Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Night Gallery Season One

(I won't be posting many screen shots here, and while I did intend to post the various painting used in each show, I decided this was not good form since they are already on display at the excellent

The first season of Night Gallery is quite good, with some great segments, overall great casting and some fine writing by Serling and others. Some Serling episodes reflect his earlier teleplays for The Twilight Zone, and while some are a little dated or overdone in their concept, others shine with themes as timeless as life ("They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar"). Shorter segments are often the weaker ones, produced as filler. In general I was pleased that the show managed a fairly broad level of ideas and of genres, though not quite to the capacity of TZ (of course, TZ had far more episodes produced each season, so had a batter chance at achieving variety).

The Dead Man/The Housekeeper (episode 1: 16 December 1970)

"The Dead Man." Directed by Douglas Hayes. Written by Hayes from the short story by Fritz Leiiber. Starring Carl Betz, Jeff Corey, Louise Sorel and Michael Blodgett.

The first season opening segment was directed by prolific writer and television director Douglas Hayes, (director of nine episodes of the original The Twilight Zone, including some of its best, such as "Eye of the Beholder," "The Howling Man" and "And When the Sky Was Opened"). Hayes does a terrific job with this excellent short; a fascinating idea well executed from start to finish. Successful doctor and researcher Max Redford (Betz) has been focusing on a single patient, John Michael Fearing (Blodgett), who has the unusual ability to physically manifest the symptoms of any known illness. The plot is delivered with economy, a solid progression of events beginning with a visit from old friend Dr. Miles Talmadge (Corey), a great moment when Redford reveals to Talmadge the unusual ability of the young, vibrant Fearing. Young and vibrant, however, is at the core of the central tension, as it is clear to all concerned that Fearing and Redford's wife, Velia (Sorel), are deeply involved. Each subsequent scene is brief, and as events unfold we are led to the inevitable conclusion, which is truly visually quite wondrous in its ghastliness.

The performances are all top notch, as each character must work through a variety of emotional displays. This is especially effective when eventual soap star Louise Sorel's latter horrified grief is in striking contrast to her early, unabashed happiness. Veteran Jeff Corey is great as the rational though sympathetic Talmadge, and Carl Betz does well in delivering the role of the man caught between pride and jealousy for his subject. The writing is also on the mark, with not a word wasted, and the cinematography is, for television, quite creative. The comfortable and gorgeous home is nicely lit, just as the cemetery is nicely dreary. When Talmadge arrives at the house for the second time, the camera lens warps the border of the frame while the camera itself is positioned above the steps as Velia ascends, and then at a low perspective when the men watch her. This adds a thick, watery sense to illustrate that the Redford world has been submerged. 8/10

"The Housekeeper." Directed by John Meredyth Lucas. Written by Matthew Howard (a pseudonym for Hayes). Starring Larry Hagman, Jeanette Nolan, Suzy Parker and an assortment of confused animals, including a frog.

Cedric Acton has hired a new housekeeper, having searched for the greatest, homeliest hag he could find, one with a great heart. Acton's own heart is enmeshed in greed, as he hopes through some black magic he can accomplish an act of personality transfer, and move old hag Miss Wattle's personality into his horrible wife's beautiful body.

The strongest element in this segment is Howard's script, as it is playful and suspenseful all at once, from the opening dialogue between Miss Wattle and the placement agent, to Acton's incessant ramblings about the unfairness of things in this world. Larry Hagman as Acton delivers a hungry, groaning performance, a man filled with repressed desires for wealth and other things (likely his wife has not been attending to his needs), while Jeanette Nolan is superb as the aptly-named Miss Wattle, the innocent, conservative, gullible woman who is not too aware of the implications of Acton's scheme. The two play wonderfully well off each other, and the episode is a whole lot of silly fun. 7/10

Room with a View/The Little Black Bag/The Nature of the Enemy (episode 2: 23 December 1970).

