The Twilight Zone: “One More Pallbearer”/“Dead Man's Shoes”

The Twilight Zone: “One More Pallbearer”/“Dead Man's Shoes”

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“One More Pallbearer” (season 3, episode 17; originally aired 1/12/1962)
In which a loser keeps on losing...

A pair of middling episodes this week, neither of them awful, but neither of them exactly good, either; both suffer from stories that don’t work as effectively as they need to, and both benefit from strong lead performances that at times subvert the intentions of the actual narrative. Of the two of them, “One More Pallbearer” is more of a chore to get through, because there’s no real suspense. In the opening scene, we meet Paul Radin (Joseph Wiseman), a natty gentleman and apparent rich person whose hired a workman to construct a view screen in his basement. Well, that’s not exactly it. He isn’t just installed a new TV: he’s setting up a bomb shelter that will allow him to trick people into believing the world has ended. Which means videos of nuclear explosions, pre-recorded Civil Defense radio broadcasts, nightmarish sound effects, the works. It’s an elaborate set-up, and work-man is clearly impressed; more, the audience impressed, and immediately curious as to why Paul went to all this trouble.

Turns out, he’s designed a trap in order to punish three people who humiliated him at various points in his life. Mrs. Langsford (Katherine Squire) was Paul’s teacher as a boy; when she caught Paul cheating, she excoriated him in front of the class, and went even harder on him when he tried to place the blame on someone else. Reverend Hughes (Gage Clark) preached against Paul when Paul’s actions drove a young woman to suicide. And finally, Colonel Hawthorne (Trevor Bardette) had Paul court martialed for refusing an order to attack a hill. Despite these setbacks, Paul has managed to excel in life, and is now in a position to get some petty, petty revenge. His plan: first, he’ll convince the three that the world is ending, and then he’ll offer them the use of his bomb shelter, but only if they get down on their knees and apologize to him for their various offenses.

This is a complicated plan, to say the least. It seems almost to have been built off the twist of another episode. Oh, you think the world is ending? Turns out it’s all an elaborate hoax! Letting the audience in on the twist early has a certain amount of cleverness to it, because it gets ahead of our expectations by confirming them in advance. And the ending works fairly well, too, appearing to be a deeply implausible twist before reversing to show that it’s just another expression of Paul’s lonely, doomed character. But by making it clear at the outset that Doomsday isn’t coming, the scenes with Paul confronting his tormenters lose a lot of their tension. The stakes are minor at best, and they dwindle even further once it becomes obvious that Paul’s plan hasn’t a hope in hell of succeeding.

Again, that’s got a certain amount of cleverness, because at times it plays like a trio of sensible people wandered into one of Rod Serling’s nightmares and decided they were having no truck with such foolishness. None of them have any remorse or guilt over their past actions, and they don’t bend in the slightest when Paul tries to change their minds. Worse (for him), when the festivities start, the trio is more concerned about getting back to their families than begging for their lives. The only thing the “joke” accomplishes is throwing a brief scare into Paul’s enemies, a scare which will be completely alleviated as soon as they take a ride in the elevator back up to the street. This has a certain novel charm to it, because it reverses any expectation on how a Twilight Zone episode is supposed to go. The “good” people are never in any danger, and they never expose themselves as secret cowards. They don’t suffer so much as a reduction in dignity. It’s just one more character tear down for Paul, in what appears to have been a lifetime of people telling him what an asshole he is.

And that’s kind of an issue, because Serling’s script is clearly pushing for some sort of moral apotheosis, but it mostly plays as merciless grind. There’s no doubt that Paul is a creep, but we don’t actually see any of the horrors he commits (apart from the prank itself, which is dickish, no question), which means his creepiness is more conceptual than a visceral fact. Wiseman gets across the character’s arrogance and refusal to accept criticism, but he also hints at a deeper vulnerability that makes Paul sympathetic; certainly not anyone you’d want to spend any length of time in a bomb shelter with, but there’s a recognizable human being under all the artifice and feigned pomposity. It’s an excellent performance, and one which helps to make the episode more watchable than it would otherwise be. Paul’s repeated refusal to recognize what’s right in front of him—namely that his whole scheme is doomed to failure from the start—is pathetic, ugly, and kind of fascinating to watch, especially once you realize that his refusal isn’t a choice. As the “twist” ending shows, Paul has locked himself away in a world of his own conception, and he can’t accept reality when it disagrees with his assumptions, even when those assumptions mean the end of everything.

