Friday, January 29, 2010

TZ Promo: “The Fever” (1/29/1960)

Franklin Gibbs is a sour, unpleasant man with few (if any) redeeming character traits. His wife Flora wins a trip for two to Las Vegas and, upon their arrival, proceeds to ruin the trip with his endless bitching and complaining. Staunchly against gambling (or spending money on anything frivolous), he nonetheless finds himself falling victim to… the fever. A battle of wills ensues between Gibbs and a particularly aggressive slot machine, one that seems to literally call his name….

The casting is spot-on. Everett Sloane stars as Gibbs, who somehow creates an even more unpleasant character than Walter Ramsey, the CEO from hell in Serling's Patterns, a Kraft Television Theater script from 1956 (for which Sloane was nominated for an Emmy). Vivi Janiss is marvelous as Gibbs' eternally suffering wife, Flora. As for the third character in the story….

…well, it's the scariest one-armed bandit I've ever seen. I visited Las Vegas for the first time five years ago, and was disappointed to discover that there were no actual slot machines anywhere. Everything's computerized, with push buttons instead of those tactile pull-arms. It just ain't the same.

The Fever is written by Rod Serling, directed by Robert Florey, and shot by George T. Clemens. The music is a "stock score" affair (explained last week), but the majority of the music is derived from two different CBS Music Library pieces, one by Jerry Goldsmith, and another by Rene Garriguenc. Both suites were first released in 1984 by Varese Sarabande on the LP The Twilight Zone: Volume 4, under the titles "Jazz Theme One" and "Jazz Theme Two," respectively. Both appeared later on CD in 1999 as part of Silva's The Twilight Zone 40th Anniversary collection, but this time Garriguenc's piece was retitled "Jazz Theme Three" (apparently to accommodate a second jazz suite by Jerry Goldsmith, which did NOT appear on the original Varese Sarabande LP, but WAS included on the Japanese-only CD release of that album). For the record, the Garriguenc piece is called "Street Moods in Jazz," and would also be used in later TZ episodes such as "The Chaser" and "The Prime Mover."

The Fever isn't one of my favorites, but it's certainly worth a look. Even grade-B Zone is better than most TV. Christ, for that matter, even grade-D Zone is better than most TV. Make no mistake: The Twilight Zone did have its share of bad episodes ("turkeys," as Serling called them). But we'll get to those in due time, and thankfully not for a while….

Next week: A WWI pilot lands… well, someplace he never thought possible. Book a flight and check it out.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

TZ Newsflash: Gremlin Bobble-head Available for Pre-Order!

It's not coming till May, but it's available for pre-order now through Entertainment Earth. Go here for details.

Hopefully Jason and the Bif Bang Pow! gang won't mind me blatantly stealing their pics...

Friday, January 22, 2010

TZ Promo: “The Hitch-hiker” (1/22/1960)

I discovered old radio shows like Suspense and Inner Sanctum a few years before I discovered The Twilight Zone. I bought a few of them on cassette, and one of them was "The Hitch-hiker," an episode of Suspense from 1942 that starred Orson Welles as a man who, while traveling cross-country by car, is menaced the same ominous man hitch-hiking along the way. The radio script was written by Lucille Fletcher, wife of film and radio composer Bernard Herrmann, who contributed the musical score for the radio production (a nice bit of synergy that would be repeated, in a fashion, 18 years later; more on this below). Fletcher also wrote Suspense's most famous episode, "Sorry, Wrong Number."

Rod Serling's take on "The Hitch-hiker" changes the protagonist from male to female (the beautiful Inger Stevens is marvelous in the role), but otherwise remains very faithful to Fletcher's original tale. Alvin Ganzer's direction is superb (watch for the scene where our heroine almost gets the business end of a moving train), and the cinematography by George T. Clemens is appropriately dark and moody (the final scene is masterfully done).

Perhaps the most interesting component of the episode, however, is the underscore. "The Hitch-hiker" doesn't feature a composer credit; rather, it is "stock-scored" (i.e. scored using assorted cues from the CBS Music Library, often by multiple composers and without any perceptible unifying theme). At some point in time before The Twilight Zone debuted, Bernard Herrmann recorded a number of suites (collections of short cues) designed to be used and re-used in various CBS shows. Much of the music he contributed was actually recycled music he'd written years earlier for various radio shows. And, delightfully (as these things tend to delight people like me), some of his original "Hitch-hiker" radio score appears in the TZ adaptation! This brilliant touch elevates an already-great episode to sheer excellence. Needless to say, it's one of my top ten favorite episodes of all time.

