Friday, February 28, 2014

Episode Spotlight: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (2/28/1964)




Season 5, Episode 22 (142 overall)
Originally aired 2/28/1964
Cayuga Production # (N/A)


Fifty years ago tonight, as it stumbled awkwardly toward its disappointing end, The Twilight Zone pitched a 7th-inning curve ball and brought a healthy dose of art house cinema to the masses. No, they didn't rerun “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.”


In 1962, Robert Enrico's La Rivière du Hibou (The Owl River), a French adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” won first prize for Best Short Subject at the Cannes Film Festival. A year or so later, The Twilight Zone was finishing up its fifth season, over budget and one episode short of its network order. Producing that 36th episode would put the show even further into the red.

Sounds like the ingredients for a fascinating collision, no?


Cayuga Productions purchased the US television rights to the film for a paltry $20,000.00, and aired it as a special episode of The Twilight Zone fifty years ago tonight. The film subsequently won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film for 1963, mere weeks after it aired. The agreement only covered one broadcast and one repeat (which occurred on 9/11/64), which prevented its inclusion in the syndication package, making “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” one of the legendary “Lost Five” episodes.

While you won't find "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" on TV, it’s easily tracked down on DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix and Hulu (as of this writing). It can also be found in its original, unedited (and un-TZified) form on a region 2 DVD (which also includes two other short films directed by Robert Enrico from Ambrose Bierce stories). I have a multi-region player, so yes, I own the DVD. 














So what’s the difference between the two versions? Mostly cosmetic stuff: a couple of minutes were shaved off to meet the strict 25-minute length requirement of American television, but honestly, nothing important was lost (the film meanders some, so tightening it up actually improves it). And since it wasn’t made for TV, there’s no commercial break in the original. And of course there’s no Twilight Zone opening titles or end credits, and no Rod Serling narration. Oh, and the original doesn't have any tubes of Crest hovering around in the end credits (damn you, product placement!). Otherwise… they’re essentially the same. It’s not like a Blade Runner situation with dramatically different cuts that alter the story. Short and sweet: you aren’t missing anything if you never see the original. And frankly, the improved picture you get with the TZ version on Blu-ray is pretty substantial.




I first saw the film in middle school, projected in 8mm, shortly after discovering The Twilight Zone. I’d already bought Zicree’s book and practically memorized it, so I was aware that there were five episodes that I might never get to see. Therefore, when my English teacher started that projector, I was extra attentive.

Fast forward to high school: I was hanging out at the mall one day (which is pretty much what you did if you were a teen in the late-80’s), and I was rooting through a bin of clearance VHS tapes at Sam Goody. I saw the face of my idol, Rod Serling, staring out at me from that bin. I snatched the tape up.


I’d never heard of Kids Klassics before, but they were aces in my book, for they’d released the Twilight Zone version of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” something I thought I'd never see, and it was about to be mine. I hurried to the checkout line, in case the hallucination might wear off. I enjoyed the hell out of that tape (it contained Serling’s “next week” promo for “Queen of the Nile”; I never knew that those even existed, since I’d only seen the series in hacked-up form in syndication). Three or four years later, the episode appeared on VHS in a legitimate form: it was part of the two-tape Treasures of The Twilight Zone (which also featured another previously-unattainable Lost Five episode, “The Encounter”). Later still, the episode showed up in two different DVD incarnations and, more recently, Blu-ray.


THE MUSIC

There’s not much underscore to be found in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” outside of the some free jazz-style drumming that underlines the protagonist's frantic flight back toward home. The real musical heart of the film lies in the song “Live Livin' Man,” which we first hear when the protagonist first resurfaces after plummeting from the bridge (fragments of the song appear here and there throughout the rest of the film). Here’s my attempt to reconstruct the pieces into one song:

video

FAMILIAR FACES

Robert Jacquet as Payton Fahrquar.
None. It’s a French film, kids. Nobody in it showed up on other Twilight Zones. I dunno, though, fans of classic French cinema might see somebody they recognize. I tend toward Kurosawa and Bergman myself, but I do love me some Jean Cocteau (particularly Orpheus).












In or around 1993 I made a short film called “Welcome to Nowhere," a modern variation on the Bierce story. It centered on a disabled vet who, under some extraordinary circumstance, regains the use of his legs in a moment of crisis… or does he?  I wrote, directed and starred in it, my (then) wife Lisa did most of the shooting, and my uncle Greg had a cameo as an evil clown (is there any other kind?).  I actually contacted CBS to get permission to use various TZ music cues, but was denied (more to the point, I couldn't afford what they were asking). I ended up using a couple anyway (from Jerry Goldsmith’s “Back There” and “The Invaders”). I entered the finished film in an annual amateur filmmakers contest put on by Sony. I didn’t win.

