Posted in Television

The Twilight Zone

rod_serling
Rod Serling

For a TV show that initially lasted only five seasons, it’s sure had an outsized impact on our entertainment and culture. To this day, if someone is referred to as “living in the Twilight Zone,” we know he’s really out there. In fact, the words aren’t even necessary—just hum four bars of the show’s theme, composed by Marius Constant, and your listeners will know exactly what you mean.

I was a regular viewer of “The Twilight Zone” when it originally aired from 1959 to 1964. Even though I was in grade school, my parents let me stay up late on Friday nights to watch it. Sometimes this wasn’t such a great idea for an 8 year-old—I can still remember how scared I was watching Kevin McCarthy molder away on his living room rug in “Long Live Walter Jameson,” after one of his ancient ex-wives shot him. And on a few occasions I just didn’t get the final twist, always the highlight of every TZ episode. I had no idea what the aerial shot of that globe and funny-looking tower meant at the end of “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” but I remember my mother exclaiming “They’re in 1939!” as she recognized the New York World’s Fair. But I loved the show. It was Adult TV, and it was fun to watch with the grown-ups (Now the pandered-to viewers are 18 and under, while the rest of us have to find our sanity on HBO or Showtime).

Some of the more famous “Twilight Zone” episodes are now overly familiar, like “Eye of the Beholder,” “Time Enough at Last,” “Nothing in the Dark” (with a gorgeous-beyond-belief Robert Redford) or “The Invaders”, but the majority hold up very well, at least as viewed on DVD (unfortunately the SyFy Channel marathons cut them to ribbons). One reservation: the hour-long episodes that aired during the show’s fourth season are not quite as good, in my opinion. TZ’s stock in trade was terse storytelling, ending with that final punch. “It’s a cookbook!” probably takes the prize in this category. “The Twilight Zone” was born for the half-hour slot it enjoyed for most of its run.

There are so many memorable TZ episodes that it’s difficult to come up with a list of favorites. I’m not particularly fond of Rod Serling’s moralistic stories, though I think “The Shelter” is still an interesting take on how ugly people can be in a life-threatening crisis. As a result my Top Twenty weighs more heavily on the side of fantasy, whether escapist or scary. In no particular order, they are:

“Walking Distance”—Gig Young in the performance of a lifetime, aided by Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score. You can’t go home again.

“A World of His Own”—Keenan Wynn makes Rod Serling disappear! “Why not leave well enough alone?” indeed.

“A Stop at Willoughby”—If I had to name my single favorite TZ episode, this would probably be it. A superb performance by James Daly, and not one word or scene wasted in telling the tale. Beautifully done.

“Long Live Walter Jameson”—If you live long enough, your past will do you in.

“It’s a Good Life”—That jack-in-the-box scared the bejesus out of me as a kid. Wish it into the cornfield, Anthony! With Cloris Leachman as his long-suffering mom.

“What You Need”—“Ah, but it’s what I need.” Just a terrific story.

“The Hunt”—Before he created “The Waltons,” Earl Hamner wrote a number of “Twilight Zone” episodes. This one, demonstrating that dogs are wiser than humans, is one of his best.

“The Odyssey of Flight 33”—I wonder if they ever made it all the way back?

“Nick of Time”—The dangers of trying to learn your future. That devil-head is pretty freaky.

“The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank”—A very young and handsome James Best returns to life, somewhat changed.

“The Midnight Sun”—One of the few TZ episodes with a female protagonist. Lois Nettleton does a great job trying to stay cool.

“The Trouble With Templeton”—Brian Ahearne romanticizes the past. And it’s fun to see Sydney Pollack as a nasty director.

“Five Characters in Search of an Exit”—William Windom and Murray Matheson are among those trying to figure out the why and how.

“Stopover in a Quiet Town”—Barry Nelson and Nancy Malone make a great bickering couple who think it was only too much to drink the night before.

“Miniature”—A timid soul seeks escape from his awful family and the people around him. Robert Duvall is Boo Radley-otherworldly, and you cheer when he succeeds.

“Mr. Garrity and the Graves”—One of the few humorous TZ episodes that really nails it, due to a very dry John Dehner.

“Spur of the Moment”—Can you warn your younger self about the dangers to come? More importantly, will she even listen?

“The Long Morrow”—The most poignant twist ending of the series, thanks to Mariette Hartley.

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—I’m cheating a bit here, because this was actually an Oscar-winning independent short film that TZ aired during its last season. With the 1961 Civil War centenary, a number of TZ episodes were set during that conflict, as was “Owl Creek Bridge,” based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce.

and last but not least,

“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”—Jack Elam (“It’s a regular Ray Bradbury!”), Barney Phillips and John Hoyt in a story of that extra passenger on the bus. The ending is classic:

What are your favorite episodes?

