The Twilight Zone: “Four O'Clock”/“Hocus-Pocus And Frisby”

The Twilight Zone: “Four O'Clock”/“Hocus-Pocus And Frisby”

“Four O’Clock” (season 3, episode 29; originally aired 4/6/1962)
In which a man says a thing, and that thing happens...

(Available on Netflix and Amazon.)

Maybe the strangest thing about “Four O’Clock” is that Rod Serling’s teleplay is actually based on a short story by Price Day. Maybe this sort of thing works better on the page; it’s probably shorter, at least. But as scripted and filmed, this is twenty minutes of heavy-handed stalling. Without knowing this was based on something else, the episode appears to be Serling at his absolutely most exhausted, reduced to throwing vitriol on the wall and hoping it sticks. The main character is developed only to the extent that the actor inhabiting him is invested in the role, and the arc of the story is simplistic enough that it’s less an arc, and more of a straight line, progressing to its inevitable conclusion with thudding, frustrating implacability. The perpetuation of inescapable destiny can be an immensely powerful dramatic tool—often, knowing what’s coming makes the wait all the more painful to endure. But here, there’s something laughable about Oliver Crangle’s (Theodore Bikel) oblivious embrace of doom, and not in a dark comedy kind of way. At its worst, this entry plays out like self-parody: welcome to the Twilight Zone, where the bad guys are so foolish they curse themselves.

That’s not exactly a new idea. Maybe the problem here is that the irony is so blindingly obvious that you start to feel bad for the bad guy, which makes the ending less a gotcha moment, and more another example of the cruel, numbing rigidity of the Zone. The set-up is simplicity in itself: Crangle is a shut in who spends his days doing research on people he considers potentially subversive, ie everyone who is not him. When he decides someone is “evil,” he begins a campaign of harassment, writing letters and making phone calls demanding that the person be fired from their job, and, maybe, even worse than that. But even this isn’t enough, and one day, he decides he needs to do something more, some grand gesture that will expose all the evil people in the world for the monsters they are. He decides this “something” will happen at four o’clock (maybe he saw the episode title), and, after some ranting, strikes on the completely reasonable plan to turn expose all the evil ones by shrinking them down to two feet tall. He has no equipment for this plan, nor is there any suggestion that he’s a wizard, but still, you probably see where this is going.

From a certain angle, this kind of works. When it comes to hectoring trolls and scaremongers, the tactics always rest on the importance, and the intensity, of their unquestioned belief; the words have an impact because of the vitriol that drives them, and there’s something undeniably appropriate about seeing someone suffer directly at their own hands, his all-consuming arrogance blinding him to the obvious irony of his fate. Joseph McCarthy had been dead five years by the time this episode aired, but the threat of Communist witch hunts hangs in the air throughout. You can hear it in the way Crangle talks about the people he hunts, the way he won’t pin down their crimes in anything more than vague, philosophical terms—for Crangle, there’s a “right” kind of person and a “wrong” kind of person, and nearly everyone falls into the latter category. His uncanny ability to track down information, combined with his determination to put that knowledge to the most destructive use possible, makes him a danger, although his lack of clear ideology keeps the satire from becoming specific. But the idea of someone tainting, even ruining lives from afar, is a potent one. Again, the words matter.

As ever, Serling is interested in mocking/punishing the bullies and petty dictators of the world, and Crangle’s obsessive quest puts him firmly in the latter category, a bitter, raving lunatic with just enough power to occasionally do some real damage. In a sense, his fate is richly deserved, because it’s simply a silent universe conceding to his wishes. He finally gets what he thinks he wants, after all these years of hounding innocents, only to find he was wrong all along.

But then, the episode ends soon after the discovery—Crangle rants about the importance of four o’clock, he meets some nice people who try and make him see how crazy he is, he ignores them, and then he’s two feet tall and his parrot is laughing at him. Now, normally it’s a fool’s game to start projecting past the end of a Twilight Zone episode; to wonder what happens to someone after Rod Serling’s narration kicks in is to diminish the power of an ending for the sake of empty speculation. (It can be fun, no question, but not really useful critically.) Here, though, trying to imagine what happens to Mr. Crangle is interesting because it points to one of the episode’s main flaws.

