seems like Dawn is going to make it. But it doesn’t. The third act set pieces are poorly executed–thanks to Dunlap and the budget–and Serling’s denouement, largely thanks to Osborne, is a fail.

It’s a shame. Dean’s phenomenal, even when the writing is a little weak. When it’s more than a little weak, not even he can do anything with it (not with Dunlap’s direction “aiding” him), but his performance is mostly great. Simon also makes a lot out of his part. Serling gives the characters a lot of texture–except Osborne, which is bad–and Simon takes advantage.

A Long Time Till Dawn needs a better director, a better performance in the Osborne part, and a few rewrites.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Dunlap; written by Rod Serling; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Dean (Joe Harris), Ted Osborne (Fred Harris), Naomi Riordan (Barbie), Robert F. Simon (Lt. Case), and Rudolf Weiss (Poppa Golden).


Patterns (1956, Fielder Cook)

Patterns is a short and simple picture. Van Heflin is the new man at a corporation; he suspects he’s there to replace his assigned mentor, Ed Begley. He has a ruthless boss (Everett Sloane) and a similarly ruthless wife (Beatrice Straight). Will Heflin, called a rising young man (Heflin was forty-eight on release), give in to the temptations of money or will he remain true to his ideals, the ones he got playing football? He was All-American, after all.

The first half hour of the film is spent setting up the rest–there’s no detail to the business, presumably because screenwriter Rod Serling wants Patterns to encompass almost any business. There’s also very little detail to anything else. The one scene Begley gets to himself has his teenage son (Ronnie Welsh) chastising him for not being a better father. The lack of detail gets to be a problem because it helps turn Sloane into a shallow villain, something Serling’s lack of characterization is already enabling.

Heflin’s phenomenal. Regardless of being suspiciously old for the part as written, he glides through it. There’s a lot of talking (Serling adapted the screenplay from a teleplay) and a lot of listening for Heflin, a lot of acting and reacting. He excels at both. Unfortunately, the only person who really holds up against him is Elizabeth Wilson, who plays Begley’s former secretary. She also gets a lot of implied characterization; Straight, unfortunately, gets none.

Outstanding photography from Boris Kaufman. Director Cook doesn’t get in the way of the actors or the screenplay; both are kind of a problem. The lack of personality from Sloane is a real issue. Begley’s pretty good, but his part’s thin. He’s the supporting player in his own story.

Maybe if Patterns offered a single surprise, a single moment not telegraphed in those first thirty minutes (or even if the subsequent sixty minutes followed a similar–no pun intended–pattern of pacing), there might be something to it. But Serling wants to do a particular kind of thing and the film does and it’s thin. Great performances from Heflin and Wilson aside–and Kaufman’s photography–it’s just too slight.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Fielder Cook; written by Rod Serling; director of photography, Boris Kaufman; edited by Dave Kummins and Carl Lerner; production designer, Duane McKinney; produced by Michael Myerberg; released by United Artists.

Starring Van Heflin (Fred), Ed Begley (Bill), Everett Sloane (Mr. Ramsey), Elizabeth Wilson (Miss Fleming), Beatrice Straight (Nancy), Ronnie Welsh (Paul) and Joanna Roos (Miss Lanier).


Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (1963, Richard Donner)

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet races. Director Donner and writer Richard Matheson pace out the episode perfectly–though it being a “Twilight Zone” episode means they can also utilize some of the series’s credit formula to great effect.

The episode has a few phases. Introducing William Shatner and Christine White (they’re married, he’s just recovering from his mental breakdown while on an airplane), putting Shatner in the window seat, him seeing the gremlin. Those events all happen in the first phase. Second is him trying to get help with the gremlin, third is him taking it into his own hands. These phases take place inside a three act structure. It’s an intense story, made more intense through the direction and then Shatner’s performance.

Shatner does fantastic work, as the viewer has to believe they’re going crazy with him. There’s a hesitation; Shatner, Matheson and Donner make sure the viewer gets past.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; written by Richard Matheson; “The Twilight Zone” created by Rod Serling; director of photography, Robert Pittack; edited by Thomas Scott; produced by Bert Granet; aired by the CBS Television Network.

Starring William Shatner (Bob Wilson), Christine White (Julia Wilson), Asa Maynor (Stewardess) and Ed Kemmer (Flight Engineer).


Third from the Sun (1960, Richard L. Bare)

Third from the Sun suffers from a far too obvious ending. The episode forecasts it a few minutes early and then it all falls into line. However, it’s an obvious twist ending and it is a “Twilight Zone” after all, so who knows if it’s just predictable now because of the series having such an impact.

Mostly the episode is Fritz Weaver freaking out about coming nuclear war and having to convince his family they need to escape. Weaver does really well during his paranoia scenes, even though he eventually has to start sharing the episode.

Joe Maross and Edward Andrews show up about the same time. Well, Andrews has a long bit at the beginning too; he’s the villain. Maross is Weaver’s sidekick. Once the paranoia ends for Weaver, both Maross and Andrews have a lot more to do.

Bare shoots everything tilted (more obvious foreshadowing), but it’s good.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Richard L. Bare; teleplay by Rod Serling, based on a story by Richard Matheson; “The Twilight Zone” created by Serling; director of photography, Harry J. Wild; edited by Bill Mosher; produced by Buck Houghton; aired by CBS Television Network

Starring Fritz Weaver (William Sturka), Joe Maross (Jerry Riden), Denise Alexander (Jody Sturka), Lori March (Eve Sturka) and Edward Andrews (Carling).