"Room with a View." Directed by Jerrold Freedman. Written by Hal Dresner from his short story. Starring Joseph Wiseman, Diane Keaton and Angel Tompkins.

Bedridden and wealthy Jacob Bauman is being cared for by the simple yet charming nurse Frances Nevins, who is engaged to the handsome, womanizing chauffeur. This handsome chauffeur appears to be interested in Bauman's less than faithful, and much younger, wife. An observant man, Bauman uses the convenient view from his window as well as not-so-idle gossip to deduce the goings-on at his estate, and manages to cleverly tie everything together in a way to... but I won't reveal any more details. This is a brief segment that is well written with a great performance by Montreal actor Joseph Wiseman as the sweet curmudgeon Bauman. Wiseman is best known as James Bond's nemesis Dr. No, but has appeared in a number of fine films, including William Wyler's Detective Story and Ted Kotcheff's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, as well as on the original The Twilight Zone and two episodes of Tales of Tomorrow. The young nurse is played by a truly adorable Diane Keaton. 7/10

"The Little Black Bag." Directed by Jeannot Szwarc. Written by Rod Serling from a short story by C.M. Kornbluth. Starring Burgess Meredith and Chill Wills.

Far in the future a stuttering man in white explains over the futuristic telephone that a medical bag has accidentally been sent back in time to the barbaric year of 1971. Hopefully the bag is more advanced than these future communications systems: in 1970 the standard future gadgets as they appeared on TV and in film were generally massive (remember the reporter's camera near the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey?). The communication device here emits perpetual bursts of static and the stuttering, inept-looking phone operator has to keep begging his pardon and repeating himself do little more than convincing the audience of 2011 that the future is more primitive than the present. At least technologically.

The medical bag and its contents fall into the hands of two vagrants, former doctor William Fall and his brand new acquaintance Heppelwhite. Fall soon discover that the instruments are quite unique and can truly benefit modern society. He is evidently so stricken by this that Fall is suddenly cold sober and desiring to save the world, though with a healthy dose of ambition, while Heppelwhite thinks only of the bag's profitability. The segment's central tension of helping others vs. helping oneself is common in the Serling repertoire, and as usual the world is not saved yet the bad do get punished. Burgess Meredith (familiar to Serling fans from four episodes of The Twilight Zone, including the classics "Time Enough at Last" and "The Obsolete Man") is great as Dr. Fall, but stealing the show is Chill Wills, who proves he is as neat as his name as the neatly-named Heppelwhite. 7/10

"The Nature of the Enemy." Directed by Allan Reisner. Original screenplay by Rod Serling. Starring Joseph Campanella.

At Houston the control centre is tense as staff watch an astronaut on screen wander the moon in hopes of figuring out the fate of the previous expedition. Another short segment, this one is tense for a while, but ends quite ludicrously and the play exists as little more than filler for the hour. 4/10

The House/Certain Shadows on the Wall (episode 3: 30 December 1970)

"The House." Directed by John Astin. Written by Rod Serling from a story by Andre Maurois. Starring Joanna Pettet and Paul Richards.

Sanitarium patient Elaine Latimer tells her doctor of a recurring dream in which she is driving (in her red Chevrolet convertible) and comes across a lovely, isolated house. She pulls over, knocks on the door but no one answers, so she gets back into her car and drives away. It's only as she is rolling away does she notice that the door is opening. It turns out that we are listening in on Elaine's final psychiatric session, and as she drives away (in her red Chevrolet convertible) through the lovely countryside, she comes across the house of her dreams, which she soon learns is haunted.

"The House" has a nice dreamy quality to it. The dream sequences play out in slow motion, with Elaine dressed in flowing materials, while the music too is truly dreamlike. It's a decent episode though a little predictable. I did nonetheless receive a genuine chill when Elaine says "I have met the ghost," and the camera proceeds to pan to our right, when I expected to see it. But no, false panning. Which is the main problem with this episode: amateurish camerawork. There are some odd zoom-ins that are distracting and on the cusp of comical. There is also an obvious goof when near the end we are driving in the car heading toward the isolated house and suddenly on the left of the screen we see a couple of people strolling toward us. Members of the crew, perhaps, or friends of the ghost?