There’s a sort of objectivism that runs through a lot of the series: bad men tend to be bad, good men tend to be good, and that sort of thing. The best episodes find more complexity than that, but when Serling decides he wants to make a point about a certain kind of villainy, the complexity goes out the window. This can still be effective (I don’t think “It’s A Good Life” would be improved if the kid had a soft side, for instance), but in something like this, where the only character we really get to know is the bad guy, it shifts the balance of power somewhat. As the protagonist, Crangle’s eagerness to destroy others marks him as a nasty piece of work, and yet because we spend so much time with him, that nastiness becomes more complicated than just pure “evil.” We’re never given more justification for Crangle’s behavior than that he does what he does because he thinks someone needs to, which marks him less as a tyrant, and more a pathetic shut-in, one with a small amount of power, but who is deeply mentally disturbed. Bikel’s performance is enthusiastic and passionate, and while there’s almost certainly an element of sadism in the character’s work, he also really does seem to believe in his cause.

The question is, then, if being shrunk to two feet tall will make him see the folly of his ways. If he can change, than the fate becomes deserved. If he can’t, what was the point of all this? The best comeuppances on the show are satisfying because they’re appropriate, and because of the slight tinge of Old Testament God running through them; the punishment might outweigh the crime, but that’s a warning to anyone to keep on the straight and narrow, because God is watching and He has a nasty sense of humor. But time and again, the show has relied too much on the supposed loathesomeness of its characters to drive the drama, with the result being too confused to really land. Crangle is a petty tyrant who deserves a reckoning, but the build to that reckoning, and the lack of imagination going into it, transforms the pay-off from a gratifying, if wince-inducing, conclusion, to something mean-spirited and kind of dull.

What a twist: Oliver Crangle decides that at four o’clock, all the evil people in the world will be shrunk down to two feet tall. At four o’clock, he shrinks down to two feet tall.

Grade: C-

Stray observations:

  • The closest the episode comes to working is in the weird, utterly ridiculous way Crangle makes the decision that seals his fate. It’s not well motivated (in that it’s easy to grasp why Crangle would want something like this, but not easy to understand what made him decide on today), but has the kind of childish, dreamlike logic that drives the decision making of someone whose brain just isn’t working the way it should. As odd as it is, it does make sense that Crangle would dream up this scheme. At the same time, the fact that it makes sense just makes what happens all the more pointless. The ‘60s had a different concept of mental health, but it’s still hard to get much satisfaction from cutting down to size a guy who doesn’t seem to have the capacity to understand the joke. (And yes, I’m reading too much into this. That’s another problem with scripts like this: they give you too much time to think.)
  • At least the people Crangle talks to are sympathetic, unlike, say, "One More Pallbearer." The landlady is appropriately offended, the wife of the surgeon is justifiably upset, and the FBI agent is mostly silent.
  • “That man’s got a leak in his attic a mile wide.” Yes. Yes he does.
  • “Nut.” -judgmental parrot. (Maybe what really gets to me here is the idea that “evil” and “insanity” are directly linked. I’ve always believed “evil” required choice.)

“Hocus Pocus And Frisby” (season 3, episode 30; originally aired 4/13/1962)
In which nobody believes a liar who tells the truth...

(Available on Netflix and Amazon.)

A sort of old-fashioned fable with a slightly modern twist, “Hocus Pocus And Frisby” is a genial half hour of television that works largely on the strength of its cast, and its affable perspective on the world. There are stakes here—Mr. Frisby nearly gets transported off the planet—but there aren’t any real villains, and the human characters are so clearly fond of one another that it’s hard for that affection not to rub off a little on the viewer. On the downside, the jokes never rise above the level of smile-worthy, and all that friendliness doesn’t translate into anything like narrative urgency. This is a nice half hour, in both the good and bad sense of the word, and your enjoyment of it depends on your appreciation for a bit of goofiness, the occasional bizarre piece of effects work, and the impression that, aliens or not, everything works out alright in the end.