It’s just, Wiseman is so good, and Paul is so interesting, that the supposed moral paragons who lecture him come across as bland and unlikable by comparison. Mrs. Langsford’s increasingly ornate put-downs are presented in the voice of moral authority, but there’s something off about it, especially her idea that “sympathy and compassion” have to be earned, as though a high school or, worse, elementary school student who cheats and lies to cover his behavior is so unquestionably awful that he automatically deserves to be written off for life. Sympathy and compassion aren’t earned, and there’s something horribly uncharitable in the righteous smugness with which Langsford once again condemns her former pupil. None of the others fare much better. The colonel’s story implies Paul is a coward under fire, which, quite frankly, isn’t something I can ever truly despise anyone for. The reverend’s accusation about the dead girl (who killed herself because Paul treated her badly) is more deservedly harsh, but without hearing the story, or having seen Paul in any other context than as a petty, needy man, the reading of his sins has no impact. We’re told not to like him over and over again, and some of it sticks, but it gets old.

Really, it’s the delivery that’s the issue more than the content. “One More Pallbearer” (whose name never makes a damn bit of sense, even when it’s mentioned in the episode itself) gets to Paul’s reckoning far too quickly. The three people he tries to hurt are so utterly impervious to injury that their positions become reversed; instead of a mastermind tormenting a group of decent but unsuspecting victims, it’s a sad little boy lashing out at adults who can’t be bothered to hide their disdain. The reversal, from what we expect to happen (Paul torments his tormentors) to what actually happens (he has no power over them) is conceptually effective. It plays on our assumptions, proving better than any lecture how much Paul’s instability and selfishness have damaged him over the years. But it happens so quickly that we never get to see him in command. That’s a crucial step missing, because without it, he just comes across as a lonely twerp driven out of his mind because he knows no one gives a damn about him. In the end, he imagines that his ruse has come true, and the bombs really have dropped. This is presented as just deserts, but if you can hear those desperate cries of isolation, and not have some pity, well, maybe you should come by my bomb shelter some time.

What a twist: Paul builds a bomb shelter to trick his enemies into thinking the world has ended. But then it looks like he was more prescient than he realized, because the bombs really have dropped! But no, they didn’t, and the world is fine; Paul’s just gone hopelessly insane.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:

  • Paul’s “prank” seems like something someone who’d watched a lot of Twilight Zone episodes might dream up.
  • According to Mrs. Langsford, Paul’s “a millionaire, three times over.” Funny how that doesn’t sound quite so impressive as it used to.

“Dead Man’s Shoes” (season 3, episode 18; originally aired 1/19/1962)
In which footwear can be life changing...

This one’s pretty damn silly. A group of cartoon mobsters (not literally cartoons, because that would’ve been amazing; just cliched, shallow archetypes) dump a body of one of their own in an alley. A bum finds the corpses, and decides to pull a Dorothy and steal the dead man’s shoes right off his feet. This is a bad idea, although not in the way you’d expect: the shoes take over the bum’s mind, effectively possessing him with the dead man’s spirit. The possessed bum tries to jump back into his old life, and then get some revenge on the people who killed him. He fails, but vows that he’ll keep coming back again, and again, and again for as long as it takes until he succeeds. The episode ends with the bum’s body getting dumped, and one of his hobo friends finding the corpse, and deciding that he’d like those shiny new shoes himself.

Which, as these things go, isn’t terrible; I do like the idea that murdered mobster is so bent on killing his killers that he can’t ever be stopped. (Admittedly, the fact that the killers keep dumping bodies in alleys is going to make his job a lot easier.) But there’s no real center to anything that happens, and once you catch on to the gimmick, that’s pretty much it. Oh, the script (credited to Charles Beaumont, but, according to Marc Scott Zicree in The Twilight Zone Companion, OCee Ritch also worked on it) doesn’t have a lot of the disbelief patter that drags down so many other promising episodes; the people in the dead man’s life don’t immediately accept what’s happened, but it all goes by so quickly that there’s not a lot of time for them to ask the same questions over and over again. But the middle ten minutes of the half hour is just Nathan Bledsoe the bum (Warren Stevens) hanging out in Dane the mobster’s old apartment, doing himself up pretty and terrifying Dane’s former girlfriend, Wilma (Joan Marshall). It all just sort of sits there, plot-wise, with only Stevens performance to give us any sense of what’s happening to Bledsoe, or what might happen next.

