May 23, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 13. The Four of Us Are Dying


directed by John Brahm
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on a short story by George Johnson
starring Harry Townes, Phillip Pine, Ross Martin, and Don Gordon
with Harry Jackson, Bernard Fein, Peter Brocco, Milton Frome and Beverly Garland
music by Jerry Goldsmith

Friday, January 1, 1960, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Happy New Year to all Twilight Zone creators, writers, producers, and narrators! It’s 1960! The year you turn… 36! Just like Arch Hammer, that unscrupulous, lowdown, no-good man! (Readers, please be aware that I had written the previous entry before watching this one and had no foreknowledge of Arch or his age.)

With this in mind, let’s consider the opening text as subconscious self-portraiture:

His name is Arch Hammer. He’s 36 years old. He’s been a salesman, a dispatcher, a truck driver, a con man, a bookie, and a part-time bartender. This is a cheap man, a nickel-and-dime man, with a cheapness that goes past the suit and the shirt: a cheapness of mind; a cheapness of taste. A tawdry little shine on the seat of his conscience, and a dark-room squint at a world whose sunlight has never gotten through to him. But Mr. Hammer has a talent, discovered at an early age. This much he does have: he can make his face change. He can twitch a muscle, move a jaw, concentrate on the cast of his eyes… and he can change his face. He can change it into anything he wants.

The seedy con-man in Rod — now the star of two consecutive episodes — is the embodiment of moral anxiety. “What evil am I secretly capable of?” This episode is basically the same as all stories where magic powers — particularly invisibility — are the road to voyeuristic corruption: first the nervous audience is tantalized and titillated by the thought of unlimited sex, money, and cruelty without consequence; then the villainous magicians get their deserts, and we go home feeling relieved to be relatively powerless.

“Voyeurism” is really just an expression of normal impulses, filtered through social phobia: the desire to be with people without suffering the risks and terrors of being known to them. The existence of “invisible man” cautionary tales — in fact, the very notion of “voyeurism” itself, this idea that wanting to look at people even though you’re scared of them is a DIRE PERVERSION — is a product of social-phobic self-flagellation, which is to say a product of social anxiety itself. I.e.: “I like people, but people don’t like or accept me. Oh god, if they ever found out I like them, I’m sure they’d think I’m a super-creep. And since I really want to fit in, I’ll try to get in line with that opinion and agree: it’s true, I’m a super-creep. Oh god, what creepy things might I do? Thank god I don’t have the power to turn invisible, or you can bet I’d spend all my time being downright cheap and tawdry. A cheapness of mind; a cheapness of taste.”

But “The Four of Us Are Dying” brings it even closer to home, by making Hammer’s “most odd talent” be one of transformation, rather than disappearance. If Rod isn’t sure who he is — an innocent kid in idyllic Binghamton? a boxer in the ring? a soldier killing men in the south Pacific? a calculating ladies’ man? a husband and father? a hack writer? a TV producer in a suit? — he may well feel that in any given role he’s a phony, just playing a part for his own gain, hiding behind yet another convenient mask, living out his life in a personal twilight zone. And isn’t that, after all, a writer’s “most odd talent”? You tell lies about yourself, and sell them to anyone who’ll buy. Last week he was “Fred Renard.” This week he’s “Arch Hammer.” The question is, who is he when he checks into the “Hotel Real”?

In other words, Rod’s not even sure he’s entitled to the make-believe on which the show is founded; even this kind of escape is potentially dirty.

And we don’t have to have written it to share in his discomfort. Being audience to fiction is just as protean as inventing it; just as guilty, if you’re susceptible to that kind of guilt. There’s something noir about enjoying something like noir, make-believing your way into a wonderland of neon and cigarettes and dames that really, properly, aren’t yours.

Why not a beautiful dame? Why not? I never had a dish like that! I’ve never been loved like that! Why shouldn’t I?

This story — this girl, this money, this nocturnal glamour — is as much an undeserved fantasy for the audience as for Hammer. Who are we this week? This is a dream, and in a dream, we can be anyone: we just have to think of a face.

Oh god, we’re such creeps!

I’ll admit that the first time I watched this episode it didn’t really hang together for me because I couldn’t feel my way into that basic dream-guilt; I don’t share it with Rod. The episode just seemed like a series of disconnected ideas — especially the melodramatic scene with Mr. Marshak, which felt tonally arbitrary and more than a little silly.

It was only on second viewing when all the above clicked for me — oh, I see, the feeling is supposed to be guilt — and suddenly the Marshak scene made sense too. It’s a classic dream moment: in the midst of all the fantasy of changeability — I’m a cool cat! I’m a tough gangster! I’m a macho boxer! — suddenly deep, dark familial guilt rises up and pins you down. The scene confused me the first time around because I took it literally, as just some weird speech intended for the random boxer from the poster. But of course in a dream, the dad is just as protean as the self; for Rod, dreaming this episode, this dad is the dad. We’re to understand that underneath the borrowed face, in some mythical sense, Marshak has the right man after all. Hammer himself deserves every word, just as he deserves the bullet.