A World of Difference (1960, Ted Post)

It’s another man in a weird world “Twilight Zone” from Richard Matheson. This time, Howard Duff is a regular American middle class guy who all of a sudden wakes up in a world where he’s an actor playing that regular guy.

There’s a lot of great panic from Duff–he’s startlingly effective. Matheson and director Post keep finding ways to make it even worse for Duff. Post’s direction Eileen Ryan’s scenes (as Duff’s alternate universe wife) is outstanding.

Matheson’s script leaves a lot unsaid, including any explanation for Duff’s character losing it, but the episode’s best moments are the ones when Duff visually responds without a dialogue. The madness plays across his face.

After Ryan departs, David White takes over as a somewhat supportive ear (another Matheson “Twilight Zone” norm), but he’s nowhere near as compelling. When Ryan starts doubting reality, she’s wondrous.

Besides a rush finish, Difference is excellent.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Post; written by Richard Matheson; “The Twilight Zone” created by Rod Serling; director of photography, Harkness Smith; edited by Joseph Gluck; music by Van Cleave; produced by Buck Houghton; aired by CBS Television Network.

Starring Howard Duff (Arthur Curtis), David White (Brinkley), Frank Maxwell (Marty Fisher), Eileen Ryan (Nora Reagan), Gail Kobe (Sally), Peter Walker (Sam), Susan Dorn (Marion Curtis) and Bill Idelson (Kelly).


The Last Flight (1960, William F. Claxton)

The Last Flight has some fantastic sound design. Especially at the beginning when Kenneth Haigh’s plane lands. He’s a World War I flier who journeys through time to the late fifties, landing on an American airbase. The sound for the base and the planes is just phenomenal. And the episode hasn’t even really started yet.

Richard Matheson’s script doesn’t concern itself too much with the time travel. Well, wait, it does. But more accurately, it concerns itself with the consequences of the time travel. Haigh figures the whole thing out in a rather long scene. He talks Simon Scott–as a modern Air Force major–into it. A little, anyway. He raises the question.

Great performances from Haigh, Scott and Alexander Scourby as the bewildered commanding officer.

There’s some decent shots from Claxton, but Last Flight succeeds because of Matheson’s script–which winds and unwinds–and the actors performing it.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by William F. Claxton; written by Richard Matheson; “The Twilight Zone” created by Rod Serling; director of photography, George T. Clemens; edited by Joseph Gluck; produced by Buck Houghton; aired by CBS Television Network.

Starring Kenneth Haigh (Lt. William Terrance Decker), Simon Scott (Maj. Wilson), Alexander Scourby (Maj. Gen. George Harper), Harry Raybould (Corporal), Jerry Catron (Guard) and Robert Warwick (A.V.M. Alexander Mackaye, R.A.F.)


And When the Sky Was Opened (1959, Douglas Heyes)

The magic of And When the Sky Was Opened is Rod Taylor’s lead performance. He’s an astronaut who holds on while reality loses track of his astronaut copilots after they return to Earth. Whether he’s loud or quiet, Taylor makes the episode work.

The concept is simple enough, but Taylor is able to sell the emotion of it all. When he realizes he forgets his girlfriend (Maxine Cooper), the viewer too realizes he or she has forgotten all about her too. She’s not important to Taylor at that moment; there’s no reason the viewer should worry about her either.

The episode also features a nice supporting performance from Jim Hutton. His job’s mostly just to react to Taylor, but he eventually gets his own moment in the spotlight.

Charles Aidman, in the distant third role, is mediocre. He’s not terrible, but he’s not doing anything amazing like Taylor.

It’s good.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas Heyes; teleplay by Rod Serling, based on a story by Richard Matheson; “The Twilight Zone” created by Serling; director of photography, George T. Clemens; edited by Fred Maguire; music by Leonard Rosenman; produced by Buck Houghton; aired by CBS Television Network.

Starring Rod Taylor (Lieutenant Colonel Clegg Forbes), Jim Hutton (Major William Gart), Charles Aidman (Colonel Ed Harrington), Maxine Cooper (Amy), Paul Bryar (Bartender), Sue Randall (Nurse) and Joe Bassett (Medical Officer).


The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross (1964, Don Siegel)

Don Siegel can compose no matter what ratio, so his shots in The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross are all fine. There’s a lack of coverage and the edits are occasionally off, but it’s a TV show (an episode of “The Twilight Zone”); it’s expected.

And Siegel does get in the occasional fantastic shot. He’s got a great lead actress with Gail Kobe and Vaughn Taylor’s all right as her father. The problem’s the lead, Don Gordon. Gordon has some great monologues but when he’s acting or reacting to someone else, he falls apart. It’s probably the script, which concerns a listless thug who discovers he can magically trade physical and psychological conditions with people.

He figures to “improve” himself with the power. But the character has no motivation other than filling twenty-some minutes of a television program.

Still, a single great Siegel shot makes up for the rest.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Don Siegel; teleplay by Jerry McNeely, based on a story by Harry Slesar; “The Twilight Zone” created by Rod Serling; director of photography, George T. Clemens; edited by Richard V. Heermance; produced by Bert Granet; aired by CBS Television Network.

Starring Don Gordon (Salvadore Ross), Gail Kobe (Leah Maitland), Vaughn Taylor (Mr. Maitland), J. Pat O’Malley (Old Man), Douglass Dumbrille (Mr. Halpert) and Douglas Lambert (Albert).


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