The Twilight Zone: “A World Of Difference”/“Long Live Walter Jameson”
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The Twilight Zone: “A World Of Difference”/“Long Live Walter Jameson”

“A World Of Difference” (season 1, episode 23; originally aired 3/11/1960)

In which Arthur Curtis gets the feeling that he’s being watched

Was The Twilight Zone the first meta TV show? Probably not; any time I’m tempted to mark the origin of an idea, I’m invariably off by a decade or two. But still, there’s something remarkable about TZ’s casual willingness to poke holes in itself. It’s built into the show’s very premise, the idea of a special place where anything is possible so long as you’re looking at it just—a little—off. So we get episodes where astronauts disappear from reality, or terrified men become trapped inside their own dreams. On a certain level, sure, these are ideas that fit nicely within the genre. Tempting the unknown has always been a fruitful source for authorial inspiration, and characters in conflict with themselves is the key to great dramas. But in the Zone, there’s a slipperiness to these events that you don’t find elsewhere, the impression that a writer’s will (and a little luck) are all which stands between us and chaos. When this works, the series is unsettling in a way that transcends more conventional horror, going past concerns of bodily harm and fears of death to touch a nerve we know is there but can never quite reach on our own. When this fails, we get episodes that never quite coalesce, reaching for a solidity that remains permanently beyond their grasp.

“A World Of Difference” leans towards the success column, although it’s a close thing. In many ways, this serves as a companion piece to “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” given its interest in the illusions of cinema and the perpetually disappointing concerns of real life. But then, both those episodes are about the possibility of escape, of finding some paradise where stress and contempt and alimony payments are no longer relevant, and that’s one of TZ’s main subgenres, alongside “Everybody’s really just an asshole after all,” “Awwwww,” and the ever popular “The Sporting Fly Super-Dome Of Death, sponsored by the Wanton Gods.” Howard Duff is Arthur Curtis, a pleasant-enough businessman with a pleasant-enough life. He arrives at his pleasant-enough job, peaks outside the window, and then sets his appointments with his pleasant-enough secretary. Then he goes into his office, and makes a phone call. At least, he tries to make a phone call, but there’s only a dead line on the other end, and when he looks to his left, where there was a wall just a half minute before, he sees… a film sound stage, complete with a film camera, cameraman, and a number of other people, including a director already irritated at “Arthur” for dropping his cue.

There are a few good moments in “World”—including an ending that’s optimistic and creepy—but the episode never tops the shock of seeing all that artifice suddenly, and with very little warning, stripped away. Soon enough, the situation becomes clarified; we’re not seeing the actual TZ episode being filmed, or any of the behind-the-scenes personnel, and neither Richard Matheson (who wrote the script) nor Rod Serling poke in their heads to wave at us dumbstruck viewers at home. But for a few seconds, it’s easy to think that what we’ve come to accept as ironclad on the show is no long so reliable. It’s a brilliant transition, beautifully staged by director Ted Post, and it’s enough to throw the viewer off guard for most of the rest of the half hour. It’s hard not to wonder what else the camera might reveal the next time in pans to the side—the real crew? A monster? Or maybe the image of ourselves, watching from what we thought was the inviolate sanctity of our own homes.

It’s a lucky thing this moment is so effective, because much of the rest of “World” falls back on that old routine in which our protagonist refuses to accept the impossible, and keeps resorting to increasingly repetitive attempts to prove his worst fears wrong. Multiple people inform Arthur (in tones that range from irritation to condescension to, in the case of one profoundly pissed off ex-wife, deep rooted rage) that his real name is Gerry Raigan, an actor struggling to hold it together just long enough to make it through the role of—wait for it—Arthur Curtis. Gerry isn’t doing so great. He has a drinking problem, his agent is desperate to dump him, his director can barely look at him, and his ex-wife is a shrieking harridan, nearly running him down with a car before demanding he hand over his latest alimony payment. It’s hard to blame Arthur, or Gerry, or whichever, for wishing he was someone else. And it’s not unrealistic that he’d keep trying to prove he is who he says he is. But as we’ve seen before on this show, protagonists who attempt to solve the same problem in the same way multiple times make for bad drama. Arthur tries to call his wife, but the operator doesn’t know his address. He drives to where he knows he lives, but the neighborhood is all wrong, and when he thinks he sees his daughter, it’s some other little girl who shrieks when he grabs her. Then Arthur tries to call the place where he works, only the company doesn’t exist. And so on. It’s not painful, exactly; Duff’s sincere, increasingly agitated confusion helps, as the does the artful way some of these scenes are shot. (I’m thinking in particular of Arthur’s aborted attempt to call his wife. He stands there on the sound stage, surrounded by strangers and shadows, and the visuals do a great job of indicating his mental state.) It’s just, none of this provides us with information we didn’t already know. Once Arthur tries to phone home and the line doesn’t exist, it’s clear that the world he knew is gone. There’s no need to reinforce this information more than once.

