Simply put, I would’ve been too young for the subject matter. Though I think I could’ve probably grasped the idea of what’s going on, it was a program that my parents understandably kept from me. Besides, back then, I don’t recall our television time being as limited as perhaps parents do today (not speaking from experience, mind you); there just wasn’t a lot on in prime time that would’ve interested the youngest among us.
And because the show has often been saddled with a reputation of being merely ‘Rod Serling’s other foray,’ I think it was one that never quite had the opportunity to grow (as did other cult shows) in TV syndication. As a consequence, it just never quite fell onto my radar, though I’m glad to see that it’s now getting a modern era makeover with the latest home video release from Kino Lorber.
Alas, I’d not been able to secure on via the usual distributor relationships, so I saved my pennies and recently picked up the show’s first season on home video all by my lonesome. Having just unwrapped its pilot telefilm, I thought I’d make a few observations for folks who watch this space and might be interested in the dark pursuits.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the series’ IMDB.com citation:
“Rod Serling presents tales of Horror illustrated in various paintings.”
For those unaware, Night Gallery was a late 1960’s / early 1970’s anthology that, largely, sprang from the mind of Rod Serling, the same TV genius who so lovingly crafted The Twilight Zone, which even today remains one of the benchmarks of quality programming. For any number of reasons, the show never achieved anywhere near the level of popularity as Serling’s predecessor, but it certainly follows the same narrative structure – present a wildly speculative ‘what if’ scenario and cast some reputable guest stars to enjoy the ride – with a bit of a ‘surprise twist’ tied to the last moments. Granted, the stories may not all work out this way, although I suspect most of them will adhere to that structure in some way, shape, or form.
Much like the Zone, Serling served as a narrator, one who would come out, spin some prescient wisdom, and then let the stories unfold as they would. His segments arguably helped direct the audience to what was really important about the forthcoming yarn, and no matter the subject matter or the context you could rest assured that if anyone knew what he was talking about it would be Rod. When he spoke, you paid attention … and you’d shortly learn what fools these characters were for not following suit.
The show was initially introduced via a 90+ minute telefilm. Internally, this flick was broken up into (roughly) three 40-minute segments, each morality play with their own respective cast and crew. Some big names of the era made guest appearances on the show, and why wouldn’t they? Anyone who was anyone in Hollywood knew Serling’s credentials, and I suspect they were all happy to play – even if briefly – in this dark and twisted universe.
“A seemingly haunted painting drives a greedy man insane.”
Right out of the gate, Night Gallery kinda/sorta demonstrates the danger of its conception: this is exactly the kind of thing Rod Serling had done before.
Perhaps having achieved so many high marks with The Twilight Zone, the creator may’ve found himself painted a bit into a corner as “The Cemetery” gets planted firmly in the ground that he’d vastly already mined. Serling’s prose here is quite good as it applies to the characters – Ossie Davis captures the perfunctory butler to an aging and decrepit recluse to great effect, and Roddy McDowall had long ago perfected such free-swinging swindlers. The screenwriter gives them more than enough small moments to clearly establish their respective circumstances, and it’s quite clear in the early moments that these two couldn’t be at greater odds with one another if they tried.
If anything, McDowall (as Jeremy Evans) might be a bit long in the tooth here. Serling kinda/sorta crafts the ‘black sheep’ to be a bit younger than what the actor is, but it’s easy to dismiss that grievance when the actor turns in such great work. There’s never any doubt that he’s shown up on the scene to bilk his dying dad out of his fortune, and that’s precisely how the plot progresses.
What we may not have expected?
Well, it would appear that dear old dad’s paintings have taken on a life of their own: Jeremy begins to detect very small, very subtle changes in them; and these alterations imply that the patriarch might very well have opted to haunt not only his own house but to seek out vengeance against those who have wronged him in his time on Earth, meaning that our guest actor had best not turn his back on things that go bump in the night.
Still, it’s a set of circumstances that debatably ends up playing out likely as audiences could predict knowing Serling’s penchant for surprise endings. What “The Cemetery” does (to some small effect) is it taps on yet another zinger – one I won’t spoil despite the fact that traditional spoiler rules have long since passed – directed at another culprit, one that maybe viewers weren’t expecting. While it’s a solid first outing in this all-new universe, I hardly think it delivered the level of amazement all involved intended.
