"Mr. Denton On Doomsday" (Season 1, episode 3; originally aired 10/16/1959)
In which a gunslinger makes the best shot of his whole life—with a little help from a friend
Odds are, if you're familiar with The Twilight Zone, it's because you've seen the show in syndication. Maybe you have the DVDs (or Blu-Rays, or Netflix, or maybe a wizard sent you magical dreams), but the syndication came first, with its reruns airing at odd hours you catch when you can't sleep, or marathons that fill up whole weekends with alienated astronauts and mysterious figures of fate. It's the easiest show in the world to catch out of nowhere, because each episode creates its own context. That two speeches Rod Serling gives in the opening—first the description of what the Twilight Zone actually is (which is, basically, "weirdness"), and then an introduction to the players concerned in that evening's particular drama—aren't just there for color. Well, okay, actually they are, but like all great pulp writers, Serling had the knack for making sure the meaning came through clear enough even in the purplest of prose. Sitting down for a half hour of TZ means sitting down to a single closed event, and while some seasons may be better than other seasons (and some seasons may even have longer episodes than others), you don't gain much from watching them in order. There are no questions for a climactic finale to reveal. It's just pure story, beginning, middle, end, no baggage required.
There are, of course, certain themes that repeat themselves regularly throughout the run of the series. In a way, TV shows operate like jazz music, in that you set out certain basic parameters each week, and then you riff on those parameters until you've got yourself as satisfying a whole as you can manage. Most shows, those parameters are fairly specific: recurring characters, a persistent world, even a regular genre. But TZ throws away just about all of that, working off a couple general ideas—the the majority of the episodes have to have a science fiction or fantasy element, and most of them need a twist ending—and combines that with Serling's big concerns as a writer, and then just riffs. As a kid, I loved the show because it was often creepy or beautiful, and then I gradually became disillusioned with it because it wasn't all perfect; as Serling himself acknowledged, there are a fair number of "real turkeys" in the show's run, and those turkeys can have the cumulative effective of making even the classics seem a little shaky. It was easy to mock Serling's overheated writing, with its faux-poetical pretensions, his tendency towards heavy-handed moralizing or shallow sentiment, the way the worst episodes just sort of sit there, straining for a profundity that makes their failure all the more tedious. (Which isn't to say that Serling is responsible for every awful half-hour or hour in the run, but he's responsible for a lot of them.) But coming back to the show again a few years ago—and is there any classic TV series that so thoroughly resists our attempts to abandon it?—I realized I'd over-reacted. There are bum spots in the TZ to be sure, but even the worst ones have a certain power to them, because nearly all of them are a reflection of one man's attempts to express his view of reality. All great art, I think, needs a distinctive perspective, and this show has one; and there's something fascinating, even in the failures.
Which isn't to say "Mr. Denton On Doomsday" is a failure. The time is the Old West: a once famous gunfighter, Al Denton (Dan Duryea) is down on his luck, a broken, miserable drunk forced to humiliate himself for the local bully (a really, really young Martin Landau), unshaven, dirty, self-loathing. Denton has been thrown out on the street one morning when a peddler, Henry J. Fate (Malcolm Atterbury) comes into town. He sees Denton, he smiles, and then a gun appears by Denton's hand, and everything changes. For most of its running time, "Doomsday" keeps you guessing by refusing to explain Fate's motives. The more we learn about Denton, the more we realize that a gun may not be the best answer to his troubles. He was, again, a great gunfighter in his day, but when you're a great gunfighter, you tend to attract a certain kind of man, the kind of man who wants to shoot you to prove that he's a great gunfighter. So Denton went through this again and again until one day he had to shoot a sixteen year-old kid, and that was enough. (I wonder Denton's explanation speech was a common one to Westerns, or if Mel Brooks was parodying it in particular in Blazing Saddles.) Being armed again means inviting the same kind of trouble, especially after Henry J. makes sure Denton gets a few choice shots off against the men who've been mocking him. Within hours, Denton gets word that a new gunman is coming into town, and there's gonna have to be a show-down, and wouldn't you know it—despite getting a shave and (presumably) sobering up, Denton still isn't the crack shot he used to be. Unless Fate continues to intervene, he's basically doomed.
