“Sounds And Silences” (season 5, episode 27; originally aired 4/3/1964)

In which YOU’LL HAVE TO SPEAK A LITTLE LOUDER, PLEASE

Roswell G. Flemington (John McGiver) is an asshole. He runs a model ship company, and all of his employees despise him for his tyrannical ways, and his nitpicking, and his obsession with maritime procedure; while Roswell is hiding in his office listening to recordings of ships at sea, the people who work for him are bad-mouthing behind his back, mocking his weight and praying for his death. His wife loathes him, and the episode’s crisis is precipitated by her decision to finally leave the bastard. Roswell is pompous, arrogant, demanding, and utterly oblivious to the needs of others. He spends his days embraced in a sonic cocoon of ocean waves and explosions long past, until one night, he wakes up to the noise of the bathroom faucet leaking. Each drip sounds like a gunshot.

“Sounds And Silences” is not a very good episode; it’s not terrible, thanks to Richard Donner’s inventive direction and John McGiver’s memorable performance in the lead role, but it’s often unpleasant to watch, with an overly simplistic premise and a lot of shrill, mean-spirited characters. The structure is the familiar “jerk-gets-his-comeuppance” arc, and while there’s nothing wrong with that model, it needs more kick. Roswell is a creep, but neither his crimes nor his punishment are all that thrilling to watch. For a while, everything is loud, and it’s scary. Then, he gets better. Then, everything is quiet, and the episode ends. The story plays out with such predictable irony that it’s impossible to get any pleasure in the final “twist.” Some mediocre Twilight Zone episodes suffer from trying to tell an overly complicated plot with a lot of undercooked elements. This is the opposite of that. Everything is really obvious, and kind of annoying, and then it’s over.

It doesn’t help that the episode works way too hard to establish Roswell’s inherent jerkiness, to the point where I almost found myself sympathizing with the poor bastard. He’s an annoyingly eccentric boss, no question, but his employees spend every minute he isn’t in the office with them ranting about how much they loathe him—not just “Man, he’s such a jerk,” but literally “I hope his car falls off a bridge and he dies!” Worse, none of them seems actually frightened or cowed by him. They’re all chipper and grinning like loons, while trading fat jokes at Roswell’s expense and fantasizing about his violent death. It’s not enough to make Roswell come off as a good guy, because clearly, that is not a comfortable work environment. But the balance is all wrong. A bully character is more loathsome if we see the people in his life struggle, and fail, to be kind to him. But no one is cowed or frightened of Roswell. There are no cosmic scales that need balancing here. Roswell is a dick, and he’s being treated accordingly.

That vibe carries over to his arguments with his wife, Lydia (Penny Singleton), although here, it’s a lot easier to see her side of things. The problem is less a matter of siding with the wrong character (Roswell seems to actively loathe women), but the question of how in the hell these two ever got to be married in the first place. There’s no sense of Roswell transitioning from “normal, if odd, behavior” to “batshit obsession with loudness,” which means there’s no way to picture him having anything like a normal relationship with anyone. And while that makes it incredibly easy to understand why Lydia decides to leave him, there’s no way to feel anything about that break-up, or treat it as a “real” event. Lydia’s furious departure sets off Roswell’s initial condition, but while a divorce is a big change in anyone’s life, the scene itself is just two people we barely know screaming at each other. There’s no real reason to give a damn.

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Actually, that’s not quite true. Roswell does have a monologue that is as close as this script comes to emotional depth. His voice dripping with contempt, he tells Lydia that when he was younger, his mother demanded quiet at all times, to a degree that almost sounds like psychological abuse. As an adult, he has dedicated his life to overturning his mother’s decree. As motivations go, this is interesting, but it inspires a level of empathy and sadness that the rest of the episode can’t support. On the one hand, you have a blustering asshole who spends all his time yelling at people and pretending he’s a ship captain; on the other, you have someone who was (and I’m extrapolating here a bit) probably a scared, nervous little boy who spent his childhood terrified of making any sound at all. These two sides make basic sense together, but Serling (who wrote the episode) doesn’t bother to do anything with that connection.

