Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Outer Limits (1963): The Hundred Days of the Dragon

"The Hundred Days of the Dragon." (S1E2) First aired 23 September 1963. Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by Allan Balter and Robert Mintz. Starring Sidney Blackmer, Phillip Pine, Joan Camden, Nancy Rennick, Mark Roberts, Aki Aleong, Richard Loo, Bert Remsen and James Hong. 9/10

The government of an unnamed Asian country south of Mongolia (in other words, China) has developed a remarkable spying technique: the ability to impersonate any man through physical alteration. This alteration has little to do with surgery, and instead relies on the injection of a drug that makes a person's skin malleable, and like clay can then be sculpted. Add voice training, character impersonation, and the best possible infiltration through body snatching can be achieved.

The shady government's intended target for replacement is William Lyons Selby, the leading candidate for President of the United States. Successfully infiltrating the White House in the guise of President Selby, the shady government can soon put into play its plan for world domination. First by withdrawing American fleets from eastern waters, and then by imitating other members of office, primarily the principled and suspicious Vice President and dear friend of Selby's, Ted Pearson.

"The Hundred Days of the Dragon" is an exceptional piece of Cold War paranoia, reminiscent of the body snatching in Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Aside from Cold War fears, and even threats of all-out war, the episode is a truly chilling piece of dramatic suspense. Incredibly well filmed, with a great script and patient sequencing, this could have been worked into a good film, with an additional half-hour to play out an extended finish.

[Spoiler.] The sudden and somewhat flat ending is the only weak point, yet with such a strong overall production the ending is only part of the whole, rather than what it culminates into. I would not ask for a massive climactic chase scene, but a more involved way of outing the criminals. Yes, the public face peeling moment is fantastic, but the lead-up is just too convenient. At the same time, had the script covered a broader and longer ending sequence, we would have lost the great pacing of the rest of the episode.

The episode was directed by Berkley graduate and former cartoonist Byron Haskin, the man behind the camera for the 1953 H. G. Wells adaptation of War of the Worlds, 1954's The Naked Jungle (adaptation of the Carl Stephenson story "Leiningen versus the Ants"), and a total of six Outer Limits episodes. Haskin combines talents with cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (who will go on to work on some great films) to deliver a truly taught, visually compelling, atmospheric piece of TV cinema. There are shadows and blinking lights everywhere, dark plant shadows reflected against white walls, and elegantly decorated rooms thrown into darkness. Low camera angles and shots peering in from behind objects, like desk lamps and plants, even peeping through doors, enhance the feeling of spying and being spied upon. Claustrophobia and paranoia are evident in nearly every frame. The visuals are necessary, especially for a script with important sequences wholly absent of dialogue.

The plot progression is played out patiently. The opening which explains the fantastic premise is given time to develop, and because of the unique and far-fetched idea, it is always compelling. The scene in which our imposter takes over the President's form is slow, patient and methodical, a lengthy scene made tenser with the lack of dialogue and the good, subdued TV music with the hint of oriental sound. There are many low shots here as we watch our communist tread across the carpeted hotel floor. The shooting of the president is cold and sudden, part of the plan, and effective still in this decade.

Special effects of 1963 prove yet again to be innovative and to hold up to the test of time. It is obvious that the faces being molded are made of clay, yet the effect of watching fingers dragging forcefully across a man's face is still quite powerful, especially when the eyebrows get pulled and the nose gets mashed. There is no silly alien in this episode, yet the alien unknown is still prevalent, and when that alien is human, the stakes are somehow higher. There is a small goof in the opening sequence, however. We learn that both Selby and the imposter have the third finger of their left hand missing, and yet when the imposter is placing the face mold over his face, the camera acting as the imposter's eyes, that third finger is clearly intact. Likely the hand doesn't even belong to the actor, and might even be Haskin's own. Throughout the episode it is clear that Blackmer himself has all his fingers intact, and that when the missing finger is prominent, it is obvious that the finger is simply taped down to look like a stub. A fat stub.

Sixty days after the episode featuring the murder of a US president is aired, on November 22nd, President John F. Kennedy is assassinated. Technically, though, Selby is not yet president when he is shot.

Longtime character actor Sidney Blackmer is excellent as the charming President Selby, and as the imposter pretending to be the charming President Selby. His use of eye and mouth motions to both intensify the charade and illuminate the characters' (particularly the imposter's) inner thoughts and feelings is fantastic. I remember Blackmer best in the excellent AHP episode "Don't Come Back Alive" (S1E4). Phillip Pine is just as good as the conscience-prone and suspicious friend and VP Pearson, with strong support from the rest of the cast.

Anthology Cast Notes (other TV anthology appearances):

Sidney Blackmer. Suspense: "Post Mortem" (S1E9) & "This Is Your Confession" parts 1 and 2 (S3E52); Tales of Tomorrow: "The Dark Angel" (S1E8); Climax!: "Flame-Out in T-6" (S2E30) & "Scream in Silence" (S4E13); Thriller: "The Premature burial" (S2E3); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "Don't Come Back Alive" (S1E4) & "The Faith of Aaron Menefee" (S7E17).

Phillip Pine. Tales of Tomorrow: "Plague from Space" (S1E30) & "The Bitter Storm" (S2E17); Science Fiction Theatre: "Before the Beginning" (S1E34); Twilight Zone, "The Four of Us Are Dying" (S1E13) & "The Incredible World of Horace Ford" (S4E14); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "The Safe Place" (S3E36); One Step Beyond: "Where Are They?" (S1E12); Kraft Mystery Theatre: "The Problem in Cell Block 13" (S2E8); Ghost Story: "The Ghost of Potter's Field (S1E21). Also The Invaders, Star Trek and over a hundred different shows.

Nancy Rennick. Twilight Zone: "The After Hours" (S1E34) & "The Odyssey of Flight 33" (S2E18).

Mark Roberts. Suspense: "I'm No Hero" (S2E41) & "Wisteria Cottage" (S2E42).

Bert Remsen. Suspense: "The Moving Target" (S5E4), Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "The Throwback" (S6E20), "Gratitude" (S6E28), "Services Rendered" (S7E10), "The Right Kind of Medicine" (S7E11); Alfred Hitchcock Hour: "Annabel" (S1E7)

Aki Aleong. Outer Limits: "Expanding Human" (S2E4).

James Hong. One Step Beyond: "House of the Dead" (S2E37); Tales from the Darkside: "It All Comes Out in the Wash" (S1E10). Also Wonder Woman, War of the Worlds, The X-Files & countless others.


Jeff T. said...

I saw this compelling and well executed drama when it originally aired and as a (young) boy I was thoroughly captivated and enthralled by it.

Coming immediately after the pilot it (temporarily) steered THE OUTER LIMITS (ABC 1963-65) away from what would be its rigidly mandated monster-of-the-week format.

The aspects of threatening lookalike replacements-imposters and the haunting shadowy film noir visual styling were sufficient to maintain my youthful interest establishing this SF-premised 1960s dramatic anthology tv series as very unique entertainment indeed.

The profound conclusion where the (seemingly) hawkish newly elected U.S. Vice President Theodore Pearson (Phillip Pine) responsibly decides to approach the subversive criminal acts committed against the U.S. presidency on the diplomatic level rather than with wrathful vindictiveness is really the intended moral of this extraordinary and intelligent presentation.

An important lesson that today's politicians would certainly profit from.

Casual Debris said...

Thank you Jeff for the insightful observation. I too was thoroughly impressed with the production, even in 2011.

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