The main reason this works as well as it does is Andy Devine’s performance as the titular Frisby, a friendly, laid-back gas station owner with a fondness for prevarication. We’re introduced to Frisby as he sits in his store, spinning yarn after yarn to his bemused (but never gullible) friends, and generally doing everything in his power to avoid work as much as possible. It’s a character who could, in theory, come off as pathetic, or even unpleasantly arrogant. Frisby’s lies are self-serving and and grandiose, painting himself as a genius capable of great leaps forward in every field of life, and that relentless self-aggrandizement (and it is relentless) might have easily become the monologues of a bitter small town loser, determined to make up the life he feels he was entitled to, but never had. Instead, Devine is so inherently likable that Frisby is just a friendly buffoon, the kind of guy who doesn’t have a mean bone in his body (he’s very trusting when someone actually buys something from his store), but just can’t help spinning the truth whenever the opportunity arises.

It also doesn’t hurt that his follow loafers are never taken in by Frisby’s stories. They question the logic of much of what he says, but in the sort of way you’d pick apart the plot-holes of a much-loved TV show; clearly, they get a fair amount of enjoyment out of pointing out over and over again how little any of what the man says makes sense, if only because nothing seems to phase Frisby very much, or even throw him off his storytelling. It’s easy to imagine these men hanging out for hours every week, jawing at each other and rolling their eyes when Frisby throws out another whopper about inventing a new form of fuel, or single-handedly winning World War II. That’s the joke, really: in his own life, no one takes Frisby seriously, so he doesn’t have any reason to change his ways. Then outsiders arrive, completely trust everything they hear, and things take a turn for the worse. The tone struck at the beginning is important, because if Frisby was surrounded by people who couldn’t stand him, the episode wouldn’t be any fun to watch. (A twenty minute long “Boy Who Cried Wolf” sounds pretty unbearable, even if the wolves were from outer space.) As it is, the opening creates such a warm, comfortable setting that it’s easier to accept the foolishness that follows.

Make no mistake, though: there is foolishness. Aliens who drive convertibles and immediately assume the first person they meet is the smartest man on the planet, for one. It's also hard to imagine a race that's never heard of lying before, although that's strange enough to be kind of neat. (Also neat: that crazy hand wall!) In a way, that’s the point; everything that actually happens to Frisby after his friends leave, from the disembodied voice to the spaceship in the desert (Frisby’s response is to comment on how he designed just such a model himself, only better, back when he worked for the government), to the weird folded-canvas faced aliens, is utterly ridiculous. So ridiculous, in fact, that it wouldn’t be at all out of place in one of Frisby’s tall tales, which leads to the episodes utterly predictable, but still pretty good, punchline. The aliens, like everyone else, aren’t really bad guys. They aren’t interested in dissecting Frisby, or torturing him until he reveals all the secrets of the planets. Their job, as they fly around in what looks like a rec room of a Bond villain, is to find the smartest, best example of a human being to bring back to their home world, where he’ll be stuck in a zoo. (Maybe he’ll have a cage next to Roddy McDowall.)

Frisby isn’t keen on this, and we get the closest thing to a legitimate dramatic moment that the episode ever tries: he tells the truth. It’s a small thing, but up until that point, the guy was so committed to his increasingly implausible mythology that he never broke character. But when he does, it brings him just slightly more into focus. He knows he’s a liar, which means he doesn’t really believe he did all the amazing things he said he did; which means he knows he’s just an old man running a gas station, spending his life being an old fool for his friends. There’s nothing tragic, or even all that sad in that (if Frisby has a dead wife in his past, she doesn’t come up), but it’s a human moment in an episode mostly content with skimming along the surface.

Unsurprisingly, the aliens don’t believe him, and so the final piece of the real-life tall tale falls into place: the improbable escape plan. Turns out, the aliens can’t stand the sound of Frisby’s harmonica, and a few blows on it are enough to get him out of the ship and back home to his store, where his friends are waiting for him. There are stakes at work here, and the aliens are mildly creepy (something about cheap looking affects always unsettles me), but nothing ever gets sharp enough to be great drama or great comedy. It’s just affable and sweet, and it ends with Frisby’s friends giving him an award for being the best liar around. Awww, y’know?

What a twist: Frisby finally has an experience to rival one of the made-up stories he’s told for years, but when he tries to tell his friends what happened, no one believes him.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • That shot of Frisby breaking open one of the alien’s masks and finding its real face underneath is pretty good nightmare fuel.
  • “Frisby, you’re the biggest liar who ever sat by a stove.”

Next week: Todd contemplates a new body in “The Trade-Ins,” and the decides to look too closely at “The Gift.” 

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