Submitted for your approval....


I'm Craig, and I'm a longtime
Twilight Zone addict. The primary purpose of this blog is to spotlight each of the series' 156 episodes on the 50th anniversary of its original broadcast. I'll stop along the way to gaze lovingly at Twilight Zone merchandise and collectibles, and post random thoughts and musings about how the show has impacted my life. I thrive on feedback, so comment freely!



Thursday, April 17, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Jeopardy Room" (4/17/1964)





Season 5, Episode 49 (149 overall)
Originally aired 4/17/1964
Cayuga Production # 2639


Fifty years ago tonight, The Twilight Zone brought us a tense life-and-death game of cat-and-mouse. No, it’s not a Tom and Jerry cartoon (but seriously, how awesome would a Rod Serling-penned Tom and Jerry cartoon be? Oh, wait. They’d just stand around and talk for half an hour. Never mind…).


“The Jeopardy Room” finds Major Ivan Kuchenko in the process of defecting from Mother Russia. He’s holed up in a cheap hotel room in an unspecified neutral country, killing time until his scheduled departure. Watching across the way is Commissar Vassiloff and his sidekick, marksman Boris. Boris has an itchy trigger finger and wants to take Kuchenko out quickly; Vassiloff prefers to take his time and exterminate his quarry with finesse.






Vassiloff visits Kuchenko, claiming to be “a friend.” Kuchenko recognizes him as a Russian agent immediately and pulls a gun on him. Vassiloff tricks him into drinking a drugged glass of wine, which quickly renders him unconscious. Kuchenko awakens alone. Via a tape-recorded message, Vassiloff explains that a bomb has been hidden somewhere in the room. If Kuchenko can find and disarm it within three hours, he is free to go. He also indicates that Boris has been instructed to shoot him should he stop searching, turn out the lights or leave the room.


After bemusedly watching Kuchenko’s desperate (and ultimately fruitless) search, Vassiloff dials his room. Kuchenko goes to answer the call, but pauses before he lifts the receiver. Understanding dawning on his face, he bolts from the room, narrowly avoiding a hail of bullets.



Later, Vassiloff and Boris commiserate over their failure in Kuchenko’s room. The telephone rings, and Boris absently lifts the receiver… detonating the bomb hidden inside. We see Kuchenko at a pay phone at the airport, now free to embark on his new life unimpeded. 


“The Jeopardy Room” is one of Rod Serling’s better teleplays in this fifth and final season. It’s very Hitchcockian, and it’s not the first time TZ has stepped on ol’ Hitch’s toes (see season two’s “The Silence”). Unfortunately, this also means that the story contains no supernatural elements whatsoever. There’s no intervention by cosmic forces, no kink in the fabric of reality, no time travel, no labyrinthine psychological delusions, no…. well, I think you get the point. For what it is, it’s a taut and intriguing political thriller with fine performances… but ultimately it has no place in The Twilight Zone

In the director’s chair is Richard Donner, who somewhat acquits himself for his earlier crimes (“From Agnes – With Love” and “Sounds and Silences”). There’s not much here in the way of stylish direction, but I do like the panning in and out seen in the prologue, which gives us a great Rear Window-lite orientation of the position of the predator and his prey.



Vassiloff’s tape-recorded instructions/taunts, set within the aforementioned political/international intrigue environment, serve to forge a kind of proto-Mission: Impossible ethos, particularly fitting since Martin Landau would go on to star in that series just two years later (one almost expects the tape recorder to self-destruct). However, Landau’s character here doesn’t exhibit quite the same level of cunning as M:I’s Rollin Hand: what idiot would drink anything offered by an enemy agent, even if said agent took a drink first (plus it’s amontillado of all things! Wait, was Poe banned in Russia?).

Boris is clueless as to where Vassiloff has hid the explosive during Kuchenko’s unconsciousness. He stated earlier that he has a clear shot at Kuchenko’s head, even if he’s lying down. The telephone is right next to the bed, so obviously Boris can see it. And since he’s Vassiloff’s henchman, it’s logical to assume that he was watching while Vassiloff was over there…. I think you know where I’m going with this. How the hell did Boris not see Vassiloff plant the bomb? But I guess Boris is a moron, as we learn in the end. The morale of this story? Don’t employ stupid henchmen.