Like I said, it's hard to know just what Fate is up to for most of the run, because all of the above certainly sounds bad, as though the mysterious peddler (who can do magic things) has decided to make a loser's bad situation even worse. But the guy seems awful nice, even if he is mysterious, and besides, impending consequences aside, everything he does for Denton visibly improves the man's life. Having a gun, and then getting him to use that gun against his tormentors gives him back just a sliver of his self-respect, and inspires the locals to treat Denton as a human being again. The guy even springs for a shave and a haircut. And it's telling as well that, when Mr. Fate intervenes, there are no fatal gunshots. No one dies in the entire episode, despite it's gloomy, often mournful tone. The first time Fate makes the gun in Denton's hand go off, Martin Landau loses his own gun; the second time, a ceiling fixture falls on Landau, stopping a gun battle between him and Denton before it can even get started. Fatality isn't the goal here. This is second chances time, although Fate's pitch turns suspicious when he offers a desperate, terrified Denton a magical elixir that will, for ten seconds at least, make him the greatest gunslinger in the world. So here we go, you think, here's where it turns sour—Fate has manipulated events so that he can take advantage of Denton's need. Souls are going to be on the table soon enough, or else the peddler is just ruining lives for the fun of it. As always in the Zone, the twist is coming; we just don't know how it will land.
That's another key to the series' ongoing appeal, I think. While plenty of the episodes have saturated pop culture to the point where you know the punchline even if you're fuzzy on the set-up ("It's not fair! It's not fair!"), there are just so many Twilight Zones out there that tuning in, there's always a decent chance you won't know which side the coin will land on when it flips. Do we get a twist ending where the good guy comes out on top, where hope is rewarded and faith holds true? Or is this one of the mean ones—is a weak or wicked man about to get his just desserts, or worse, is a hapless fool about to get screwed in the name of Irony. I can't think of many anthology series which managed to go either way with such regular, fascinating dexterity. Now, "Doomsday" heaps on the sentiment for most of its running time (I don't mean this as criticism, by the way; one of the things I love about this show is how much it requires the viewer to buy in, whole-heartedly), which means it's easier to assume Denton isn't going to wind up dead or destroyed by the end. We seem to be firmly in the "second chances" section, where losers get blessed by outsiders who are little more than plot devices made flesh. But that's no guarantee. Hell, Denton's salvation could wind up being an act of self-sacrifice, which, as blessings go, is about as mixed as they come.
He doesn't die, though. Fate is even more benevolent than he initially appears. He gives Denton the elixir, and when it comes time for Denton to face off against his opponent (a young Doug McClure), he's shocked to see that the other guy is holding a bottle just like he is. As twists go, it's a good 'un, because for the brief moment before it resolves, things could still go either way; Fate could be trying to help both men, or he could just be screwing around for reasons of his own. But then Denton and the other guy shoot, and they both hit each other's hands (it's uncertain if the two actually pick their own shots, or if Fate's elixir helps them with the aim and the target; I'd rather believe they were given the chance to decide for themselves, just this once, since that makes the happy ending more earned), knocking the guns away, and rendering each man, according to the overly helpful doctor standing by, incapable of shooting for the rest of their lives. Denton gets to go raise a family and not have to worry about killing anyone, and presumably the young McClure will follow a similar path, and everybody winds up happy in the end. "Doomsday" is very, very earnest, and much of its strength depends on your ability to buy into that earnestness—but at least here, we don't have to worry about a bad pitch or over-reliance on sap to make things work. The fact that all we know about Fate by the end is what we learned from the results of his plotting takes a few points off the episode for me; he's too much of a device, and while TZ often makes use of such characters over the course of its run, they're usually given a little more motive. Still, the plan is a clever one, and, as I said, I'd like to interpret the ending as Denton and the young gunfighter choosing to make non-fatal trick shots, which means that Fate is less dictating redemption than he is creating the conditions in which it can appear. On the whole, this is a strong episode, buoyed by a convincing performance from Duryea and some fun, clever storytelling.
What a twist!: A mysterious peddler arrives in town, gives Al Denton a gun and offers him a magical elixir that will grant him ten seconds of perfect shooting. When Denton faces off against a young rival, he sees that the rival also has a vial of the elixir. (McClure's look of utter terror here is great, by the way.) Both men drink, and fire, shooting each other in the gun hand, making it so neither will be able to shoot again for the rest of their lives.
- TZ is such an amazing actor's showcase. I'm sure we'll have more opportunities to talk about this over the course of the series, but really, Serling's writing (and the style of the series in general) just lends itself so easily to strong performances.
- Also, exchanges like this one: "Why do you have to drink so much?" "I really don't know. I just picked up the habit one day and kept to it."