The segment was directed by longtime television actor John Astin, who has appeared in three Night Gallery episodes, as well as the original The Twilight Zone episode "A Hundred Yards over the Rim." He has also directed three segments of NG and some other fairly minor TV productions. As Elaine, the beautiful Joanna Pettet does a fine job and is always nice to look at. 6/10

"Certain Shadows on the Wall." Directed by Jeff Corey. Written by Rod Serling from a story by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Starring Agnes Moorehead, Louis Hayward, Grayson Hall and Rachel Roberts.

Dr. Stephen Brigham has been tending to his sickly sister Emma, reading to her from the works of Charles Dickens (appropriately including Bleak House) ever since they were young. Staying over at Emma's majestic house along with their two other sisters, the cold Ann and the younger, sensitive Rebecca, the good doctor is tired of Dickens and his own poverty, hoping that Emma will finally leave him in peace by resting in peace. When she does finally die, Emma's shadow mysteriously appears on the wall in the sitting room downstairs.

What a fine episode this is. A fantastic quartet of actors, a great short story source well adapted by Serling, and some fine visuals along with an attractive set make for a tense chiller. Sure we'll know what'll happen, but who cares as the process of arriving there is so pleasurable. Louis Hayward is in fine form in one of his final roles, the poweful-looking Grayson Hall (nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the Tennessee Williams adapted The Night of the Iguana) is excellent as the cool-hearted Ann, while Rachel Roberts (three-time BAFTA winner and nominated for an Oscar for This Sporting Life) is great as the youngest sibling Rebecca, who finishes the episode nicely at the piano, uttering the last line. Yet it is Agnes Moorehead, four-time Oscar nominee, appearing fairly briefly as the sickly Emma who nearly steals the show, with her agonizing suffering and death-blue lips. Just wonderful. 8/10

Make Them Laugh/Clean Kills and Other Trophies (episode 4: 6 January 1971)

"Make Them Laugh." Directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Rod Serling. Starring Godfrey Cambridge, Tom Bosley and Jackie Vernon.

With his career dwindling and his routine pathetic, stand-up comic Jackie Slayter makes a desperate wish from an imperfect genie that he can make people laugh. As expected, people begin to laugh uproariously at the simplest things he says, and despite his new-found fame, he is soon tired of this unique ability. This story is similar to many that Serling penned for The Twilight Zone, such as the effective "The Big Tall Wish," and he doesn't bring anything fresh to the idea. Godfrey Cambridge as Slater and Tom Bosley as his agent do fine (though neither remarkable), but as the genie I found Jackie Vernon's expressionless acting and undecided accent quite weak. 5/10

"Clean Kills and Other Trophies." Directed by Walter Doniger. Written by Rod Serling and starring Raymond Massy, Barry Brown and Herbert Jefferson, jr.

Wealthy poacher Colonel Archie Dittman will only allow pacifist son Archie Dittman, Jr. to become full heir to his estate if he kills an animal. A familiar "he gets what he deserves" and "do unto others" script is predictable, and while Raymond Massy (former Dr. Kildare in his first of two appearances in Night Gallery) as Sr. is good, the tragic Barry Brown as Jr. is on the weak side. 5/10

Pamela's Voice/The Lone Survivor/The Doll (episode 5: 13 January 1971)

"Pamela's Voice." Directed by Richard Benedict. Written by Rod Serling and starring Phyllis Diller and John Aston.