McGiver’s performance manages to give some soul to the character—there’s an anger to him that’s at once comical and more than a little lonely. But because this episode is locked in ironic punishment mode, the complexity ultimately falls flat. Other episodes have focused on creeps who you kind of like in spite of themselves, and I’d argue that the most effective ironic punishments are the ones where you feel more than a little sorry for the victim; where the twist is fun and satisfying but also has a bite to it. Maybe that’s what Serling is going for here, but the smugness of his narration and the rage showed by nearly everyone who comes in context with Roswell seems to suggest otherwise. Which means we have a story with a protagonist whose punishment we’re supposed to be entertained by, surrounded by caricatures who despise him, suffering a fate that, in the end, isn’t even all that interesting.

As mentioned, Donner’s directed is sharp, and Roswell’s various struggles with sound are well-shot and convincing. There is something innately horrifying about the extremes he goes through, even if that horror is undercut by the implication that the whole thing is psychological. (The fact that a friendly psychiatrist cures him of his bout of loudness makes it hard to take the attack of silence very seriously, even after Serling’s closing narration informs us that Roswell’s been taken to an asylum.) But the episode never rises above the most obvious contours of its premise, and despite a few intriguingly odd touches—in addition to his speech about his mother, Roswell’s infatuation with the navy is never explained—there’s just not a lot here worth talking about it.

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What a twist: Roswell manages to overcome his brief bout of over-hearing, but after a final fight with his wife, he loses what he loves most in the world: loudness.

Stray observations:

  • Were recordings of naval battles an actual thing? Because that’s kind of cool.

“Caesar And Me” (season 5, episode 28; originally aired 4/10/1964)

or, Which One’s The Dummy?

“Sounds And Silences” suffers from a thin premise and a too-straightforward narrative. “Ceasar And Me” has a premise that could’ve gone in several different directions, and it tells a story that never quite settles into the familiar—the outcome is inevitable in retrospect, but the construction is curious enough that it’s worth watching just to try and figure out what the fuck is going on. Ventriloquist dummies are inherently creepy, a fact that the show has made excellent use of before. And “Caesar And Me” hits a decent balance between that creepiness and a lightly comic tone; it’s the story of a nice man whose life is destroyed by a talking doll and a malicious little girl, played out as a fun for the whole family lark. Which is fascinating to an extent, but I’m not sure it makes for a legitimately good episode. Everything is surface, even characters who should by all rights have more going on.

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Like, f’r instance, our protagonist: Jonathan West (Jackie Cooper, who also does Ceasar’s voice), the kindly Irish ventriloquist who begins the episode at his wit’s end. West is a sweet-hearted man, but his good nature hasn’t helped him find work in either his chosen profession or anyplace else. We first see him pawning a watch, and getting (politely) badgered by his landlady for being late on the rent; soon after, he bombs an audition at a local club, and can’t even land a job doing menial labor, since he has no experience in anything. When Caesar the puppet starts talking to Jonathan, pushing him in the direction of supplementing his income via robbery, it makes a certain twisted amount of sense. This is a man at his wit’s end, under enormous pressure to produce, and he’s crazy enough to have devoted a large portion of his adult life to pretending to talk through a doll. If he’s going to crack, what better way to do it?

Except, and here’s maybe weirdest part of a rather strange half hour, “Caesar and Me” never really suggests that Jonathan’s gone crazy. Almost from the start, Caesar the dummy is moving his face and talking, with none of the usual awkward camera angles that other directors might have employed to suggest this was all in Jonathan’s mind.

Okay, brief pause for a moment while I admit that I could have misread this: after all, there is the climactic scene in which Jonathan blames the doll for everything and begs Caesar to talk to the police, only to be met with silence. That’s pretty classic “guy loses his mind” stuff. Maybe we’re supposed to assume from the start that everything thing we see is just Jonathan’s subconscious working on him. Maybe we are supposed to think he’s nuts, right up until the moment when Caesar starts talking to the little girl.