- TZ makes as much use of the godlike being as Star Trek eventually did. The difference being that TZ's fable-like feel made the semi-regular appearances of demons, angels and so forth a more natural fit; on Trek, sometimes it worked, and sometimes it seemed like laziness.
- The show shot on the MGM lot, which meant it was able to jump genres with ease—a Western backdrop this week, a faded movie star's rotting-from-the-inside mansion the next.
"The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine" (Season 1, episode 4; originally aired 10/23/1959)
In which Ida Lupino is ready for her close-up, long shot and end credits.
Have you ever wished you could be someplace else? I don't mean Cleveland, or anyplace real. I mean: have you ever watched a movie or television show and been so lost and lonely that all you could think of was how much better your life would be if you can magic yourself onto the screen. Or maybe you were thinking about the past instead of some fictional construct (although let's be honest—the past is a fictional construct, it just has weaker writing), yearning to will yourself into a perfect moment that can never be replicated in the now. I would imagine everyone's done this at some point; no life is so perfect that it contains no need for escape. But what we have to learn again and again and again is that such desires are counter-productive. Fiction is fiction wherever you find it, and wishing it had some access point, some door or escape hatch to allow you to slip inside, never leads anywhere but right back where you began. That doesn't take away the desire, though. There are times in my life when I have wanted, needed something so badly that I felt sure I could realign the fabric of existence just to suit that need, and knowing how futile this is doesn't change the depth or intensity of that feeling. As you get older, maybe experience helps you to wish for less. Or maybe it just makes narrows those wishes down to a single, screaming point.
Barbara Jean Trenton (Ida Lupino) is an actress. Well, she was an actress, and therein lies the crux of her dilemma. She's older than she used to be, and that means the leading lady roles—the romantic leading lady roles—don't come like they used to. They don't come at all, really. "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine" steals a lot of its premise (and a few of its plot points) from Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, but where in that movie, Gloria Swanson's mad struggles against the ravages of time and obscurity were symbolized by the advent of the sound era in film, "Shrine" doesn't have time to hide the basic truth: in a system where women are valued largely for their physical beauty, once you get past a certain, you're no longer a main character. Barbara Jean isn't very comfortable with this, and despite the urgings of her agent Danny Weiss (Martin Balsam) and her maid, Sally (Alice Frost), Barbara is spending more and more time in her own private viewing room, watching over and over again the cinematic highlights of her yesteryear. That's the life she wants, when everyone was beautiful and romantic, where no one would've mistook her for a mother or an obsolete film star. She keeps watching, and the world keeps trying to crush her dreams, until all she has left are the dreams, and then, well… this is the Twilight Zone, after all, and strange things happen to dreams inside these borders.
"Shrine" is one of the iconic TZ episodes, one of the ones where even if you don't remember the title or the stars, you've probably heard the ending. After spending so long watching her old movies, and realizing that there's no hope of the present ever giving her what she wants, Barbara manages to will herself into the cinematic past. It's a striking visual, and a powerful, simple twist, which is probably why it's so memorable—there's no suggestion of fantasy or sci-fi in the episode right up until the shot gets blurry and Barbara disappears. More than maybe any other show, TZ achieved its status in the pantheon through the power of anecdote; like the opening scene of The Twilight Zone: The Movie so aptly demonstrates, there's so much fun in just describing old episodes to other fans, or even to people who've never watched before. You can't really do that with, say, an episode of The Sopranos. Great TZ stories aren't quite urban legend, and they aren't quite fables, but the hit some sort of sweet spot in between, and it's amazing, when you think about it, just how thoroughly the show has permeated our subconscious. I've heard of Gunsmoke and The Andy Griffith Show and Leave It To Beaver, but I couldn't begin to tell you much about any of them. But Twilight Zone? Well, I'd guess it would be difficult to find a TV fan around today who, when pressed, couldn't give you the details on at least one or two of the big ones.
That said, while "Shrine" is strong, well-acted and at times quite beautiful, it doesn't completely hold up for me. My main problem is that it's a little too perfect wish-fulfillment. In "Doomsday," Denton has to suffer as a humiliated drunk for years, he has to risk his life in situation he barely understands and he has to acknowledge that he really doesn't want to be a gunfighter—that the power and fame, presumably things he craved as a youth aren't worth the pain and suffering they bring—before he gets want he really wants. Here, Barbara is understandably sad that she's older and that a certain romance has gone out of her life, but there's a selfish, blinkered quality to her despair as well. She has people who care about her (Danny, Alice), and she's clearly financially comfortable. And while there is a certain humiliation in being offered a small role by a studio man she used to lock horns with, there's little sense of the destructive system or near madness that drove Norma Desmond to her apogee. Late in the episode, in a desperate attempt to woo his client and friend back to reality, Danny brings in one of Trenton's old co-stars, a man she remembers as handsome and debonair; the older version (Jerome Cowan, who played Sam Spade's short-lived partner in the Bogart Maltese Falcon) is, to put it nicely, a bit of a nerd, the proud owner of a franchise of supermarkets outside Chicago. Barbara, instead of realizing the futility of her dreams, reacts with hostility to this man who contradicts her memories, and the meeting serves to push her further away from the world.