A short filler piece which could work if it were better directed and not written so stiffly. Serling's standard wordy script doesn't work with this simple gimmicky sketch, and I can't blame the actors for this though I am tempted. Aston (director of the segment "The House") and Diller aren't great, though on the surface they are appropriate, especially the annoying Diller. Script aside, I just did not care for the characters, their circumstances nor anything, really, and while the ending did take me by surprise I was more please simply that the little play was over. 4/10

"The Lone Survivor." Directed by Gene Levitt. Written by Rod Serling and starring John Colicos.

A ship comes across a life raft where no raft should be, and the crew discover that the single man aboard has been floating around since the sinking of the ship he was on: The USS Titanic. The concept is interesting, John Colicos as the Survivor, Torin Thatcher as the Captain and Hedley Mattingly as the Doctor all do a good job, while the set and atmosphere are well done. The opening is too stretched, especially with the audience figuring out the Titanic twist before being told, and the better climax comes at the mid-point, leaving the ending predictable. There are a couple of truly creepy moments near the finish, though. 6/10

"The Doll." Directed by Rudi Dorn. Written by Rod Serling based on the short story by Algernon Blackwood, and starring John Williams, Henry Silva and the most frightening little doll ever put together.

Colonel Hymber Masters returns from the colonies to look in on his ward, the lonely Monica. The girl is so lonely, in fact, that she has taken an unnatural liking to a doll that the Colonel had recently sent her. But wait, the Colonel did not send her any doll, and one look at the thing would freak anyone out. This is on two truly great Night Gallery segments of the first season. It is well put together, an eighteen or so minute-long episode with brief scenes that work nicely toward its conclusion. The Colonel is brilliantly played by the great John Williams, who truly looks the part, and his entourage, with Henry Silva as the avenging Indian, are all fine. Only the little girl is, well, a little odd, which makes a good mortal contrast to the doll, except her hair is nicer. So nice, in fact, you'd think the household employed a full-time hairdresser. The cinematography is spooky, with dim lighting and a cozy little fire, the set is atmospheric, Serling's script is economically precise, and really, the episode has no faults. The single thing that supersedes all the episode elements is the unique effectiveness of that doll.

Moreover, it has a great finish. 9/10

They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar/The last Laurel (episode 6: 20 January 1971)

"They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar." Directed by Don Taylor. Written by Rod Serling and starring William Windom, Diane Baker, John Randolph and Bert Convy.

This is the other great first season segment of Night Gallery. Sales Director Randy Lane is in a slump. He is struggling at work, struggling at being a widower, struggling with the bottle, and, to top things off, they're tearing down Tim Riley's bar. Riley's is a place that recalls a better time in Lane's life. He'd just returned home from war when everyone he cared about threw a party for him there, and shortly afterward began what was a promising career in his current place of employment, and a promising marriage. Now these are all just memories, and Lane is clinging onto them for dear life, wishing he could return to the Riley's of the past.

This is a powerful and touching episode with a wonderful performance by William Windom as Randy Lane (Windom appeared twice on The Twilight Zone, including as the Major in "Five Characters in Search of an Exit"), and some good support from the others, particularly Diane Baker as his loyal and caring secretary Lynn Alcott. The script, story, plot progressions are great, and rather than a focus on the fantastical we experience the potential wonders of reality. This episode is similar to one that Serling penned for TZ, "The Trouble with Templeton," about a nostalgic actor who revisits the ghosts of his past in a club he used to frequent. The idea of wanting to escape to a simpler period in one's life, a moment idealized during a period of struggle, is personal and timeless, and in Serling's adept hands is consistently thought provoking. The script and its execution are indeed excellent. 9/10

"The Last Laurel." Directed by Daryl Duke. Adapted by Rod Serling from the short story "The Horsehair Truck" by Davis Grubb. Starring Jack Cassidy and Martine Beswick.

A paralyzed athlete is convinced his wife is having an affair with his doctor, and has learned some handy astral projections that will allow him to leave his body and commit vengeance. Predictable and generally quite bad. The effects are silly, and, well, Riley's bar would would still have been great at a full hour, greater without this sad little story to follow at its heels. 4/10

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