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But if that’s the case, the episode puts almost no effort at all in backing it up. The only thing to suggest that this might represent some kind of psychotic break is in the inexplicable fact that Jonathan doesn’t appear bothered in the slightest to discover his puppet is talking to him. He’s a little put out by Caesar’s obsession with crime, but not “Wait, when did this inanimate object become a sentient being?” put out. But the whole thing is played so casually that there’s no real tension to it. It’s more like Jonathan has been talking to his dummy for years. Don’t you talk to your dummy?

This nonchalance is part of what makes the story so odd; and I like oddness, generally. Told a more predictably, there might have been nothing here worth recommending. As is, Cooper (who may be better known to modern audiences as Perry White from the Christopher Reeve Superman movies)(by “modern audiences,” I mean me) is so utterly gentle and kind and yet so completely willing to go along with Caesar’s plan that the cognitive dissonance is almost, but not quite, fascinating. It’s like we’re missing a scene where we find out that Jonathan used to have a human partner who was domineering and cruel; that that partner was killed in a mysterious accident; and now Ceasar has taken his place. The jump in storytelling logic keeps the episode from having any emotional resonance, while at the same time giving it a peculiar loopy charm.

Significantly less charming: Susan (Suzanne Cupito), the traitorous brat who spends the whole half-hour browbeating Jonathan, before finally betraying him to the cops. This is a loathsome, hateful child, and Cupito bites into her role with absolute gusto. It’s a bizarre dynamic: Jonathan is friendly to her at all times, and she returns his decency with suspicion and contempt. If she’d been older, she could’ve been the classic hateful wife figure that seems to plague so many stories about passive, lonely little men. As is, her type is distinctive enough to note feel misogynistic (and hey, this is apparently the only Twilight Zone script officially credited to a woman, Adele T. Strassfield), while still being incredibly fucking annoying. In her way, she’s just as big a monster as Caesar, and it’s entirely appropriate to have the two of them teamed up together in the end. Even the suggestion that the pair is about to go on a murder spree doesn’t seem entirely out of bounds.

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It’s hard to know how to take all of this. There are all sorts of reasons for why Jonathan decides to do what he does, but the script is resolutely uninterested in pursuing any of them. That means that while it’s easy to sympathize with the man’s desperation, and pity him his eventual fate, it’s impossible to feel much beyond that, or invest much in his story. Sadly, Caesar’s notion of a criminal empire doesn’t extend beyond robbing a few places and coming up with a good cover story for a friendly security guard. So there’s no novelty in the schemes, no texture to the relationship between the man and his prop, and not a lot of suspense in seeing what will happen next. Jonathan’s crime spree barely gets off the ground before Susan turns him in. You can view this as a stealth pilot for a horror series focusing on Susan and Caesar’s antics, but that only works for the last three minutes. It’s a great punchline, but a great punchline doesn’t a great episode make.

Still, at least there’s some memorable strangeness going on here. At its best, the contrast between what’s happening on screen (say, Jonathan having a seemingly rational, if somewhat whiny, conversation with Caesar) and what we know to be actually true (puppets don’t talk, dammit) makes this distinctive. A better half hour would have either heightened that contrast, or eliminated it entirely by trying come up with a semi-rational explanation for events. As is, we’re left with a muddle that probably won’t haunt your dreams, but will at least keep you awake while you watch.

What a twist: Caesar convinces Jonathan to commit crimes; Susan finds out, and calls the cops; and Caesar decides he’ll be better off working with someone younger, more ambitious, and a whole lot meaner. (Or maybe that was his plan all along.)

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Stray observations:

  • In a nice touch, Caesar’s “professional” voice (ie, the voice Jonathan uses during the actual act) is quite a bit different from his “real” voice. Again, this is never explained, and Jonathan doesn’t seem troubled by it at all.
  • I wonder if the people who created the Batman villain the Ventriloquist ever saw this episode.
  • “If you’re so good, how come you can’t get a job?” Susan: the worst.

Next week: Martin Landau finds himself in “The Jeopardy Room,” and we take a “Stopover In A Quiet Town.”

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