Thursday, May 1, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Encounter" (5/01/1964)

Season 5, Episode 31 (151 overall)
Originally aired 5/01/1964
Cayuga Production # 2640

Fifty years ago tonight, a restless ghost of a brutal war chose a hot summer day to rise up and exact its revenge.

“The Encounter” finds decorated WW2 vet Fenton getting plastered in his attic. Enter Arthur Takamuri, a young Japanese-American, who has heard Fenton might be looking for a gardener. Fenton hires him on the spot, then invites him up for a beer. Fenton commences needling Arthur with racial jabs, showing off a genuine Samurai sword he picked up off a dead Japanese soldier in Okinawa. He asks Arthur to translate the inscription on the blade, but Arthur claims he doesn’t know Japanese.

When Fenton leaves for a moment to get more beer, Arthur picks up the sword and is immediately transfixed by it, murmuring “I’m going to kill him.”

Fenton continues taunting Arthur, and things get progressively tenser. Arthur finds himself again mesmerized by the sword and menaces Fenton with it. He comes to his senses, but is now aware that the sword belonged to a Japanese soldier who had surrendered; Fenton killed him in cold blood. Fenton doesn’t deny it, blaming his superiors for his actions (the hoary “only following orders” Nazi bullshit). Arthur tries to leave, but finds the attic door locked. Fenton is unable to open it, which is odd considering the fact that the door has no lock.

Arthur describes his childhood in Hawaii, where his father tried to warn US soldiers of the imminent Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (shades of Serling’s “The Time Element”!); he then breaks down and admits that his father actually helped the Japanese. Fenton then reveals that he’s lost both his wife and his job in the past week due to his drinking problem, and he’s lost the will to live. He goads Arthur --- whose real name is Taro --- to kill him with the sword. They struggle, and Arthur ends up impaled on the sword… quite dead.

Taro takes up the sword, cries “Banzai!” and leaps through a window, presumably to his death. The episode ends with the attic door swinging gently open.

“The Encounter” is the fifth and final Twilight Zone episode that wasn’t included in the series’ syndication package (along with “Miniature,” “A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain,” “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” and “Sounds and Silences”). Accounts differ, but it’s been suggested that the idea that a Japanese-American citizen colluding with the enemy may have offended some viewers. I’m not going to dwell on this, except to say that it’s a work of fiction, for Christ’s sake. In any case, the episode was aired once and then cooled its heels in a vault someplace until it was released as part of the Treasures of The Twilight Zone VHS set around 1992 or so and, since then, it’s been included in every single home video release (Columbia House VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Hulu, Netflix, etc.). As far as I know, it still isn’t aired on TV though.

“The Encounter” was written by Martin M. Goldsmith, who also contributed “What’s in the Box” back in March. This one certainly feels more like Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, with its tense meditation on war and guilt. The dialogue is frequently riveting, certainly on par (or at least close) to similar work by Rod Serling. I think the problem for me lies in the ultimate fate of Taro, which I’ll talk about in a bit. In the director’s chair is Robert Butler, who also directed the terrible “Caesar and Me” just a few weeks ago; “The Encounter” is an opportunity for some atonement, and Butler makes good use of it. The attic setting is sufficiently claustrophobic without interfering with or distracting from the drama.

A taut script is one thing, but the episode’s success ultimately hinges on the performances; happily, both Neville Brand and George Takei are excellent (Takei in particular; watch the subtle change in his expression and demeanor whenever the sword casts its spell on him; not to mention his feverish reliving of the attack on Pearl Harbor, complete with his own sound effects).

The supernatural element in “The Encounter” is pretty subtle, so I suppose interpretations may vary. Here’s how I see it: the soul of the dead Japanese soldier couldn’t find rest until it avenged itself. Fenton tells Taro that his repeated attempts to get rid of the sword have inexplicably failed; the damn thing always somehow comes back to him. I believe the sword is a conduit from the spirit world to the real world, and when Taro --- who harbors guilt over his father’s treasonous actions --- touches it, that restless spirit is able to connect directly with him, at least partially controlling his actions.

I think we can all agree that Fenton is a racist pig who deserves to die (and his falling upon the sword of his victim is certainly fitting). However, Taro isn’t guilty of anything, and certainly doesn’t deserve his fate. I’m pretty sure The Twilight Zone’s cosmic justice roster doesn’t include a “sins of the father” qualifier; but then, this late in the series, the moral compass is spinning wildly out of control.