Thankfully, Stevens is so good that watching him shave and change his clothes is a lot more entertaining than it might otherwise have been. We don’t get to know Nathan very well before he puts on the shoes and loses himself, but Stevens does an excellent job differentiating between the two characters. As Nate, he’s nervous, bordering on feral, and terrified about what’s happening to him. As Dane, he’s the ultimate hardcase, a monstrous, violent son of a bitch who controls the room just by walking into it. While the story never gets beyond second gear, Stevens generates enough mesmerizing intensity to make events feel more weighty and thrilling than they actually are.

The downside is, when the script doesn’t live up to the acting, the gap between the two can become distracting. Midway through the episode, Nathan takes off his shoes in Dane’s bedroom. The Dane entity immediately leaves him, and his normal self reasserts, with little conception of where he is, or what’s happening to him. Wilma comes in with a gun, demanding answers, and Nathan, terrified, can’t give her any. He begs her for help, a request which she is understandably suspicious of. So she tells him to put on his shoes and get the hell out. He puts on the shoes, Dane reasserts himself, and the gun is no longer an issue. It’s not a bad exchange; I especially like that Wilma has every reason to tell him to put the shoes back on. But Stevens is so convincing at selling the Nathan’s sheer animal panic at his situation that it throws the rest of the story off. This isn’t a horrifying tale of evil men using innocent pawns to do their dirty work. It’s played with a certain comic style, not something that’s out and out funny, but certainly not something that’s supposed to creep anyone out too much. Because of how Stevens plays that one scene, I spent the remainder of the episode more worried about what would happen to him than caring how Dane would handle his vengeance; and when Nathan wound up dead in an alley, I was too bummed out to get much pleasure from the final joke.

On the flipside, Stevens is so convincingly imposing as Dane that it’s difficult to believe this group of chumps was able to take him out so easily. This is less of an issue, and it’s possible to justify it if you really want to, but Stevens’ Dane comes across as Michael Corleone in a room full of Iotians from Star Trek’s “A Piece Of The Action.” That’s not to say that Dane is a rich, well-drawn character with a complex back story and detailed motivations. He’s as much a thug as the rest, and it’s clear enough that his rivals took him out in part because they were scared of him. But the scene with Dagget (Richard Devon) near the end, when Dagget is able to fool him in what amounts to a variation on the same trick he used to kill him the first time, is a let down. Stevens is the best part of the half hour, so his absence is telling (not that there’s much running time after he dies). Here’s someone so bent on getting back at the ones who killed him that he’s able to come back from the grave to do it, but he doesn’t bother to plan. He just walks straight up to the men who did him in, gloats, and then gives them time to shoot him one more time.

Maybe there’s a kind of irony in that; Dane’s inability to understand his own flaws dooms him to repeating the same routine over and over and over again. But since we know so little about Dane, the repetition seems to come less from character, and more from the need for some kind of twist. It’s okay, so far as that goes. Unlike the previous episode, “Dead Man’s Shoes” mostly just suffers from being slight. But it also fails to recognize the one character whose fate we’re most interested in: Nathan himself. By marginalizing him, and making him effectively disappear after that conversation with Wilma, the script loses what little weight it had. Stevens manages to get across what he can, but in doing so, he only makes the absence more prominent. The best Twilight Zones have a center to them, an individual or individuals struggling to stay sane and alive in the face of the impossible. This one keeps the impossible, but forgets the center, and the result is passable, but hollow.

What a twist: The ghost of Dane takes over a bum named Nathan’s body (insert soul/sole joke here), and tries to kill the men who killed him. He fails, but promises he’ll keep coming back; and in the end, another bum finds his shoes.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:

  • Are people even named Wilma anymore?
  • Dane is a big fan of “tequila with a cube of sugar.” It’s a good thing he’s got a signature drink, or otherwise no one would know who he is!

Next week: Todd comes back from “The Hunt,” and his himself a “Showdown With Rance McGrew.” 

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