Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Key of Imagination

I finally got around to watching an episode of The Twilight Zone that I recorded during the annual New Year’s cable marathon.

I’ve seen just about every episode of this classic series—many of them several times over--but there was one in particular that I wanted to watch again.

Entitled “Where is Everybody?” it is actually the show’s pilot, which was broadcast on October 2, 1959. It stars Earl Holliman as a man who is stranded in a deserted town with no memory of who he is or how he got there.

The man, who is wearing an air force flight suit, is slowly going crazy as he desperately searches for other human beings. If you’ve ever felt lost and alone in your life this story will probably touch a nerve.

In the end—spoiler alert!—it turns out that the guy is an astronaut training for a mission to the moon and has been hallucinating after 20-plus days of isolation.

"The barrier of loneliness — that's the one thing we haven't licked yet," the astronaut’s commanding officer says at the end.

The episode was written by Rod Serling, the show’s creator, and directed brilliantly by Robert Stevens, who won an Emmy for his work on the Alfred Hitchcock shows.

Stevens does incredible things in this episode and another one called “Walking Distance,” where Gig Young plays Martin Sloan, a harried advertising executive who returns to his hometown and winds up going back in time to meet the childhood version of himself.

The encounter is a disaster as Sloan chases the young Martin around a carousel, trying to tell the boy to enjoy his youth while he still can. And although this is very good advice, the kid is naturally terrified.

(A very young Ron Howard shows up briefly in this show, long before he was Opie, Richie Cunningham, and the director of The Da Vinci Code.)

Sloan tries telling his parents who he is and they think he’s nuts. His father does not believe him until he comes upon Sloan’s wallet late in the program and finds his identification. He tells his son to let go of the past, which is another good piece of advice.

“You’ve been looking behind you, Martin,” he says. “Try looking ahead.”

In both of these episodes, Stevens make extraordinary use of confined spaces and angled shots.

There’s a scene in “Where is Everybody?” when Holliman goes into a phone booth trying to call for help that feels so constrained it can bring on a case of claustrophobia.

When the young astronaut comes charging out of an empty movie theater, Stevens tilts the camera a few degrees and that’s all you need to feel the hero’s fear and confusion.

Stevens does a similar thing in “Walking Distance,” where the carousel ride turns into a nightmare. No special effects, no CGI, no huge budgets, just good filmmaking.

I looked up Robert Stevens on and found that he was a veteran TV director, working on Playhouse 90, G.E. True Theater, and a public TV series that ran in 1977 called The Best of Families, which I watched with my family.

He also directed films, including Never Love a Stranger in 1958 and a 1969 movie called Change of Mind, the story of a white man whose brain is transplanted into a black man’s body. I remember when this picture came out, though I never saw it.

In reading Robert Stevens’ biography, I was shocked to see that he died from cardiac arrest in 1989 after being robbed and beaten at a rented home in Westport, CT. I couldn’t believe that such a talented man died in such a terrible, violent way.

I’ve been trying to find out more details about this incident, but I haven’t come up with much. So I just want to pay my respects to a TV pioneer who helped navigate us through The Twilight Zone.


Ron said...

Thank you so much for sharing this great tribute to The Twilight Zone, which happened to be one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid. And I remember the episode about the astronaut very well!

I also enjoyed The Outer Limits!

Rob K said...

Oh, yes, The Outer Limits! I loved that show. "There is nothing wrong with your television..."

tattytiara said...

I recently bought a dvd of Twilight Zone episodes when I discovered that Shelley Berman, a childhood idol of mine, had starred in an episode. That show has stood the test of time brilliantly. As close to timeless as it comes.