“A rich blind woman gets a new pair of eyes that allow her to see for only one brief ironic moment.”
Again, today’s password is: irony.
The telefilm’s second installment – one simply titled “Eyes” – has a measure of TV distinction that bears mentioning: it was directed by none other than Steve Spielberg … and, might I say, he did a pretty impressive job with only 40 minutes? Spielberg peppers this impressive yarn with some solid visual trickery, making great use of the set décor, his talents’ positioning, and several sequences of near darkness. It’s an inspired take – one that easily rises above the first story – and rather compelling takes the audience aesthetically somewhere Serling’s The Twilight Zone hadn’t quite gone before.
Here, Serling’s script is also a vast improvement over the opening: he’s rather delicately fleshed out two main players – Barry Sullivan as Dr. Frank Heatherton and screen legend Joan Crawford as Claudia Menlo. What he deftly reveals is that neither of these players is perfect, but the one who’ll likely emerge on top is the one who’s willing to play dirtiest of them all. With a name like ‘Menlo’ (i.e. men are low, meaning subservient), Claudia easily bests the good doctor, but in customary Serling fashion Heatherton might get the last word after all.
But “Eyes” is a riveting installment of television because Spielberg went to some great lengths to make it something worth looking at deeply. As I said, there are staging marks that underscore character traits; and then – as a director – he’s constantly reminding us precisely of what Claudia has missed her whole life, that being the sense of sight. Naturally, we’re a bit aghast to learn just how far she’s willing to go even if it awards her a mere few hours to see things all of her own – just as is Dr. Heatherton – and that’s why I suggest you keep in mind that irony is the key here. Though it’s been said before, Claudia truly confronts the “be careful what you wish for” moral of the story in the segment’s final moments.
Kudos to Serling and Spielberg for achieving such an incredible tale so very early in Night’s life.
“An idyllic painting gives a Nazi war criminal in hiding some fleeting comfort.”
As I’ve often opined in this space: usually what keeps me from enjoying any story more than the next person is that – for whatever reason – the yarn’s internal logic fails me. Of course, this could be the end result of my overthinking either a sequence or suggestion, but if I can’t quite grasp ‘the big why’ of a character’s motivation then I end up reeling a bit with the journey I take with him or her.
Such is the case with “Escape Route,” a minor potboiler that stems from a good idea but really stops short of making sense.
In case you’ve missed your history, it’s not impossible to suggest that there are countries in South America who secretly played host to some Nazi officers who managed to both escape the end of World War II and any other detection for several years in their chosen exile. That’s essentially what Serling’s tale is here: actor Richard Kiley plays former SS-Gruppenfuhrer Helmut Arndt hiding out under the name of Josef Strobe. One day, his growing paranoia over being followed by possible Israeli agents has him ducking into a museum, and the former torturer finds himself – for reasons never satisfactorily explained to this viewer – drawn to the painting of a faceless fisherman in a rowboat.
Now I hate to be found guilty yet again of overthinking a 40-minute episode, but why? Why was Strobe particularly drawn to this painting? Did it remind him of the simpler days of his youth? Did it represent something so unmistakably tranquil that he couldn’t imagine living in any other place or circumstance? Or perhaps – like Hitler himself was – did Strobe secretly harbor a wish to have been a famed painter? While viewers might watch the segment and achieve their own measure of appreciation for the German’s fixation, I honestly just couldn’t ‘get’ it. Yes, yes, yes: I know full well that he had grown somewhat weary of feeling like he was always ‘on the run,’ but as we were never adequately shown or suggested such a fate for the man I just didn’t quite buy that.
However, I think director Barry Shear rather impeccably staged one fascinating element of Serling’s script here: there’s a protracted sequence wherein Strobe shares a conversation through his hotel room wall with a neighboring prostitute, Gretchen (played by actress Norma Crane). It’s rather brilliant set-up – both of their backs pressed to their respective walls – and the duality of who these two people are – both serving to make others happy yet being denied their own measure of happiness – is stunningly captured on film. You may watch it and make less of it, but I thought it just vividly rendered.
Otherwise, I’d have to grade “Escape Route” as the weakest link in an otherwise interesting launch to Night Gallery.