“World” has another flaw as well, namely Gerry’s horrible, horrible ex-wife. Nora (Eileen Ryan) is hateful from the first moment we see her, even if she does basically let Arthur steal her car for an hour or two. Even Raigan’s agent, the closest thing to a sympathetic character Arthur meets in the “real” world, calls her a “harpy.” One of the premises of the episode is that Raigan’s life is so miserable, it’s entirely plausible that he might have had a nervous breakdown and decided it would be easier to be someone else. So it makes sense that Nora would have to be a less-than-pleasant alternative to Arthur’s beloved wife Tina, but the character is so irritatingly one note that she detracts from every scene she’s in. It doesn’t help that, since we never see Gerry-as-Gerry, we never have any sense why she behaves the way she does. Sure, we’re told repeatedly that Gerry is a drunk and a screw-up, but without any proof for ourselves, Arthur becomes the tormented victim of a perpetually vile reality. There’s no real ambiguity between this world and the one he left as to which one is preferable; the only suspense comes from not knowing if Arthur will ever make it back home.

He does, thankfully, and like I said, one of the things I enjoy about this episode is the ambiguity of the ending, and of the entirety of Arthur’s dilemma. Duff is never conflicted in his performance as to which character he’s playing, and so far as I can tell, the Arthur side never slips to reveal a Gerry underneath. “World” picks up near the end when it finally introduces a new conflict: Arthur learns that his “movie” has been scrapped, and they’ll be tearing down the sets soon, so if he wants any hope of getting back to where he belongs, he needs to hurry about to the studio lot. One sort of random but still entertaining car ride later, Arhtur is back in the simulacrum of his office, staring at the empty frame where his wife and daughter’s pictures used to be, and pleading not to be left behind in this awful, miserable world he’s stumbled into. A second later, reality shifts, Tina pops her head in the door, and life is as it should be—while back in the “real” world, Gerry Raigan has entirely disappeared. It’s hard to know what to make of any of this, and in a way, it’s like a lot of TZ episodes in that it leaves out an explanation where no possible explanation could really make sense. If you say, “Gerry had a nervous breakdown and willed himself into a new life,” okay, there’s precedence for that, but it still doesn’t really capture the pleasure of almost, but not quite, grasping what happened. Arthur’s anxious to leave the office with his wife because he’s terrified she could disappear at any second; but is that terror the terror of a man faced with the inexplicable, or is it the terror of a man who knows that comforting insanity is a tenuous construction, and needs to be protected at all costs. Either way, when someone gives you an escape route, it’s better not to question each turn.

What a twist: Arthur Curtis finds out he’s actually an actor playing the role he thought was his life, but he has the last laugh in the end, when he wills himself back into a potentially fictional world.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • There’s also a neat shot right after Arthur transitions onto the sound stage, when he looks through the window he peeked through earlier and sees a couple of crew members just hanging around, staring at him.
  • Actual Line Nora Says: “Gerry, I’m gonna bleed you. I’m gonna bleed you dry.” (I’ll admit, it’s actually sort of fascinating just how much Ryan throws herself into the role. I kept wondering if Gerry had murdered their imaginary son or something.)
  • I wonder what the movie was actually about? All we really get is the script title, The Private World of Arthur Curtis. Which has sort of The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty vibe to it, appropriately enough.

