Friday, February 7, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Night Call" (2/07/1964)

Season 5, Episode 19 (139 overall)
Originally aired 2/07/1964
Cayuga Production # 2810

What if you could talk to your lost loved ones? Fifty years ago tonight, the dead reached out and touched the living… but unfortunately things didn't go well.

Miss Elva Keen is a crippled old woman who receives, quite out of the blue, several telephone calls in which the caller moans. Obscene calls? Maybe, but there’s no heavy breathing (which is something of a clue, actually). The moans change to two simple phrases: “Where are you?” and “I want to talk to you.”

The telephone company traces the problem to a set of downed telephone wires in the local cemetery. Elva has her housekeeper drive her out there, and is shocked to see the wires resting on the grave of Brian, the fiancé of her youth, who was killed in a car accident (Elva was driving and lost control of the car).

Elated at the prospect of talking with Brian once again, Elva tries to summon him through the telephone. He finally comes on the line: “You said to leave you alone. I always do what you say.” The line goes dead.

“Night Call” was written by Richard Matheson, based on his short story “Sorry, Right Number,” which was first published in 1953, then again in 1961 in Matheson’s short story collection Shock!  Here’s where things gets a bit weird. “Night Call” is similar to the season two episode “Long Distance Call” (which also depicts the dead placing telephone calls to the living), which originated with a script by William Idelson, one of Matheson’s friends. It was Matheson’s championing that led to Cayuga Productions buying it, and the resultant episode was broadcast in 1961, the same year that Matheson’s short story was republished under a different title: “Long Distance Call.”

The upward shot of the telephone wires stretching down to Brian’s grave is very effective; in fact, the entire cemetery sequence, brief though it is, is the best scene in the entire episode. The prologue, in which Elva receives the first mysterious call, is quite atmospheric and effective (it’s your basic “dark and stormy night” intro). Unfortunately, the bulk of the episode takes place in broad daylight, so there’s not a lot visually to sustain the moody dread that the script aspires to. At the helm is Jacques Tourneur, director of the noirish horror classics I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People (as well as 1947’s Out of the Past, widely considered one of the greatest film noirs ever made), so the relative dearth of shadowy ominousness is something of a disappointment.

So where (and what) is Brian, exactly? Is he a reanimated corpse, communicating through unknown means through six feet of earth and into the frayed telephone line? Or is he is a damned soul, suffering in his own right, torturing the living as his only means of relief?

I’ve never been a big fan of this episode. For me, there’s too little going on with too little payoff. So Brian starts calling Elva from beyond the grave, wanting to chat…. however, he never identifies himself and spends most of the time moaning unintelligibly. When she (understandably) freaks out and demands to be left alone, he bows out in a pretty severe example of passive aggression. Okay, yeah, she’s responsible for killing him all those years ago, but she’s spent most of her life a cripple because of it. Does she really deserve this on top of it? Nay, I say. What if instead she apologized profusely for the accident, and he forgave her, leading to many lively talks throughout whatever remains of Elva’s life? Wouldn't that be more in line with The Twilight Zone’s sensibilities? 

Honestly, “Night Call” would work better as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in which the whole thing turns out to be an elaborate ruse by the housekeeper, Margaret, to drive Elva crazy for some reason or other.


And speaking of Hitchcock, the entire cast (all three of ‘em) is made up of Hitch veterans…

Gladys Cooper is convincingly lonely and bitter as Miss Elva Keene in her third and final TZ appearance (she previously graved season three’s “Nothing in the Dark” and season four’s “Passage on the Lady Anne”); she also put in a single appearance on The Outer Limits (“The Borderland”). She did one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The End of Indian Summer”), two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Consider Her Ways” and “What Really Happened”), plus she appeared in Hitchcock’s 1941 film Rebecca.

Nora Marlowe plays Margaret Phillips in her second TZ appearance (she was also seen in season two’s “Back There”). Over on The Outer Limits, she memorably had her heart fatally stopped by the super-evolved Gwyllm Griffiths in “The Sixth Finger.” She did one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“I Killed the Count: Part 3”) and one Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“The Landlady”); she also played an uncredited housekeeper in 1959’s North by Northwest.

Miss Finch (the telephone operator) is played by Martine Bartlett, who appeared twice on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“The Star Juror” and “Nothing Ever Happens in Linvale”).

“Night Call” is by no means awful (something I can’t say about next week’s episode), but it’s not one of the better season five offerings. Like so many episodes in this final stretch, the moral center is skewed, uncomfortably so. It doesn’t feel much like The Twilight Zone around here anymore....

Next week:
All bets are off! "Mr. Bevis" isn't the most annoying Twilight Zone character anymore.


Bill Huelbig said...

I'm with you about Elva not deserving what happens at the end. She's certainly done enough penance for what she did. I like your alternate scenario much better. I still like the episode very much, especially because Gladys Cooper is in it. She brings undeniable class to anything she appears in. If you haven't already seen it, look for her in "The Song of Bernadette" (1943). She got an Oscar nomination for playing the most terrifying nun ever seen on the screen.

Anonymous said...

Imagining elva and Brian's phone chats...

ishkanei said...

I have to disagree about the disposition of Elva's fate. It seems to me the point of the episode is Elva's unreasonable obstinance and unwillingness to take others into account as a chosen way of life, and what that choice got her when she finally had the rare chance to transcend same. Essentially, her behavior in light of the phone call reflected no significant change in her heart since the accident that left her paralyzed and without her true love, who she had never properly valued until too late. And so once again, for her, even with this second chance, her change of heart comes too late. It reflects the general truth that sometimes things simply cannot be made up for by way of "seeing the light". Some things in life (or here, I suppose, in death as well) are, so to speak, time-sensitive, and once gone, whatever the intention, remorse, or what-have-you, the opportunity can't be brought back. (How many of us have seen or personally known that?) The pathos (I think I use the word properly, but if not, I'm sure I will hear about it) of her tragedy is double, as she lost (another's) life and (her) limb once, then in the twilight of life lost the former again, and over what could be labeled a "silly misunderstanding" on her part. One she herself set in motion, however inadvertently. I agree it would be nice if they could get together in her twilight years and all would be forgiven, but it seems that she was at heart not that kind of person, and so the loss of a 2nd chance is to be her portion. Such, apparently, may be the penalty imposed by the cosmos when the heart moves insufficient to what circumstance requires.

ishkanei said...

I had meant to add how glad I was to see "Night Call" added to the list, as it wasn't there the last time I visited the site (a year or two ago, I think it was).

Anonymous said...

Take a drink every time someone says Miss Kene!

Kathy Martell said...

My favorite episode. Enjoy every minute. To me it's perfection.