WELCOME TO NOWHERE (2 OR 3 MORE SCREEN CAPS)

The short reeks of amateur bullshit, and I'm certainly not proud of it, but you know what? Fuck it. Is this is My Life in the Shadow of The Twilight Zone, or isn’t it? I’ve lamented in the past that I haven’t invested enough personal stuff into this blog. So here you go. It’s kind of a slog, but it’s got a couple of good moments. And damn, I had such thick hair back then.

VIDEO – WELCOME TO NOWHERE

Well kids, I tried. I dug through box after box after box in my storage until, and could not for the life of me find the goddamned tape. I couldn't even find my raw 8mm footage, which would have at least provided some screen caps. I found literally every other video project I've ever worked on, but "Welcome to Nowhere" eluded me. If I'm able to track it down between now and the end of this blog, I'll certainly post it.






It’s hard to judge “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” against the rest of the series, since it’s not technically a Twilight Zone episode. Taken on its own terms, it’s an excellent rendering of a classic tale, an all-around gorgeous package. Actual TZ or not, it’s a definite high point of the show’s fifth and final season.





Next week:
Lee Phillips falls victim to a pyramid scheme. MeSphinx he’ll get his asp kicked.





Friday, February 21, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Spur of the Moment" (2/21/1964)




Season 5, Episode 21 (141 overall)
Originally aired 2/21/1964
Cayuga Production # 2608


Young Anne Henderson is out for a relaxing horseback ride on her family’s sprawling Southern estate. Atop a hill, an ominous figure appears, also on horseback, clad in black and, with a blood-chilling shriek, tears down the hillside on an intercept course. Anne, naturally frightened, heads hurriedly for home. An exciting prologue, right? Who is this mysterious harbinger of doom? Is it a vicious demon? A vindictive ghost? Or maybe our old friend “The Hitch-hiker,” now traveling by horse instead of thumbing rides?




Viewers fifty years ago tonight quickly realized that it was none of those things. Thanks to a questionable (or, more to the point, stupid) directorial choice, we see the identity of Anne’s pursuer immediately. It’s herself, older and apparently really pissed off. 


Young Anne is about to marry Robert Blake, who has a bright future ahead of him and whom her parents approve of. However, her heartstrings are being seriously tugged on by no-good loafer David Mitchell, who implores her to run away with him, much to everyone’s chagrin.  

Meanwhile, 25 years in the future, the Henderson mansion is in a state of advanced disrepair and is about to be foreclosed upon. Nursing a stiff drink, Anne blames her dead father for spoiling her when she was young, which led to her choosing the wrong man. David enters, drunkenly taunting her. She flees the house, mounts her horse, and rides to the hilltop… and looks down at her younger self. She races down the hill and gives chase in what will be, as it always is, a futile pursuit.



Exceedingly melodramatic and painfully soapy, Richard Matheson's “Spur of the Moment” isn’t one of season five’s better offerings. Young Anne is excruciatingly annoying, a drama queen clearly desperate for attention. Future Anne is abrasive and bitter, blaming her shitty life on the fact that her father spoiled her as a child. Um, seriously? Marrying David was a bad choice, and maybe it happened partially because of her spoiled-child-rebellion-phase, but what’s prevented her from divorcing him at some point in the 25 years that he’s been making her life miserable? It’s her that’s opted to stay with his sorry ass, not her deceased father.

We only know the woman in black’s identity because the camera pans in for a close shot of her face, yet somehow Anne can see her “glaring” at her from the top of the hill (which would be impossible from that far away). By the same token, Future Anne couldn't possibly recognize her younger self from that distance; however, it’s more puzzling why she’d assume it’s her younger self at all (we know it’s The Twilight Zone, but she doesn’t).




Nitpicking aside, what exactly is happening here? Future Anne sees her young self… how, exactly? Is it the power of her own unhappiness, creating a kink in space and time, allowing her the opportunity to influence her younger self? I could buy it if it were a single event, in which she tries but fails to change the past, reinforcing the permanence of the past… but Anne indicates that she’s seen her younger self repeatedly, and does so again at the end of the episode. The opening scene is replayed, so apparently Future Anne’s created herself a time loop of sorts. She can apparently revisit this moment in her past as often as she likes, but she’ll never successfully get her younger self’s attention to sufficiently warn her away from marrying David…. but y’now, this is problematic too. She could easily opt to NOT scream like a banshee, and instead calmly descend the hill. Or maybe somehow, once they both occupy the same space, everything is locked into place, and Future Anne is helpless to change it. I dunno. We've seen characters interact with themselves before (“Nervous Man  In a Four-Dollar Room”; “The Last Night of a Jockey”), but here the Annes never actually get that opportunity, the maddening frustration of which is the whole point, I imagine.

Anne and Yang.