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Posted in Movie Reviews, Music, Television

That Hollywood Sound: Bernard Herrmann

I was geared up to continue with my discussion of the wonderful Charles Gerhardt series of classic Hollywood film scores, but I confess I hit a major bump. Next on tap would have been Erich Korngold, Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner, but then it seemed Max belonged with the Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn albums, since all four were on Warner Brothers’ payroll for so long. My next thought was to shoehorn Alfred Newman in there instead, but as I started to assemble the material, I realized I needed to come clean once and for all:

Bernard Herrmann is my favorite film composer. He more than deserves a solo bow.

Herrmann is justly famous for his scores for Alfred Hitchcock movies, from “The Trouble With Harry” (featuring that quirky scherzo) through “Marnie,” and along the way composing the iconic soundtrack for “Vertigo,” the wild opening fandango for “North by Northwest” and the unforgettable musical horror show of “Psycho” (No. 4 on the American Film Institute’s list of Best American Film Scores). While director and composer severed their relationship over Herrmann’s rejected score for “Torn Curtain,” the length and quality of their collaboration is unmatched. There is so much to admire, but my favorite Herrmann selection from his Hitchcock years is the opening to “The Wrong Man”—that bouncy samba with the unexpected accents, flavored by a worried solo flute so emblematic of the looming fate of Henry Fonda’s Stork Club musician:

Herrmann’s range is enormous. Classically trained at Julliard with a solid background in orchestration and conducting, his music spans the eternal romanticism of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” through the futuristic theremin-laced “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Like Korngold (whom I swear I’ll be discussing soon), he composed a number of classical works—his Symphony No. 1, the opera “Wuthering Heights” and a cantata based on “Moby Dick.” Herrmann was a staff conductor at CBS radio when he came to the attention of Orson Welles, who tapped him to write the score for his infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Herrmann then went on to begin his Hollywood career alongside Welles with his score to “Citizen Kane.”

The centerpiece of Gerhardt’s Bernard Herrmann album is a suite from that film, introduced by a morbid bassoon/trombone combination depicting ghostly Xanadu. A host of flutes (including four bass) and vibraphone come to the fore—Herrmann did love his electronics—and after Kane’s death we get that marvelously scored transition to young Charlie in the snow. The “breakfast scene” montage is justly famous for Welles’s artistry in so economically depicting a decaying marriage, but Herrmann’s accompaniment, ranging from a lovely turn-of-the-century waltz to bickering woodwinds to hushed strings as the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Kane vanishes in thin air, geometrically increases the effect. Perhaps the highlight of this section is Herrmann’s take on grand opera, the exotic “Aria from ‘Salambo'”, sung by a young Kiri Te Kanawa. Dame Kiri, possessor of one of the most beautiful voices of the last hundred years, does her damnedest to sound Susan Alexander-awful, but fortunately doesn’t always succeed (though that last note can truly peel paint off the wall).  The final segment of the suite accompanies the ending of the film, and I have to confess I’ve always hated the sight and sound of Rosebud’s incineration, even though Herrmann’s music is apt.

Fortunately Gerhardt does a 180 with his next selection, a suite from “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef” which has enough swash and panache to last for days. Herrmann’s talent is so extensive that he has no need to borrow from “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” to depict the ocean, but if my ear is correct, the sea motifs from the two films are in the same key and share the same note values and rhythm—quite Wagnerian of him. I also like the “Concerto Macabre” from “Hangover Square,” but for me the real ear-catcher is the suite from “White Witch Doctor” with its exotic talking drums and Big Bwana sound. Herrmann’s skill as an orchestrator is nowhere more apparent than in his music depicting a deadly tarantula, scored for an ancient woodwind called a serpent, which is an utter bear to play in tune. Its swollen, menacing blatt is so utterly perfect you’ll laugh out loud.

In addition to his work with Hitchcock, Herrmann wrote extensively for sci-fi and fantasy films and TV shows. He did a great deal of work on the original “Twilight Zone” series, including an opening theme that unfortunately got bumped after a few episodes by the now-iconic Marius Constant music. Fans like myself can tell you that his achingly nostalgic score for the episode “Walking Distance” resulted in a perfect accompaniment to a perfect episode. Equally as famous were Herrmann’s scores for “Fahrenheit 451” and the series of Ray Harryhausen fantasy films. Of these my favorite by far is “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” which I’m old enough to have seen in its first release (when evil Torin Thatcher turned the Princess’s waiting woman into a four-armed, green-faced serpent, I nearly dove under the movie seat). I can’t get enough of Herrmann’s Arabian Nights mode, and it’s a tribute to his talent that while he comesthisclose to ripping off “Scheherazade,” he never really does:

Herrmann died at the still-young age of 64, only hours after completing the recording of his score for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” By all accounts he suffered no fools gladly, but did have the great fortune to work with those who appreciated his gifts. American film was never better served.