“Long Live Walter Jameson” (season 1, episode 24; originally aired 3/18/1960)

In which one man’s life is a highway with no exit ramps

How would you react if something impossible happened to you? Or not you, even—what if you suspected something impossible was happening right next door? It’s a question that comes up in stories quite often, but for a long time, the dominant assumption in fiction that the only realistic response to the fantastical is stolid, unswerving disbelief. I grew up with the assumption that adults were all hardcore skeptics, incapable of being swayed by superstition or paranoia; one of the first lessons children’s entertainment teaches you is, when faced with the inexplicable, be it alien or monster or robot, whatever you do, don’t tell your parents. As a grown-up myself, I’m not sure this supposed truism is as tautological as I once assumed. Everyone has their own system for determining what is and isn’t real, and there’s a surprising amount of flexibility to many of these systems. Like, if my roommate were to come up to me and tell me that he thought his sister’s husband was a vampire, I wouldn’t laugh him off. I’d have my doubts, sure, but the world is such a curious place, and my knowledge of it is so limited and contextual, I’m willing to wonder about anything. Besides, my roommate is a trustworthy guy, although if it comes to it, he’ll have to do his own staking.

One of the ways in which “Long Live Walter Jameson” works is the way it handles its central conceit. As is often the case on The Twilight Zone, those of us playing along at home should be able to grasp the premise almost at once. Walter Jameson (Kevin McCarthy) is a college professor with an unusually intimate grasp of history—and it’s suggested, via Rod Serling’s narration and the very convenient Civil War journal Jameson produces during one of his lectures, that the reason he talks so convincingly of the past is that he was there to experience it. A decent start, then, and it’s not expressed so blatantly that the idea ever feels belabored, but the real genius in Charles Beaumont’s script is the way it starts in the middle of the action. When we meet Jameson and Professor Samuel Kitteridge (Edgar Stehli), they’ve already known each other for years, and, more importantly, Samuel is already well on his way to confirming the very same suspicions the viewer most likely developed in the opening scene. The episode wastes very little time in confronting those suspicions directly. We’re told Walter is a whiz in the classroom, we find out Walter is in the process of wooing Samuel’s daughter, Susanna (Dody Heath), and one quick dinner later, Samuel is raising the issue of Walter’s age, and busting out old Civil War photographs with Walter’s unchanged face in them. And Walter doesn’t put up much effort in denying the charges.

There are a few false notes in “Long Live Walter Jameson,” and I suppose we’ll get to those eventually, but I wanted to talk about how expertly balanced all of this is, how efficiently plot information is parceled out, and the surprising complexity of the two leads. It makes perfect sense that Samuel has reached the conclusions he’s reached; as he says himself, he’s had years to get old and watch Walter stay the same, years to have curiosity blossom into doubt and become near certainty. Samuel is nearing the end of his own life now, so his questions are motivated at least partially by the terror of his own mortality, and the need to jump at any possibility, no matter how remote, at staving off death just a little while longer. That’s not a bad start, but what turns him from a supplicant into a potential opponent against Walter is Walter’s romantic interest in Susanna. We only see Susanna a few times, and she doesn’t leave much of an impression, but it is very clear almost immediately that Walter has certain ideas about a woman’s role in a marriage, and those ideas don’t include her getting her doctorate as she’d originally planned. At the same time, Samuel is determined to make sure his daughter goes through with getting her degree, and while you can argue that it’s her right to choose which way she goes (for a nearly 30-year-old woman, she isn’t allowed much in the way of autonomy), it’s easier to side with Samuel than with Walter, who seems more interested in how well she can cook and clean. So Samuel is already predisposed against any possible wedding, and finding out that Susanna’s suitor is a couple thousand years older than she is, and will, best case scenario, stick around for maybe 10 or 15 years of increasingly awkward matrimonial bliss (“Honey, you don’t like a day older than when we met.” “Oh, Walter, that’s so sweet of you to say. Neither do y—wait a second. [puts on glasses] Walter, are you immortal?” “… ” “Walter.”), before he abandons her for greener (i.e., younger-and-hotter) pastures. No father wants that for his child, which means, in addition to wanting to learn Walter’s secret for his own selfish (and completely understandable) ends, Samuel needs to know the truth for Susanna’s sake. That’s good drama right there.