As repellent as both Annes are, the episode isn’t exactly a total loss. I suppose the production values are fine; I think this is the only time in the entire series that we see a full-on chase on horseback. The costuming choice to have Future Anne wearing all black and riding a black horse (symbolizing the darkness of her life) and Young Anne wearing all white and riding a white horse (symbolizing her relative purity) is a nice touch, if a bit obvious. The juxtaposition of the Henderson mansion in the two different time periods (pristine in the family’s happier, richer days, run down and almost devoid of furniture in the dark future) is effective.


When Future Anne throws her drink at David before running off for yet another attempt to warn her younger self, David breaks down into drunken tears. Is it just me, or does he look just like Dan Duryea in “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”?


THE MUSIC


“Spur of the Moment” features an original score by Rene Garriguenc which, like all season five scores, has never enjoyed an official soundtrack release. You’ll find it, however, isolated on its own track on the season five DVD/blu-ray sets. The score is overly melodramatic; it sounds like accompaniment for silent films (where’s the mustache-twirling villain?). Like everything else here, it grates on my nerves.



FAMILIAR FACES

Diana Hyland (Anne Henderson) only has a smattering of genre roles on her resume, among them two Alfred Hitchcock Hours (“To Catch a Butterfly” And “Beyond the Sea of Death”) and two episodes of The Invaders (“Vikor” and the two-part “Summit Meeting”… I guess that’s technically three episodes). She’s probably best remembered for her work on TV’s Peyton Place (1968-69), which this soap-operatic episode certainly prepared her for.


That no-account rascal David Mitchell is played by Roger Davis in his only Twilight Zone appearance. He’d cross paths with Rod Serling again in 1972 on Night Gallery (“You Can Come Up Now, Mrs. Millikan”). Other notable genre credits include 128 episodes of Dark Shadows (1968-1970; more soapiness!) and the hilariously awful Galactica 1980 (“The Night the Cylons Landed”).


The reliable and upstanding Robert Blake is played by Robert Hogan, who also popped up on Serling’s Night Gallery (1971’s “Brenda," a thoroughly stupid segment about a lonely girl and the swamp monster that befriends her. Yes, you heard that right; incidentally, the teleplay was written by TZ producer Buck Houghton under a pseudonym... can't say I blame him). Ahem, back to business. Hogan was also a regular on Peyton Place, so that connects him to Diana Hyland.



As Mr. Henderson, this is Philip Ober’s only TZ appearance; however, he showed up on both of Alfred Hitchcock’s TV series (“Burglar Proof” on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and “I Saw the Whole Thing” on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) as well as his 1959 film North by Northwest. Mrs. Henderson is played by Marsha Hunt, who appeared on The Outer Limits just three weeks prior to “Spur of the Moment” (“ZZZZZ”). And finally, Reynolds (whom we only see from behind) is played by Jack Raine, who played an officer in season four’s “Passage on the Lady Anne.”




As you've probably gathered, I’m not a big fan of “Spur of the Moment.” Any story about time paradoxes has automatic potential in my book, but here the concept is hazily integrated and lazily developed. Toss in unlikable characters and… well, I check out pretty quickly. It’s not that I hate it, necessarily… I just don’t care. Your horse mileage, of course (of course) may vary.


Next week:
Mon Dieu! Le Twilight Zone passe en France!



Friday, February 14, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "From Agnes - With Love" (2/14/1964)




Season 5, Episode 20 (140 overall)
Originally aired 2/14/1964
Cayuga Production # 2629


50 years ago tonight, The Twilight Zone presented a love-themed tale for Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, it’s the equivalent of handing your sweetheart a box of shit instead of chocolates.


“From Agnes – With Love” starts somewhat promisingly: Agnes, the world’s most advanced supercomputer, is in complete disarray, and Fred Danziger, the programmer assigned to maintain her, has gone off the deep end. Fellow programmer and über-nerd James Elwood is called in to take charge of the situation. And it’s here, roughly 57 seconds in, that things go straight to hell in a painfully sharp vertical drop… unless you’re a big Wally Cox fan, that is. I am not. He is so horrendously annoying that, before the prologue ends, he’s already managed to displace James B.W. Bevis as the single most irritating character in the entire series.

OBNOXIOMETER™

Agnes begins coaching Elwood on wooing Millie, a coworker he’s crushing on. However, it becomes apparent very quickly (well, to us anyway) that Agnes is actively undermining his attempts by giving him bad advice. However, the oblivious and socially awkward Elwood somehow still manages to get Millie into his apartment, where she kills the lights and cuddles up to him… but of course he cluelessly fucks it up. Of course he does.





Agnes then instructs Elwood to introduce Millie to an “inferior” male in order to repair things. That “inferior” male is Walter Holmes, another programmer who would probably give Don Draper some serious competition in the bedding-all-the-ladies-in-the-office-pool department. Of course Millie immediately falls for him, and Elwood’s chances--- slim as they may have been--- are completely dashed. Of course they are.