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THE MUSIC


“The Jeopardy Room” consists of stock cues, predominantly by Jerry Goldsmith and Fred Steiner. One familiar piece is “Silent Flight,” a CBS Music Library cue by Goldsmith, was also used to great effect in season one’s “Mirror Image” and season two’s “The Odyssey of Flight 33.”


DRAMATIS PERSONAE


Martin Landau (Major Ivan Kuchenko) needs to no introduction to genre fans. This is his second Twilight Zone appearance (he was the slimy bully Dan Hotaling in season one’s “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”; he also appeared in the 80’s revival series on CBS, in “The Beacon.” He did two tours on The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born” and “The Bellero Shield”; incidentally two of my favorites). After a few years on the aforementioned Mission: Impossible, Landau headlined TV’s Space: 1999, and he’s still kicking as of this writing. He provides insightful commentary tracks for both “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” and “The Jeopardy Room” on Image Entertainment’s Blu-ray releases of seasons one and five, respectively.


John van Dreelen is sufficiently villainous as Commissar Vassiloff. He popped up in a variety of genre TV shows (including Thriller, Men into Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Wonder Woman), as well as 1960's The Leech Woman, the very last classic Universal horror film (you might say it was the final nail in that particular coffin).





Robert Kelljan (Boris) was an uncredited extra in the Outer Limits episode “Controlled Experiment”; he also appeared in “The Dividing Wall” on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However, the real meat of his genre cred came in the director’s chair, where he helmed such cinematic opuses as Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), The Return of Count Yorga (1971), and Scream Blacula Scream (1973). Y'now, sometimes the damn jokes just write themselves.











L.A. artist (and über-nice guy) Woody Welch has shared several TZ sketches and paintings via his Facebook page in recent months, including a great portrait of Martin Landau. However, if I want to see a Welch rendering of Landau, I need only cast my eyes upon the stunning painting he gave me for my birthday this past November.




It depicts the two faces of Andro, a mutant from the future played (brilliantly so) by Landau in the aforementioned “The Man Who Was Never Born” on The Outer Limits. Go here for more info.





Season five is a crap shoot (or maybe a game of Russian roulette) when it comes to quality (compared to the rich minefield of masterpieces of the show’s earlier years); however, “The Jeopardy Room” (despite lacking a supernatural or mystical element) feels like an ice cold beer in the Sahara: it makes no sense that it’s there, but you appreciate it all the same. 



Next week:
A couple wakes up in empty town and demands to know... say it with me now... Where Is Everybody????




Thursday, April 10, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Caesar and Me" (4/10/1964)





Season 5, Episode 28 (148 overall)
Originally aired 4/10/1964
Cayuga Production # 2636


Fifty years ago tonight, The Twilight Zone brought us yet another pint-sized anthropomorphized terrorist.


Jonathan West is an Irish immigrant trying to make a living as a ventriloquist and failing miserably. Susan, his landlady’s niece, torments him relentlessly. His dummy, Caesar, is inexplicably alive (and sounds like a bad Humphrey Bogart impersonator) and convinces him that he’ll have to stoop to petty theft in order to stay afloat. 



West successfully robs a local delicatessen and gets his rent caught up, much to Susan’s chagrin. With a full belly and a few belts of (presumably Irish) whiskey for courage, he cracks the safe of a local club. The night watchman spots him, but he’s able to charm his way out with Caesar’s help.


Susan is delighted to discover West’s guilt (she’s an expert eavesdropper) and promptly reports him to the authorities. He’s hauled away, leaving Caesar to start making plans with the scheming Susan…. he knows where West hid the loot, after all.


Dos Dummies: Willie (left) and Caesar. Are they the same exact dummy? They look awfully similar....




