Fenton uses a can opener (actually a can piercer, sometimes called a “church key”) to open the cans of Quality Beer™ that he and Taro enjoy, and we can plainly see that the labels are upright. We then cut to closer shots of each, and both of them are now holding the cans upside down. It gets goofier: we see both of them take a drink, and on both cans, the bottoms (actually the tops, since they're upside-down) have pull-tabs on them. 

Pull-tabs were pretty much standard by 1964 so, ignoring the obvious blooper, why was it necessary to have Fenton use an opener at all? I dunno, maybe it plays into an old-school-is-cool life ethic, like using a refillable Zippo Lighter instead of a disposable Bic (guilty), or collecting vinyl records instead of buying digital songs on iTunes (guilty). Fenton grew up using a church key, so by god, he’s gonna keep right on doing it that way.


In several shots, we can see empty cans strewn about that have the pull-top pulled. My head hurts now.

“The Encounter” is stock-scored with pre-existing cues in the CBS Music Library. Recognizable bits include extracts from season two’s “King Nine Will Not Return” (Fred Steiner), season one’s “The Big Tall Wish” (Jerry Goldsmith), and Bernard Herrmann’s score for “The Moat Farm Murder,” a Mercury Summer Theater radio production from 1946. 

Tak Shindo’s intriguing and lovely In a Japanese Temple is also sprinkled throughout for exotic flavor and, speaking of vinyl, I happen to have a Shindo LP in my collection (1959’s Brass and Bamboo). Shindo was the music supervisor for several episodes of CBS’s Gunsmoke for part of 1957; he may have recorded In a Japanese Temple during this time (which would explain how it became part of the CBS Music Library in the first place; my research didn’t turn up anything definitive). Anyway, this patchwork of musical odds and ends can be enjoyed in isolated form on the Blu-ray release of season five from Image Entertainment (but not the DVD; if you haven't upgraded yet... well, feel the wrath of my disapproving scowl).


Neville Brand (Fenton) had a long film and television career, so it’s rather surprising that The Twilight Zone is his only sci-fi/fantasy/horror credit. He did appear in several film noirs, however, among them D.O.A. (1950), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), and Kansas City Confidential (1952). Brand was a highly-decorated Army soldier in World War II (he received a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, among others), which is kinda eerie when you think about it (hopefully this gig didn’t bring up any bad memories for him).

Brand (left) with TZ alum Gary Merrill in Where the Sidewalk Ends.

George Takei (Taro) needs no introduction, as anyone with even a passing interest in sci-fi knows him as Lieutenant (and later Captain) Hikaru Sulu from Star Trek. Over the last five years or so, Takei has developed a formidable online presence across multiple social networking platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and has emerged as one of the internet’s foremost proponents of gay rights (and human rights in general). I just love the guy. I should also note that he participates in a commentary track on the Blu-ray with director Robert Butler, which is moderated by my nemesis, Marc Scott Zicree.

"The Encounter" is a true gem, easily my favorite of the "Lost Five." The conflict is real and raw, and the performances are excellent.

Now that the “Lost Five” have been revealed, we have another quintet to deal with: The LAST Five. That’s right, kids, you can count the remaining episodes on one hand. The end isn't just in sight... it's racing up to meet us.

Next week:
A modern day Lazarus tries to con some rural types out of their cash.


Scott Stevenson said...

Hi Craig.
I absolutely loved your "Beer Can Conundrum" analysis.
How you picked up all of those bloopers is a testament to your eagle eye vision.
Anyway, do you know where I can snag me a six pack of "Quality Beer"?
I hope it is just as crisp and refreshing as Genesee Beer (Rod Serling insider joke HA HA).

Craig Beam said...

My research turned up zilch on the Quality Beer (and yeah, I was a bit disappointed). I wouldn't call Genessee "crisp" or "refreshing," but I imagine the choices were pretty limited back then (as opposed to the embarrassment of hoppy riches we enjoy today).

Anonymous said...

"The Encounter" remained an enigma while I was at Ithaca College working with the Serling Archives (up to 1981). Some time after I graduated I heard that Mrs Serling was able to request a print from CBS; they sent it under the condition it never be publicly shown.

In 1990 I found an "undergound" source who sold a copy of the episode as aired in Canada. Still have that Beta tape despite the official release a couple years later.

A curiosity - can't track it down at the moment, but I did have a TV Guide listing indicating this show would be aired in syndication on WSBK, Boston sometime in the 1990s (?). Unfortunately, a hockey game airing just prior ran over, so I'll nvere know whether they had the show or it was a mis-listing.

All best - from the home of Genesee Beer -
David Jessup