“What did I ever do to you?” Elwood demands of Agnes, who reveals that there’s a better woman available to him: her! Elwood’s already-frazzled mind comes completely unhinged, forcing his supervisor to bring in yet another replacement: Walter Holmes. Repeat cycle ad infinitum.



“From Agnes – With Love” is the single worst episode of the fifth season. It’s not quite the worst of the entire series, but it resides squarely near the bottom of the barrel with other failures like “Mr. Bevis” and “Four O’clock.” It’s just awful. Stupid. Pointless. I could go on hurling negative adjectives at it for several paragraphs, but my goal is to waste as little time as I can on this (I’m already close to 400 words). 






So when we boil it all down, we have a supercomputer meddling in the lives of humans. Sound familiar? It should. We just saw this a few months ago in “The Old Man in the Cave.” I deemed that episode mediocre at best but, compared to this dreck, it suddenly looks like first season quality. 




Season five is peppered with man vs. technology stories beyond the two already mentioned. “Steel” and “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” are variations on this theme, as are (less obviously) “Uncle Simon” and “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” Five different writers are responsible for these six scripts, so it’s not a simple matter of Serling going overboard with the self-borrowing. It seems that, at least around Cayuga’s offices, man’s relative lack of control over his own technology was a very real concern. And it’s certainly a marvelous topic for exploration… it’s unfortunate that, more often than not, this potential is squandered by lazy, half-baked teleplays.


THE MUSIC



“From Agnes – With Love” inexplicably was deemed worthy of an original musical score, so Nathan Van Cleave was brought in. Van Cleave can usually be counted on for greatness (“Perchance to Dream”; “The Midnight Sun”), but there’s nothing of value here--- just more comedic crap along the lines of Fred Steiner’s “The Bard” or Van Cleave’s own “A Kind of a Stopwatch” from earlier this season. Like all fifth season original scores, it’s never had a soundtrack release; however, unlike most of them, it’s NOT available as an isolated track on the DVD and blu-ray releases (just like his “Black Leather Jackets” two weeks ago). This means the only way to listen to Van Cleave’s score (if you wanted to, that is) is to watch the episode. No thanks.


FAMILIAR FACES


An actor like Wally Cox isn’t likely to have much in the way of sci-fi/horror/fantasy on his résumé, but Cox actually surprises with stints on Lost in Space (“The Forbidden World”) and Kolchak: the Night Stalker (“The Night Strangler”). Cox would cross paths with Rod Serling again in 1971 on Night Gallery (“Junior”).







Ralph Taeger (Don Drap--- er, Walter Holmes) may have gotten this gig based on his past work with director Richard Donner, whose 1961 film X-15 he co-starred in (along with TZ alums Charles Bronson and James Gregory). If the lovely Sue Randall (here playing Millie) looks familiar, it’s because we met her in season one’s “And When the Sky Was Opened” (incidentally the episode I attribute to making me a lifelong fan) playing a nurse. Is she a TZ Babe? Why yes, I’d say so.



Elwood’s unnamed supervisor is played by three-time TZ alum Raymond Bailey (we saw him previously in season one’s “Escape Clause” and season two’s “Back There”). Bailey has another very dear connection for me: he had a minor role in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo (he played James Stewart’s doctor), which is my favorite film of all time. He also played doctors in 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (written by frequent TZ scribe Richard Matheson) and 1958’s The Space Children (which was scored by--- yup, Nathan Van Cleave).




Don Keefer returns for his third and final Twilight Zone appearance (he was the travel agent in season four’s “Passage on the Lady Anne” and, more famously, the ill-fated Dan Hollis in season three’s “It’s a Good Life”). But his TZ connection goes even further back: he had a minor role in “The Time Element,” a 1958 production on Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse that was written by Rod Serling and is considered by many to be The Twilight Zone’s true pilot.


Nan Peterson plays an unnamed secretary in her third and final TZ appearance (she played two similarly unnamed characters in season one’s “Walking Distance” and season two’s “The Whole Truth”). Incidentally, “From Agnes – With Love” was her final acting gig… maybe she was sick of going nameless. If it makes her feel any better, she qualifies as a TZ Babe with ease.



“From Agnes – With Love” is directed by Richard Donner (yes, that Richard Donner), who should’ve known better even this early in his impressive career (The Omen, Superman, and five other TZ episodes: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Sounds and Silences,” “The Jeopardy Room,” “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” and “Come Wander With Me,” all from this season).






With irredeemable crap like “From Agnes –With Love” being produced, even a diehard Twilight Zone fan like me is starting to look forward to the end. I get no pleasure out of saying that, but there you go. There are still a few decent efforts to come, but it’s mostly subpar from here on out. Gauge your expectations accordingly.



Next week:
Horseback chases! Time warps! Love triangles! Sounds awesome, right?  Um....