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“Caesar and Me” is of course a second-rate copy of season three’s “The Dummy,” a Rod Serling effort that is superior in every respect. In that episode we witnessed an alcoholic ventriloquist on the verge of a nervous breakdown, locked in mortal combat with a dummy that would ultimately take over his life (and transform him into a wooden dummy in the process). Here we have a dummy that is alive for no apparent reason other than to ruin its puppeteer and take up with an evil little girl. When Caesar convinces the kid to murder her aunt and run away with him, it’s painfully clear that the series has completely given up doling out cosmic justice. The lunatics have taken over the asylum, and all bets are off.

“Caesar and Me” was written by Adele T. Strassfield who was series producer William Froug’s secretary (I could speculate about what she probably had to do in 1964 to get her “cute little script” produced… but I won’t), the sale of which launched an extremely brief career in which she sold a total of three television scripts. And yeah, this one sure as hell ain't great… but to put things in perspective, it’s quite a bit better than last week’s “Sounds and Silences,” which was a Serling script.


In the director’s chair is Robert Butler (who will also direct May’s “The Encounter”), who would go on to a few notable genre gigs: he directed three episodes of The Invaders (“Panic,” “The Enemy,” and “The Trial”) and the original Star Trek pilot (“The Cage,” most of which would be recycled as flashback footage in the two-part “The Menagerie”). I was especially tickled to learn that he directed the pilot episode of TV’s Moonlighting, which was my favorite TV show in the late 80’s.



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THE MUSIC


The only positive aspect of “Caesar and Me” is the original score by Richard Shores, who is probably best remembered for his extensive compositional contributions to TV’s Perry Mason (though he isn’t responsible for that show’s famous theme; we have Fred Steiner, another TZ composer, to thank for that). His work here features some very effective dramatic and mysterious cues, and it’s a real shame that it’s never been released on any of the series’ myriad soundtracks. The DVD and Blu-ray sets include many isolated music tracks, which has historically been a great resource for obsessive TZ music collectors (like yours truly); however, as with several other season five episodes, “Caesar and Me” lacks this feature.

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DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Top o' the morning to ya laddie! Jackie Cooper is sufficiently morose as the Danny Boy-stereotype Jonathan West. Genre fans might recognize him as the Daily Planet editor Perry White in all four Christopher Reeve Superman films (1978-1987).


Susanne Cupito is quite convincing as the vile little snot Susan. Cupito also appeared in season one’s “Nightmare as a Child” and season four’s “Valley of the Shadow”; she also popped up on The Outer Limits (“The Inheritors, Part 2”). She grew up to be breathtakingly beautiful and, when she turned 18, she changed her professional name to Morgan Brittany.



Stafford Repp (left) plays the unnamed pawnbroker in the prologue (we've seen him twice before: he was the auto mechanic in season two’s “Nick of Time,” and Ira Broadly in season three’s “The Grave”; below left). Mr. Smiles, the clerk at the unemployment office, is played by Olan Soule (right), who played the IRS agent in season two’s “The Man in the Bottle" (below, right).




The unnamed man watching West’s pathetic audition in act one is played by Robert McCord, who can be seen in over a third of the series’ 156 episodes, usually as an easy-to-miss extra (see my recent spotlight on “What’s in the Box” for more).











Ugh. I don’t hate “Caesar and Me,” but I sure as hell don’t like it much. Been there, done that, that's it, that's all there is.




Next up:
Martin Landau searches The Jeopardy Room, but can’t find Alex Trebek anywhere.





Thursday, April 3, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Sounds and Silences" (4/03/1964)





Season 5, Episode 27 (147 overall)
Originally aired 4/03/1964
Cayuga Production # 2631


Fifty years ago, a man found himself the victim to an aural nightmare. Besieged by unknown forces, he…. oh, screw it. I can’t polish this turd, nor am I inclined to try.


Roswell G. Flemington is obsessed with all things nautical, particularly recordings of actual naval battles, which he regularly blares at full volume. After twenty years of wedded misery, his wife finally leaves him, after which his hearing becomes inexplicably sensitive: quiet sounds like dripping water become deafening roars to him. He sees a doctor, who refers him a psychiatrist, who makes the staggeringly clinical diagnosis that it's all in his head; moreover, he can choose to exercise control over it.



