Saturday, February 5, 2011

Night Gallery: The Pilot (1969)

For a review of Season One episodes, please visit this page.

[Article edited for formatting & a couple of typos fixed: 23 March 2012.]
Rod Serling was one of the most influential people in television, and his influence continues to work today. He has had a profound effect ranging from innovative series ideas, great script writing, a rugged style of narrating, and an energetic outspokenness about the influence of advertisers on art, and of the constant meddling of industry.

After a successful beginning that brought about well received screenplays for many television programs, such as Lux Video Theatre, Kraft Television Theatre and Studio One, as well as additional success spanning five seasons with The Twilight Zone, Serling found himself struggling through most of the latter part of his career. Post TZ had Serling narrating documentaries on UFOs and monsters and for the television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, writing short story adaptations of his own original TZ screenplays, appearing as host of the game show The Match Game, and saw his screenplay adaptation of Pierre Boullle's Monkey Planet (later, Planet of the Apes) completely re-written. Yet despite these struggles he never let up on what he believed to be art in television, and fought actively against the commercialization of quality products, something he did during the three season course of Night Gallery.

In the late sixties Serling was offered the opportunity to revamp the status he held during the popular years of The Twilight Zone. Soon after The Twilight Zone was cancelled, Serling tried to peddle a related anthology idea with the title Rod Serling's Wax Museum. The idea was that in each episode he would introduce a waxed figure of the protagonist of that evening's teleplay. He wrote a treatment to an anthology movie containing three separate episodes, with one major actor to play the lead character of each segment. Two of the three scenarios, "Eyes" and "Escape Route," would become prose stories first, which would be included in Serling's own collection, The Season to Be Wary (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967). Never comfortable at prose, the collection was a commercial flop, but Serling continued to envision them as teleplays. A few years later this idea was eventually produced as Rod Serling's Night Gallery.

Night Gallery featured several sketches of varying length, with each episode containing two or three independent segments, while some episodes of season two featured four, when brief comedy sketches were interwoven to make up for shorter segments (an idea that Serling, rightfully, opposed). Though Serling tried hard to sell the series since 1964, he became involved as the main writer, penning many originals and adapting various stories from established writers such as Robert Bloch, H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Fritz Leiber, Algernon Blackwood and August Derleth. Moreover, Serling introduced each sketch. Each script revolved around a certain painting that hung in the dimly lit "Night Gallery" that Serling stepped onto at the beginning of the hour. While each painting was simply a loose representation of some kind, in the pilot each painting actually played a part in the segment it represented. These gorgeous works, evoking different styles, were all made by uncredited artist Jaroslav Gebr (paintings from the series were all done by Tom Wright).

The show faced many obstacles, including being slotted into odd time slots that eventually killed it, though it was rated highly by both critics and viewers, and consistently garnered a greater audience than the shows it was pitted against. The most prevalent tensions, however, existed between Serling and the production team. Unlike the creative control Serling had over most aspects of The Twilight Zone, he was not involved in the production of Night Gallery, and when the show ended after three (two and a half, really) seasons, Mr. Serling disowned it. Sadly, he died of a coronary two years later at the age of 50, though with his experiences on Night Gallery it is fair to speculate that this would have been his final foray into the TV anthology.

The pilot for Rod Serling's Night Gallery first aired on November 8th, 1969. The show itself began its run just before Christmas on 16 December 1970, and the final episode appeared in the summer of 1973.

For further information I would recommend Joe Engel's intriguing 1989 biography Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in the Twilight Zone; it is not terribly academic but gives a good general overview of Serling himself and of his career. There have been a number of other works published on Serling, mainly in relation to The Twilight Zone, though aside from Scott Zicree's excellent The Twilight Zone Companion, I have not read any others. There is also a good looking tome dedicated to a Night Gallery titled Rod Serling's The Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour, by Scott Skelton and Jim Benson, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998. (When I can afford additional books I will add it my collection.) This too I have not yet read, but I have just sold a story and will us the cheque to order a copy. (Possibly I will discover that everything I have just typed here is utter fantasy.)

