That said, I really (really really) had a difficult time with “The Dead Man” but only for some very specific reasons.
As I said in my review of the Night Gallery telefilm (found here), that 3-part feature was a pretty solid set-up for a series to follow, though I found the installments dipping in quality from the start to the finish. Even though I had some quips and quarrels here and there with each chapter, I’d still argue that it was a stupendous (if only occasionally predictable) launch for a new incarnation of what Rod Serling did so well with The Twilight Zone … but – as always – buyer beware.
However, if you remove that telefilm from the equation and instead imagine “The Dead Man” as a first fully realized episode, then I’d not have a lot of faith in the longevity of any potential series. In fact, I wouldn’t be all that likely to tune in next week, as they say.
The screenplay shows adapted (presumably by Serling) from a story by Fritz Leiber, Jr., a name I recognize but cannot presently place (nor has any immediate research helped). A quick review of his profile on Wikipedia.org certainly suggests that the man was somewhat prolific – having penned stories in Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction – and he’s even attributed as being one of the ‘forefathers’ to swords and sorcery stories. But “The Dead Man” as presented feels very much like it could’ve damn near been lifted from the pages of any 1950’s or 1960’s era Horror-themed comic book. There were several popular imprints – Horror Comics, Eerie Comics, Tales From The Crypt, etc. – and I’ve read a handful of them in my spare time. While they were good and typically quick reads, they also are very dated to the period, meaning that they don’t lend themselves very well to modernization.
That’s exactly the rub with “The Dead Man.” Jeff Corey plays Dr. Miles Talmadge, a professional summoned to his collaborator’s home – Carl Betz as Dr. Max Redford – to witness what he’s kinda/sorta led to believe is a medical miracle. Once inside, he’s asked to examine what appears to be the body of John Michael Fearing (played by actor Michael Blodgett) and diagnose his cause of death or pronounced illness. However, as Talmadge achieves one diagnosis, there’s a sudden change to Fearing’s symptoms, leading him to deduce a different illness. All of this happens until Redford awakens Fearing from his somewhat sleeping state, and we learn that the young man is capable of changing his appearance simply by post hypnotic suggestion … oh, and a series of knocks done by Redford off-camera.
This presents a quandary about which the two physicians engage in a series of debates, making the plot points of this “Dead Man” all choreographed in dialogue instead of organic plot developments. We’re told the story, and we’re eventually led to understand that a fateful mistake – Redford’s own psychological shortcomings – cause Fearing’s accidental death … or do they? Before you know it, we’re off to another round of – ahem – conversations which suggest the good-looking young man might not be dead, at which point the drama goes full melodrama in a bid to see him unearthed from his crypt by the woman who loves him. As you can guess, she “raises” him from the dead with the proper post-hypnotic signal … and you can probably figure out what happens next.
Again, if storytellers have to literally tell me a story, then there’s far too much exposition for any of it to feel authentic. That’s the biggest stumbling block to “Dead Man:” not a bit of it escapes artificial construction, meaning that we’ll all feel better after this commercial break anyway … so what’s all the fuss about?
Miss Wattle (played by Jeanette Nolan) is an aging spinster who’s still needing to work as a household maid to make end meet end. In the opening segment, she’s called to her work agency and attached to an opening specifically because the client has requested – ahem – someone old, someone ‘ugly,’ and someone with no other prospects in life. Granted, such a job description would likely result in a bevy of lawsuits today, but this was the 1970’s. And it was TV! So it’s perfectly acceptable! Rude, yes. But acceptable.
Because she’s perfectly fit for the task, Miss Wattle is dispatched where she meets the somewhat studious Cedric Acton (Larry Hagman), who reminds the older woman over and over again of just how perfect she is for his preferred qualifications. As the story develops, his true mission slowly comes to light: it would seem that Acton’s wife, Carlotta (Suzy Parker), is actually not only the source of Cedric’s wealth but also all the troubles in his world! He’s tapped into a kind of black magic apparently and wishes to use it to replace her consciousness with that of an eternally grateful Miss Wattle … only the dear old maid turns out to have designs all of her own once the deed is performed.
As I said above, viewers need to put aside some of the cultural issues with “The Housekeeper.” While made in the 60’s/70’s, it definitely feels as though it was originally written much earlier. (Unfortunately, IMDB.com’s citation is a bit unclear.) There are some very obvious stereotypes of simpler times that won’t sit well with today’s audience; but if you can look past that there’s a perfectly charming (but paper thin) loose romantic comedy in there. Granted, it doesn’t quite work out the way any of these characters intended, but that’s Serling’s narrative gift: he likes upending expectations in the last reel, and that he does here.
Though imperfect (and obvious dated), neither half of this first episode truly represented the best TV had to offer both in and out of Serling’s capable hands. As this is my first foray into the world of Night Gallery, I’m hoping and praying that things start to look up with Episode Two … or I’m going to have miles and miles to go before I sleep …