"Shrine" works best to me when it plays up the ambiguity of Barbara's obsession. While Sunset Boulevard clearly sympathizes and pities its heroine's insanity, the movie also serves as a stinging critique of the desperate sheltered delusion that drives Norma; she's purposefully trapped herself in the amber of her glory days, and when anyone tries to threaten that perfection, she snaps. There's no sense that she'd really be better off if she could get back to what she once was—partly that's because, since Sunset Boulevard is a drama, it offers no opportunity of the sort of escape Barbara achieves in "Shrine," but it's also because the movie is designed to expose the shallow, fleeting fame of stardom, and how, rendered in extreme, that stardom can warp minds and destroy lives. Norma's mind eventually snaps completely, and in the movie's final shots, there is a suggestion that, yes, she finally has what she wishes: attention, the cameras on her, all of America turning, if only for the moment, to focus their gaze raptly on her image. But that wish comes at a terrible price, and it's fleeting. Past her breathy "I'm ready for my close-up," Norma is mad, trapped and lost.
Barbara, on the other hand, gets a more literal version of what Norma was dreaming of—Norma wanted the fame, Barbara really seems to want the movies themselves to be real. And there's no sense in the episode that there was any price, or any downside to her getting what she wants. There is one scene, actually, the big reveal moment; we see Barbara getting frustrated, the camera shot gets fuzzy, and then Alice comes into the room with the afternoon tea, sees the room is attempt, and then notices… something… that makes her scream. She calls Danny over, and he turns the film projector back on, and both he and Alice see Barbara's final fate: she's on the screen now, and while she's still her middle-aged self, all her former co-stars are as young and perfect as they've always been, and now they'll finally have the party she really wanted. Alice is horrified by this, and so is Danny, despite Barbara's shouts from the screen that everything is wonderful. It's a great moment, because it simultaneously captures the joyous aspect of Barbara's escape, without denying how unsettling and, well, mind-boggling it would be to see that fate yourself. And in that moment, you can't help but wonder what all this means. Is she dead? How can she exist in a cinematic wonderland? What happens when the projector goes off? Maybe it's not such a happy ending after all; maybe it's just the sad fate of every aging celebrity, made literal—forever locked into a moment without change or responsibility.
But then we get a button to the episode, with Danny picking up a scarf Barbara tossed out of the screen, and musing on the wonder of wishes and so forth. He no longer looks horrified, and "Shrine" ends on about as unambiguous a note as possible. It's still a strong episode overall; Lupino (who, at this point in her career, had transitioned from movies to television, which wasn't exactly a step up at that point) balances sadness and hysteria in a way that makes Barbara more sympathetic than she might otherwise have been, Martin Balsam is great, as he always is. Whatever my objections to the simplified ending, the story does have the right kind of direct, immediate power that makes it striking even if it isn't particularly deep. That's another benefit of the half-hour show; there's only really time for a big idea or two, and those have to be drawn in big strokes. And there is something beautiful in the idea of someone, just once, beating the odds of time and entropy and death. Who knows where Barbara really wound up, but wouldn't it be nice to believe, even though we know it's impossible, that maybe if we keep wishing hard enough… well, who knows. That's really what the Twilight Zone is: a place where the reality is thin and the laws are bendable. Where wishes can, and will, come true—but no one can predict the consequences.
What a twist!: Barbara Jean Trenton wills herself into her old movies.
- This episode might also suffer from the fact that it's hard to watch it these days without knowing what's coming. I wonder if the end was a shock when it first aired?
- Some really gorgeous direction here from Mitchell Leisen (I especially love the shot early in of Barbara standing next to the movie screen and knowingly or unknowingly mimicking her cinematic counterpart's exact gestures.), and the score by Franz Waxman (who also scored Sunset Boulevard, among others) is beautiful as well.
Next week: Todd takes his own trip into the past with "Walking Distance," and then faces immortality while hunting for an "Escape Clause."