"The Cemetery." Directed by Boris Sagal. Starring Roddy McDowell and Ozzie Davis. 8/10

The forgotten black sheep nephew of a wealthy painter re-emerges in time for his uncle's death to claim his inheritance. Actually, his timing is less than coincidental as he actually helped his uncle's demise come around a little earlier. Oddly though, the painting on the stairwell, the one of the cemetery by the house, appears after the funeral to contain an additional grave. This grave is soon filled with a casket, and the casket is soon opened to reveal the uncle's figure. Moreover, as in M. R. James's 1904 classic "The Mezzotint," with each moment the figure appears to be closing in on the front door of the house.

A strong opening and overall segment due particularly to Roddy McDowell's wonderful, energetic performance as the southern nephew Jeremy Evans. Davis is strong as well as stiff family retainer Osmond Portifoy. Serling's dialog is excellent and well delivered by all, with some great, colourful moments, such as Jeremy looking at the painting of the cemetery wondering why his uncle painted it, and adding that he should be in it. The plot is great with a masterful finish, and the direction by Boris Sagal (lifetime TV director best known for The Omega Man and the miniseries Masada and Rich Man, Poor Man) does well in highlighting both the cast and the story. Add a terrific set with the gorgeous house and its surroundings, great paintings and decor as well as music, and "The Cemetery" is an excellent piece of film.

"Eyes." Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Joan Crawford, Barry Sullivan and Tom Bosley. 8/10

The wealthy, powerful and incredibly belligerent Miss Claudia Menlo is both an art lover and blind. With her money and influence she takes the steps necessary to have an experimental operation on her eyes that will give her sight for a number of hours. However, as it is a form of transplant, her desperate donor will lose his own sight.

Steven Spielberg's first directorial assignment is also Joan Crawford's final performance. I can imagine the young, precise rookie trying to work with the masterful veteran, stumbling and mumbling around her. Through various interviews Spielberg admitted to his insecurities around Crawford, and emphasized that she was always professional with him, treating him with respect and calling him "Mr. Spielberg" rather than "Steven." Difficulties in production had to do with Serling's wordy screenplay, and Crawford had difficulty with the verbosity of the dialogue. Spielberg had to eventually place cue cards around the set for Crawford in order to meet the tight shooting deadline. McDowell and Davis, on the other hand, both revelled in their own "The Cemetery" lines, so that it might have been a case of dynamics between Crawford and her co-stars. Either that or the fact that Crawford was so hopelessly drunk that she remained locked inside her trailer through much of the shoot.

For his camera work, Spielberg wanted to challenge the conventions of dull, television filming by using wider lenses and placing the camera at more unusual spots, even filming Crawford through the glitzy glass pieces of the chandelier. He may have been mocked then, but his work, along with those of the other directors, makes Night Gallery a memorable and still watchable TV movie to this day.

Whatever did happen behind the cameras, what we have is a great final product, with some original directorial touches, good camera work and, as expected, excellent acting. Crawford is wonderful as the imperious Claudia Menlo, as is Barry Sullivan as the kind yet once corrupt doctor. Yet it is the recently belated Tom Bosley's performance as the hapless and desperate Sidney Resnick that takes this drama to a higher level. Resnick has no choice in what he's getting involved in, and at first doesn't even know what he'll be giving up, but is so mired at the bottom of life's gutter that he is desperate for any chance of clawing his way to ground level. "Will I still be able to cry?" he asks the doctor. "As much as you want."

(Serling had initially envisioned The Twilight Zone regular Jack Klugman in this role, and as pleased as I am with Bosley, Klugman would also likely have been brilliant.)

Well written with a suspenseful plot and great finish that tells us no matter who those mortal gods are that can play with the fates of the desperate and destitute, there is a greater power that can level us all to ground-level, whether it be chance, fate, or a simple case of coincidence.