“I gotta concentrate! I gotta concentrate!” he pleads, trying to out-think society yet again, but the inescapable Other who represents emotional truth cannot be escaped, and kills him. To invisible men, the fear of being made visible is indistinguishable from the expectation of death, so here, out of left field, is that death you ordered.

Beyond the sudden contrivance of it, it’s also unsatisfying that the “figure of truth” is just some guy operating under a misapprehension. It would be a more effective ending, I think, if Mr. Marshak was made a little more weird and biblical when he showed up at the end, a little more like an avenging angel.

(A father killing his own adult son is a relative rarity in fiction, no? Nice paired casting, by the way. I thought maybe they really were father and son. Nope.)

I mean, look: I’m trying as always to speak to the psychological root here, and I mean what I’m saying, but the fact is, this is a goofy and clumsy episode. As I’m sure you already agree. Great neon lights set, though.

• The “scattered clippings” on the bed (see above) are just repeated duplicates of the only two clippings actually used in the episode. I guess he bought several copies of the paper.

• More of Serling’s undercooked pretentiousness (a la “And When The Sky Was Opened”): “Mourning becomes you, Maggie.” / “Me and Electra.” What could possibly be the point of this meaningless and utterly inapt allusion? (No, this doesn’t relate to my comment about a parent killing a child; Electra kills her mother in revenge for her mother having killed her father. Like Hamlet. If you want to make a case for how this relates to “The Four of Us Are Dying,” be my guest, but I’m skeptical.)

• I note that Rod oddly neglects to end the episode by reminding us that it all happened “in… The Twilight Zone.” And it feels wrong not to hear it. Why, after all, are we tilting up to the stars if he’s not going to tell us what zone this is?

George Clayton Johnson, author of the source story, will be back with original scripts later, from which we’ll get a better sense of his personality. The original story here, apparently called “All of Us Are Dying,” isn’t available online so I can’t speak to it; reports are that as usual Serling dumped just about everything but the premise. It is worth noting that in this case, the story was unpublished when Serling bought it, and though it did later see print, is generally considered as an appendix to the Twilight Zone episode rather than its precursor.

Passing thought while rewatching: This is the greatest TV series of all time. Look what craziness it gives us the opportunity to see! And think what variety of further craziness it’s going to encompass! It’s a true thrill. And such a show is no longer possible.

The reason this can’t be done again (and why all attempts at reboots seem weak) is because we don’t have a sturdy no-frills directorial standard practice anymore that can accommodate all this stuff convincingly. There is no artistic tradition today that could so easily scoop up this particular story, say, and deliver it, as-is, without aesthetic strain. None of this acting, none of this camera technique, is conceivable in the present culture. And that seems like a sign of cultural weakness. We should aspire to be capable of anything. The cult of originality has deprived us of the reassuring competence of generalism. I’d gladly trade back, if we could.

Now that’s out of the way, I can admit what this episode is really all about: ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jerry Goldsmith!

30 years old, with only three film scores under his belt, but already clearly embarked on his life’s work of writing terrific, inventive music for mediocre productions. My considerable enthusiasm for his sound world (plink thunk wah-wah buzz whoosh snap!) is sadly dampened by the fact that most of it is wedded to junk. Even with this score, I find myself wishing the episode were better just for the sake of the music. This is great stuff.

Composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith.

Recorded December 4, 1959, 7:30AM–12:10PM, Goldwyn Studios

16 players:

Maurice Carlton, Nicholas Dann, Herman Gunkler, Ralph Lee, and Jack Stacy, reeds
(= 2 flutes, 3 clarinets / 2 alto saxes, 2 tenor saxes, baritone sax)
Leonard Mach, Uan Rasey, and Manuel Stevens, trumpets
Marshall Cram, Edward Kusby, Randall Miller, and William Schaefer, trombones
Sam Furman, piano
Robert Stone, bass
Milton Holland and Bernie Mattinson, percussion
(= drum kit / vibraphone / xylophone / marimba / bongo / boo-bams / gourd)

Incidentally, my source for this stuff also gives the date for the “sideline” call (i.e. the on-camera musicians) and thus the date the bar scene was filmed:

September 3, 1959, 7:30AM—5:30PM (Sideline), 4:15–7:15PM (Recording), MGM Studios

3 musicians: Sam Furman, Maurice Carlton, and Robert Stone (all of whom, as you see, played the real score, too. The trumpet player with lines, however, is an actor.)

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