What makes it better is how Walter himself is characterized. He’s not a bad guy; he’s a liar, sure, and he’s broken a lot of hearts, but when Samuel catches him out, he confesses easily enough. He seems relieved at getting to come clean with someone, but there’s a curious detachment to that relief. Kevin McCarthy, best known as the square-jawed lead of the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (as well as appearing in various Joe Dante films, most memorably as the head villain in Innerspace), is well-cast; McCarthy always has a certain air of charming smugness, and it sits well on Walter, a man who claims to have been good friends with Plato. And behind the smugness, there’s a sense of deep-rooted exhaustion, like the sort of mild depression that tends to hit you mid-February where you don’t feel bad enough to kill yourself, exactly, but you wouldn’t mind too terribly if you were hit by a bus. He tells Samuel his secrets almost casually, and I couldn’t help wondering if he hadn’t been through this routine before, with a dozen or so other smart people who just happened to notice how his white hair never spread beyond the temples; if Walter’s been wooing and dumping ladies for centuries, it’d be surprising if Samuel really was the first one to catch on. Regardless, the Immortal doesn’t sound too pleased with himself. A couple thousand years ago, he paid an alchemist a lot of money to keep him alive, and he’s been staying alive pretty much ever since, through a combination of luck, and whatever process the alchemist put him through. Walter hasn’t gained any wisdom from his longevity, and he claims he really does wish he was dead—he has a gun in his desk he takes out every night and aims at his temple, but he’s never had the courage to pull the trigger.

Walter makes some grand pronouncements about how death is what gives life its flavor, and how immortality hasn’t made him happy, and it’s possible to take what he says at face value, a decent twist on humanity’s perpetual terror of death. But I like to think of it more as the life reflects the man, and in this case, while I wouldn’t say Walter is a bad guy, he isn’t a good guy, either. The years and years and years he’s lived have proven unsatisfying because in and of themselves, they weren’t the answer to whatever problems he already had. While it’s impressive how much he’s managed to change with the times (or else a comment how little the times actually change), there’s something small about him, even with all his wealth of experience. He’s confident and learned, but he’s also a fool, still willing to use women over and over again to give himself some temporary relief from the tedium of perpetual existence. “Long Live Walter Jameson” doesn’t paint his as a monster, but it clearly sides with Samuel on the question of Susanna’s fate, and I can’t really imagine disagreeing.

I said I had a few problems with this, didn’t I? Right—well, I’m a bit iffy on the ending. In concept, it’s all right. One of the women Walter abandoned, now somewhere in her 80s, shows up at his house, tells him she can’t let him go on doing what he’s been doing, and shoots him with his own gun. Then he ages at a rapid rate before finally crumbling into dust. (“He chose… poorly.”) The effects are terrific, but something about all this is a little off. The editing of the final confrontation is a bit clumsy, and while the woman (Estelle Winwood) is appropriately aged, it’s hard to get enough of a sense of their relationship, or who she is, for her to be much more than a plot contrivance. Maybe she’s a bit mental, maybe she’s horrified by the sight of Walter staying so young, there’s no way to tell. And Walter doesn’t do much to provoke her pulling the trigger. But while that makes the gun shot a bit under-justified, it’s perfectly in keeping with his character to be afraid of the possibility of death without having the will to fight back. Maybe the gun in his desk drawer isn’t the only form of passive suicide Walter engages in. Before she kills him, the old woman tells Walter she saw the announcement of his engagement to Susanna in the paper, which included a photograph of the happy couple. So not only did Walter pick up a new fiancée in the same town as someone he’d dumped decades before, he allowed his picture to appear in the paper, which sort of ruins the point of changing his name when he leaves an old identity behind. Maybe it’s just an oversight on his part, maybe he thought anyone in the area who might remember him was long dead, or maybe he hoped that his past might catch up with him, somehow. Either way, Susanna is saved, Walter is gone, and someday soon, Samuel will be gone as well. Hopefully, he’s found some measure of peace in learning that there is such a thing after all as too much life.

What a twist: Walter Jameson, who has survived over two thousand years and at least one war, is killed in his study by a wife he thought he’d left behind.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • In order for the ending to work, Walter has to be as vulnerable to physical injury as the next man, but it’s a little implausible that he’s avoided any fatal violence for so long. The Civil War wasn’t exactly a safe work space.
  • “Anyway, you’re going to be a housewife.” “The Devil she is.” (It was at this point I decided I liked Kitteridge.)
  • If this episode has a moral, it’s: “You just go on living, that’s all.”

Next week: Todd takes a trip through space with Roddy McDowall in “People Are Alike All Over,” and then does the time warp while trying to avoid an “Execution.”

Filed Under: TV, The Twilight Zone

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