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