Thursday, January 24, 2013

TZ Promo: "He's Alive" (1/24/1963)

Season 4, Episode 4 (#106 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4856
Originally aired January 24, 1963

50 years ago tonight, a Neo-Nazi on the rise found a surprise ally straight from the bloody pages of history.

Spoiler alert:  It’s Adolf Fucking Hitler.

We've seen Hitler before on The Twilight Zone (season two’s “The Man in the Bottle;" plus we’ll get a glimpse of him later this season in “No Time Like the Past," in the cross-hairs where he belongs), but this is the one and only time that he is a tangible character with influence over the proceedings.  He’s not revealed as such until the third act, but his identity is immediately apparent to us… not so much to our angry but slow-witted protagonist.

Peter Vollmer (well-played by Dennis Hopper) is an angry young man with a racist bent and a thirst for power in Rod Serling's "He's Alive." He’s the head of a motley gang of four Neo-Nazis who pontificate on street corners about racial purity. In the episode’s prologue, we observe him being ridiculed by a mob and taunted by a police officer, and we can’t help but smile (I’d be at the front of that line, hurling tomatoes at him). Then, act one finds him whimpering like a sad puppy at the doorstep of Ernst, his long-suffering de facto father figure, and we suddenly wonder if perhaps we judged him too harshly too quickly.  Instead of kicking him in the teeth, Ernst offers him a glass of wine (Manischewitz?) and a bed for the night. Then we find out that Ernst is a Jewish holocaust survivor.  Wait, what?

That’s right:  this bigoted malcontent’s only friend in the world is a Jew, which represents a gigantic conflict of interests for him (there’s an understatement!).  I’m sure Serling did this to apply some multi-dimensionality to Vollmer’s otherwise superficial character, but frankly it’s confusing, and it essentially ruins the Ernst character’s credibility (who by default would’ve been the hero of the episode) by begging the all-important question:  WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK, MAN?  What kind of man, Jew or otherwise, would suffer this weasel’s bullshit?  I dunno, maybe Ernst is supposed to represent some kind of Christ figure.  Wait, that might piss off a few people.  Ah well.

The only way to embrace this contradiction and move forward is to view Vollmer as a troubled and disturbed man-child who is primarily motivated by a pathological need for attention, versus an educated racist with at least a semi-coherent (if severely skewed) world view.  If Vollmer is nothing more than a crazy mixed-up kid, then Ernst’s sympathy is at least acceptable, if not entirely understandable.  Okay, let’s give Serling the benefit of the doubt and go with that.

So next we find Vollmer lying in the dark, restless and morose.  We cut to a close shot of his eyes, where we spy tiny little swastikas superimposed over his eyeballs.  It’s at time stamp 14:21; blink and you’ll miss it (Marc Scott Zicree obviously did, since he reports in his Twilight Zone Companion that the shot was filmed but not used; do your goddamned homework, MSZ!).  The effect is neat (if a bit gimmicky), but ultimately pointless since it couldn't possibly have been visible on the primitive TV sets found in 1963.

Vollmer’s self-pity party is interrupted by a shadowy presence outside. He identifies himself only as “a friend,” and starts giving Vollmer pointers on effective public speaking (eat your heart out, Dale Carnegie!).  Vollmer takes his advice and BOOM! His popularity around town skyrockets (evidently this particular neighborhood has a high racist count).  Vollmer’s shadowy adviser suggests that one of his gang should probably be martyred to strengthen the cause, prompting a murder and ensuring that Vollmer’s house of cards will soon be bulldozed.

Be on the lookout for a really unsettling visual early in the episode.  At the end of the prologue, where we find Vollmer crying behind a dumpster, we dissolve to the usual shot of Serling delivering his opening narration.  I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but their faces line up perfectly, so for a split second, we get a Serling-Hopper hybrid that’s frankly bizarre to behold.  Ah, the power of the pause button!

I’m not a big fan of this episode.  I think that’s probably already at least somewhat evident.  But there must be something good here, right? Well, sure. I do enjoy Hitler’s expressive hands, which jut out from his shadowy form like weapons. It’s actually kind of hypnotic, the way he punctuates each point with an aggressive gesture.  It’s fun to watch.  

In fact, the whole episode is shot well enough, with plenty of shadows.  There’s definitely a noirish vibe herein, particularly at the end when a fleeing Vollmer is, um, stopped by the authorities in a back alley (spoiler proximity alert!).  How many film noirs end with this exact scene?

Stop or I'll --- aw, fuck it.  BLAM!

Ugh! I'm hit!

I'm a goner, Ma. *sniff*

Unfortunately, there’s not much here for me past the visuals. Serling’s character and plot choices just wreck the story for me. It occurs to me that, had Serling plotted things differently, the results could have been immensely more satisfying.  I’ve come up with three different plot deviations…

1. Hitler is actually Vollmer’s alternate personality, a la Fight Club.

2. Eliminate the Ernst character altogether; instead, give Vollmer a good-hearted girlfriend who tries to woo him away from his misguided cause.  Vollmer tries to bow out, but is stopped by his subordinate Frank, who shoots him.  As he lays there dying, the shadowy advisor appears, reveals himself as Hitler, and reveals that he’s also been advising Frank.  Vollmer is weak, like the murdered Nick before him, and will better serve the cause as another martyr.

3. Hitler isn’t just a ghost:  he’s an immortal evil entity (perhaps the devil himself) and Hitler is only one of the many forms he has taken on over the centuries.  I personally like this one the best; however, season four already has two devil episodes (“Printer’s Devil” and “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville”).  

Ultimately, “He’s Alive” doesn’t amount to much more than another holier-than-thou sermon from Serling.  I don’t mind a good sermon now and then, but this particular message comes dangerously close to insulting my intelligence.  Hatred is evil. Racism is evil. Hitler is evil.  Evil can only lead to destruction in the end.  Well, duh.

Next week:  Ann Jillian keeps her lips zipped.


Spindoc1000 said...

Some people really love this episode, but I think you nailed it.

Mike Imprixis said...

Looking at this from 2017, you wonder if the "duh" factor still plays a part, considering the political climate. I remember watching this episode as a kid in the late 80s/early 90s and thinking it was so far fetched. . . who'd listen to Hitler after WWII? It doesn't seem so far fetched now, does it?

octobercountry said...

Your description of the main character as "...a troubled and disturbed man-child who is primarily motivated by a pathological need for attention" sounds horribly familiar in today's political scene. You don't happen to have ESP, do you?

octobercountry said...

This isn’t a “fun” episode, because the subject matter is unpleasant overall. And as such it isn’t one that I’m likely to re-watch very often. But I do think it’s an important episode, with a lot to say.

Yes, here Serling is at his most preachy; the message is laid out in a heavy-handed manner. But you know, sometimes a sermon just has to be heard.

And what impressed me the most as I was watching, is how point after point after point speaks very directly to what is happening in the US today, at the time I’m viewing this episode in 2018. I could swear that I’ve heard some of these precise same words/phrases in current political rallies. I would say that this story is even MORE relevant now than when it was first broadcast. And that thought is terrifying.