by Patricia Grandjean
May 4, 2011
09:01 AMBox Office
My "Twilight" Chronicles—No, not THAT "Twilight"
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1. "Two." If you watch only one Twilight Zone episode with almost no dialogue, skip "The Invaders" and make it this one, the series' third-season opener. Written and directed by Montgomery Pittman, you could call it a Cold War take on the Adam and Eve story. A decidedly unglam Elizabeth Montgomery (pre-"Bewitched") and Charles Bronson (pre-any development of facial crags) co-star as opponents in and apparently, lone survivors of a devastating global war, about which we're told nothing—although Bronson is clearly American and the one word of dialogue Montgomery utters while looking at a dress in a window, "prekrassnyi" ("pretty"), identifies her as Russian. Both continue to fight each other over small scraps of food and under the influence of shredded propaganda posters until Bronson, the bigger pacifist of the two, gives Montgomery the dress and tells her to put it on, himself shedding his combat duds for a tuxedo. Ultimately, having decided they desire human companionship more than victory, they walk off into the sunset together. As director, Pittman didn't have to do much to establish the scorched landscape for his story—the ep was entirely shot on the backlot of the famed Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, Calif., which had totally turned to rubble through mismanagement and lack of use (it would be torn down two years later).
2. "On Thursday We Leave for Home." A believable look at the subtly seductive nature of power. In 1991, an expedition to the brutal desert planet V-9 Gamma became stranded, forcing the passengers to establish a small settlement there under almost unlivable conditions. For 30 years, Captain William Benteen (James Whitmore) has kept them alive—or so he believes—by establishing himself as a quasi-totalitarian leader, albeit a benevolent one who raises their spirits with stories about the beauty of Earth. Now, however, the colony has gotten word that a rescue mission is on its way to take all 187 V-9 Gamma residents back home. Initially, Benteen is as ecstatic about this development as everyone else—but when Col. Sloane (Tim O'Connor) and Co. turn up, and begin to usurp Benteen's influence, his attitude takes an insidious turn. Wisely, Serling avoids turning Benteen into a slimy Hitleresque caricature (a trap he would baldly fall into with two or three other episodes that had abuse of power as a theme). Rather, he comes to resemble the average U.S. leader who's served one (or more) too many terms—someone who may have once meant well, but who's fallen in love with his role so deeply that he's forgotten why he got it and will go to almost any lengths to keep it. Ultimately, Benteen gets the kind of crushing comeuppance you wish someone would give (fill in currently elected official's name here), but Whitmore's overdue regret makes it seem unnecessarily cruel.
3. "Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room." And you thought Robert De Niro was the first actor to have an unsettling conversation with himself in a mirror. "You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?" was first uttered in this TZ ep by character actor Joe Mantell (who years later got to speak the even cooler line, "Forget it Jake—it's Chinatown," as Jake Gittes' friend Walsh in the famed 1974 movie). I like to imagine this moment lodging somewhere in Scorsese's spongelike brain before he copied it for Taxi Driver, although he's claimed the inspiration for De Niro's scene came from 1967's Reflections in a Golden Eye. Bah. "Nervous Man" represented another of Serling's cost-cutting strategies in TZ's second season; besides Mantell and the mirror—in which frightened two-bit gangster Jackie Rhoades sees his confident, controlled alter-ego, "John Rhoades," who wants to take over his life—the only other character is Jackie's slimy boss, George (William D. Gordon). Tribute was paid to this TZ ep just last season by, of all shows, CBS' beleaguered "Two and a Half Men."
4. "Nick of Time." Written by another central TZ contributor—Richard Matheson—this second season ep almost became a bookend to the fifth season's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," until the show's plan to re-cast Patricia Breslin as William Shatner's wife in the latter didn't pan out. Breslin's warm vulnerability does play particularly well against Shatner's cool centeredness; it's still fun to imagine Don Carter as a character who's become unraveled by few years working that promotion he gets in this ep and, post nervous breakdown, winds up on the begremlined plane as Bob Wilson. Anyway, much as I acknowledge "Nightmare" is a classic, I prefer the more subtle and clever "Nick," which makes an even better bookend to "Mr. Denton"—while that argued for the power of fate, this celebrates being the master of one's own soul.
5. "A World of Difference." Bonus points to the Zone fan who can tell us which current A-list actor is the child of Eileen Ryan, who portrays the insufferably shrewish, exploitive ex-wife-to-be of this ep's down-and-out actor Jerry Raigan. (<time>"Jeopardy" theme plays</time>.) Give up? Why it's Sean Penn, by golly! (We see a resemblance.) Anyhoo, "Jerry Raigan" is a fictional character—not only to us, but to successful, happy executive Arthur Curtis (Howard Duff)—or, wait a minute . . . is Jerry Raigan the real guy, and Arthur Curtis merely a character he's playing in a movie? The show goes for the happy ending—but leaves some lingering doubts (for one thing, if Raigan is really Curtis, a stranger to the movie world, then how did he find his way back to that soundstage so easily?). The "lost-identity" theme is one the Zone had some fun with—"Person or Persons Unknown," starring Richard Long, is another playful example—but this is the most Camus-like.