"Escape Route." Directed by Barry Shear. Starring Richard Kiley, Norma Crane and Sam Jaffe. 8/10

Nazi criminal Joseph Strobe is hiding out South America. In a perpetual sweat, he is being haunted by his past, as well as by men wanting to bring him to justice. He finds himself unexpectedly at a museum where the painting of a fisherman in a canoe in a peaceful river affects him so much that he believes he can will himself into the scene.

A difficult task to find some form of sympathy for a Nazi criminal, yet it is nearly achieved and the filmmakers must remind us of his evil doings by having him do something horribly evil. The ending is excellent, perhaps the most predictable of the three, but is effective nonetheless. The performances from the three main actors are strong. Richard Kiley as Strober is genuinely afraid and desperate (Kiley had appeared in Serling's much lauded 1955 television play Patterns), Norma Crane as the prostitute neighbour is terrific in her open hatred for the former Nazi, while Sam Jaffe is sympathetic and looks exquisite as concentration camp survivor Bleum.

The directing, camera work and organization really help to pull this one off. There is a paranoid chase scene in which Strober believes he is being pursued, steps onto a bus and finds himself at the museum. The chase scene is exquisitely edited, with some fine odd camera angles, glaring car lights and fantastic music all to bring the viewer into the heated mind of this criminal. The little subliminal images of Citizen Strober as Nazi officer are a good touch. The wall-to-wall conversation between Strober and Gretchen is involved, giving so much to take in visually from a scene that, if cut in the standard conversation form, showing one speaker at a time, may have come out flat. TV director Barry Shear does excellent work all around.


Anonymous said...

Excellent write-up of my favorite episode of one of my all-time favorite shows. Your reviews of all three segments were well-thought-out and informed. I appreciate it when a reviewer gives some background information.

I can't emphasize how much The Cemetery scared and delighted me as a young child. That segment, along with a few movies at the time, helped shape my taste and turned me into a life-long horror fan. On rewatch, it's great to see how it still holds up.

I've never seen your blog before, but this makes me want to read more. Well done.

Casual Debris said...

Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words. Growing up in the 80s I missed out on NG but became fascinated with Serling through my addiction to The Twilight Zone beginning when I was about 10 years old. It's a shame networks didn't invest too much on such anthology series since the 1950s; a lot of potential creativity has been left to waste.

Derrick Ferguson said...

Oh, yeah..."The Cemetery" was the one episode that scared the yell out of me when I was a kid. Didn't appreciate the other two episodes until I was older and could relate to the subject matter.

I don't remember much about the actual TV series but I do remember this movie. Mr. Serling certainly had nothing to be ashamed of. The three stories in NIGHT GALLERY are just as good as anything he did for "The Twilight Zone"

Anonymous said...

Loved The Cemetery,and where did Macready leave his uppers?Strange he had no lines-cuz his character had a series of strokes?Great Ossie Davis,evil Roddy McD.Good Spielberg and Kiley

Anonymous said...

A great series with awesome potential. And I think the medium of television at the time it was created kept the show from going overboard with any gore and violence like we see today. Instead it’s greatness came from the performances by actors, the music and overall atmosphere. It ended too soon.

Captain H said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Captain H said...

Your reviews of all three episodes were excellent. I recently rewatched the pilot after not seeing it for some time. I was impressed with how well it has held up. Especially The Cemetery, which I think is the best of the three.

While being a product if it's time, it's a shame that you don't seem to have shows of similar quality these days. But then again, Rod Serling was a pretty unique individual.

Casual Debris said...

Thank you for posting & I am pleased you enjoyed my review. I agree that despite its time period, the show holds up very well. There has been interest recently in supernatural anthologies with the success of Black Mirror & American Horror Story (neither of which I have yet to watch). Though these series are frequently brushed off by studios as not profitable, every few years a good anthology series appears, hearkening back to when much of television was made up of such programming.

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