Bolstered, Flemington goes home, where he finds his estranged wife, there to pick up the last of her things. He uses “mind over matter” to reduce her voice to a whisper. Smugly satisfied, he goes to play one of his beloved naval battle records, which he finds he can’t hear at all. He then comes to the horrifying realization that he can’t hear anything at all.




Well folks, here it is: the single worst episode of season five. I’m not quite prepared to place it below “Mr. Bevis” or “Four O’clock,” but I’ll definitely rank it in the bottom five of the entire series. First and foremost, there’s almost no story at all. Loud guy suddenly develops super-sensitive hearing, and then abruptly (and presumably) loses his hearing entirely. That's it. It’s essentially a depiction of a man losing a vital sensory function. How is that a Twilight Zone? Is causing an asshole to become disabled really Cosmic Justice?

I could almost find it in myself to sympathize with the ol' guy a bit. Almost. Not quite.

It doesn’t help matters that Flemington is such a complete and utter tool, or that there’s a ridiculous amount of overacting on John McGiver’s part, particularly every time he (over)reacts to the exaggerated sounds around him (it’s almost as if he’s using his facial expressions to compete with them). Seriously, how flagrantly obnoxious can one character be? Flemington makes previous Obnoxiometer™ placers like Roger Shackleforth and George P. Hanley seem positively likable by comparison. In fact.... I can't believe I'm about to do this, but.... 



That's right.... he's worse than James B.W. Bevis. That's quite a feat, Mr. Flemington.

“Sounds and Silences” is yet another episode that, once aired, resulted in somebody crying plagiarism and suing Cayuga Productions. Since litigation was still pending, the episode wasn’t included in the syndication package, and remained buried for 20 years. When the series turned 25 in 1984, it was resurrected along with vault-mates “Miniature” and “A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain” for a syndicated special. The episode is now easily viewed via Hulu and Netflix, and can be acquired in the various DVD and Blu-ray iterations of the series.



Rod Serling had to have known his teleplay was an utter piece of shit; however, he clearly didn’t care anymore at this late point in the series. There’s a whiff of season two’s “The Mind and the Matter” as Flemington utilizes what he calls “mind over matter” to minimize the sound of his wife’s voice. Serling wrote that one too; I guess it’s the closest to an antecedent we’ll find for “Sounds and Silences.” In the director’s chair this week is Richard Donner, who also helmed “From Agnes - With Love” (‘nuff said).


THE MUSIC


“Sounds and Silences” is notable (I guess) for having no actual underscore; aside from the copious sound effects herein, there are only a few brief snatches of nautical source cues played on Flemington’s hi-fi.


DRAMATIS PERSONAE

I despise Roswell G. Flemington; however, I do like John McGiver quite a bit. We last saw him in season four’s “The Bard" but, to me, he’ll always be the noble democrat Senator Thomas Jordan in 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate.





Mrs. Flemington (no first name, apparently) is played by Penny Singleton, probably best known as Blondie Bumstead in the long-running Blondie film series (1938-1950). If she sounds more familiar than she looks, it’s because you've undoubtedly heard her as the voice of Jane Jetson on TV’s The Jetsons.




Michael Fox plays the unnamed psychiatrist (I love how the nameplate on his door reads, simply, “Psychiatrist”). This is his third sojourn into The Twilight Zone: he played the doctor in season one’s “Nightmare as a Child,” and was one half of the two-head Martian in season two’s “Mr. Dingle, the Strong.” He also popped up on the 80’s Twilight Zone revival in “A Message from Charity."


Francis de Sales plays the unnamed doctor (give these people some names, for Rod’s sake!). Genre fans may have spotted him in the Outer Limits episode “The Mice,” which also turned 50 recently.





“Sounds and Silences,” like its protagonist, is all bluster and no substance; there’s honestly nothing of value here. The completest in me is relieved that it’s available along with its Lost Five kin, but its relative rarity doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of the worst offerings in the entire series. I’m filing it under “S” for “sucks” and turning a deaf ear to it for the rest of my days. 




Next week:
Season three's "The Dummy" gets a late-in-the-game surprise repeat airing, and---- wait, what? It's not a repeat? It's a new episode? We're doing another dummy story?  Really....?