Bernard Herrmann

Herrmann's score (well, five out of nine total cues) was released on the 1983 vinyl LP The Outer Space Suite from Cerberus Records (which is obviously way out of print). Those same five cues were later released on CD in 1999 on the 4-disc Twilight Zone 40th Anniversary collection (which, as far as I know, is still in print and easily obtained).

Incidentally, Suspense wasn't the only radio program to produce "The Hitch-hiker." It was first done by Campbell Playhouse in 1941, and later in 1946 by Mercury Summer Theater. Orson Welles starred in all three. The Suspense version can be found here.

Who exactly is the hitch-hiker? I won't give it away, but if you see him on the side of the road…. Man, keep on driving. Don't stop.

Next week's episode features a battle of wills between a cranky man in a Las Vegas casino and a most insistent slot machine. Take a gamble on it, won't you?

Friday, January 15, 2010

TZ Promo: “I Shot an Arrow into the Air” (1/15/1960)

Tonight's Twilight Zone installment serves as an interesting counterpoint to last week's episode. In "Third from the Sun," the characters fled one planet (which we assumed was Earth) for another (which in fact WAS Earth, zing!). In "I Shot an Arrow into the Air," the characters think they've left one planet (which is Earth) and crash-landed onto another (which in fact IS…. okay, I'll stop just short of spoiling it, but really, it's not really much of a surprise). The two episodes are nice variations on the same basic theme, and I wonder at this late date if they were scheduled back-to-back intentionally.

The dubious surprise ending isn't really the episode's strength, though. It's got a well-written teleplay by Rod Serling, based on an idea by Madelon Champion, with some nice visual flair courtesy of director Stuart Rosenberg and DOP George T. Clemens (welcome back, George, from wherever you were last week). The acting is top notch: Edward Binns is the weary old space dog, and Dewey Martin is his brash young subordinate. The conflict is convincing and immediate: they're in a desert-like environment with precious little water, which lays some prime groundwork for the disintegration of the chain of command. Fifty years after its premiere, the episode still crackles with intensity. It didn't quite make my Top 40 back in November, but it was close.

Death Valley makes its second appearance on the series, this time playing the so-called asteroid that our heroes think they've crashed into (I wonder if their mission was to deliver supplies to James Corey…?). It's gorgeous to look at, but it's likely to make you thirsty. Have a cold bottle of water handy.

Next week: A true Twilight Zone classic, and one of my top ten favorite episodes of all time. Thumb a ride if you have to, but don't miss it.

Friday, January 8, 2010

TZ Promo: "Third From the Sun" (1/08/1960)

The title pretty much gives it away. However, when I was young (like 12 or 13) and viewing the episode for the first time, I totally didn't see it coming.

Fifty years after its original broadcast, "Third From the Sun" still manages to be completely entertaining, despite what amounts to an obvious surprise ending. Fritz Weaver, Joe Maross, and Edward Andrews star (all three of them, incidentally, would appear in later TZ episodes) in an episode written by Rod Serling, based on a Richard Matheson short story (this time around, Serling is much more faithful to the source material than the last Matheson adaptation, detailed here). Richard L. Bare directs. The underscore is made up almost entirely of selections from Bernard Herrmann's "Outer Space Suite," a collection of musical cues which would be utilized in several future Twilight Zone episodes.

The episode features ingenious cinematography work from DOP Harry Wild, who fills the frame with odd angles and unconventional camera set-ups. This in and of itself is strange, since George T. Clemens was the DOP on almost every TZ episode throughout its five year run. I can't find anything documenting why Clemens didn't work on this episode... maybe he was sick that week? I dunno.

This episode also marks the first appearance of the flying saucer from Forbidden Planet. This particular prop would go on to appear in many Twilight Zone episodes, most notably season four's "Death Ship" (one of my all-time favorites).

Friday, January 1, 2010

TZ Promo: "The Four of Us Are Dying" (1/01/1960)

13 is a lucky number for The Twilight Zone, since its 13th episode, celebrating its 50th anniversary tonight, is a true classic. "The Four of Us Are Dying" originated as an unpublished short story by George Clayton Johnson called "All of Us Are Dying" (or "Rubberface," if you ask his agent at the time). As he often did when adapting an existing story, Serling chucked most of the story and kept only the core intact. Said core in this case is a man with an uncanny ability to change his face at will. His name is Arch Hammer and, at various points in the episode, is played by Harry Townes, Ross Martin, Phillip Pine, and Don Gordon (all of whom would pop up again in future episodes). John Brahm directs, and Jerry Goldsmith contributes an excellent jazz score, the first of many fine scores he'd compose for the series.

Incidentally, Johnson's unpublished (at the time) original story was finally published in the May 1982 issue of Twilight Zone Magazine, alongside Serling's teleplay.