The Twilight Zone: “Spur Of The Moment”/“An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”
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The Twilight Zone: “Spur Of The Moment”/“An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”

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“Spur Of The Moment” (season 5, episode 21; originally aired 2/21/1964)

In which the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon)

Director Elliot Silverstein doesn’t make much of an effort to hide the identity of the woman in black who menaces “Spur Of The Moment’s” heroine in the episode’s opening scene. Anne Henderson (Diana Hyland) is out horseback riding when she comes to a hill; at the top of the hill, an apparent stranger on top of her own horse looks down, and shrieks “ANNE!” A close-up gives the game away: the “stranger” is an older version of Anne herself, with Hyland done up in grim shading and faux-crowfeet. But while the story itself doesn’t get around to revealing that fact officially for another fifteen minutes, it wouldn’t have been much of a mystery in any case. Anne is engaged, and getting ready to be married to a handsome, if somewhat dull, investment banker. Her former lover keeps calling and demanding she break off her current engagement and run away with him. If ever a situation called for one of those “older self revisits younger self to try and stop something awful from happening” moment, this would be it.

Surprise really isn’t the main concern here, although Richard Matheson’s script does manage one good twist before the end. You could argue Silverstein’s choice to do a close up on Old Anne so early in the half hour represents a kind of weird spoiler (Matheson apparently wasn’t very happy about it), but the impact of the episode is less about shock, and more about recognizing someone trapped in a bad situation who is forced, via the magic of the Twilight Zone, to get a direct, and painful, reminder of just how much she is to blame for everything that’s happened. One of the very few hard-and-fast rules of the series is that you can travel through time all you want, but you’ll almost never be able to change anything in a positive way. If you know a character is going to try and stop Lincoln’s assassination or prevent a ship from sinking after already sank, or if they’re desperately trying to warn their past self not to marry the wrong man, it’s not going to go well.

For a show that relies so much on the fantastical and the impossible, it’s a curiously conservative perspective. But then, a surprising among of weird fiction relies on a fundamentally reactionary view of the world: you’re generally better off with what you have, don’t try and reach beyond your grasp, and do not, under any circumstances, tamper in God’s domain. Once we realize what Old Anne is attempting (though she has no idea of what’s happening to her, or no way to control it), the suspense should shift from “What horrible creature is menacing our heroine?” to “Will Old Anne be able to get her message across?” But there isn’t a lot of tension in that. Intentionally or not, the drama of the episode is less about how the supernatural premise will resolve itself, and more about figuring out the details of what went wrong. It’s more a portrait of a life than it is a narrative unfolding. The most important event has happened before we arrive on the scene; we’re just here for the autopsy.

Actually, given the time-bending premise, that’s not precisely true. The Anne we see at the beginning hasn’t yet chosen between the two men vying for her hand, so it initially appears like her fate is still up for grabs. And yet by the time Anne does make her decision, a decision that ultimately ruins her family’s fortune and turns her (twenty years later) into a bitter, drunken wretch, we already know that her choice is essentially a fait accompli. Old Anne is living in the “present,” and Old Anne is suffering the consequences of her younger self’s rash behavior. The ability to travel briefly into her own past is less an opportunity for her to turn things around, and more just throwing salt into a wound that will never properly heal. It’s like a sentence that’s in two different tenses at once, and the novelty of the past and the present reflecting on one another provides just enough interest to keep things engaging. The mystery isn’t for the characters, but for the audience, and while it’s not the greatest mystery the series ever produced, it’s not bad.

The main point of interest is the the episode’s real twist: Old Anne’s life is destroyed not because she marries the stodgy banker fellow, but because she breaks her engagement and goes back to her former lover. As shocks go, that isn’t exactly “She’s my sister! My daughter!”, but it at least avoids the trap of making the situation entirely rote. Typically in a story like this, the older character’s regret over her romantic past would revolve around a missed opportunity, passing by true love in favor of cold pragmatism. Here, Matheson argues that pragmatism would probably have served Anne better in the long run. (And would certainly have been better for her family.) David (Roger Davis) may seem to represent passion and happiness, but he’s ultimately a weak-willed fool and an abusive alcoholic. There’s a novelty to arguing that the boring, stable partner might not be the worst thing that could happen to a person, and that novelty gives Anne and David’s final scene together in the past a tragic, ironic subtext. For a few minutes, viewers are in Old Anne’s shoes, watching a train hurtling down a track towards destruction but incapable of doing anything about it.

The irony is fleeting, though, and while “Spur Of The Moment” is more entertaining than much of season five’s lackluster output, it’s still pretty forgettable. As presented, Old Anne’s efforts to make contact with her younger self don’t make a lot of sense; while it’s entirely plausible that the two would struggle to communicate (and a smarter episode might have made more out of that struggle), the fact that Old Anne shrieks like a Wicked Witch from the moment she lays eyes on her past self turns the sequence into a farce.

Still, the two Annes galloping down the road is a nifty metaphor for how we can never recapture our youth, and the way the narration switches focus between the beginning and the end of the episode is clever. The real problem is that it’s hard to get too worked up about any of this. None of the characters offer much beyond a quick gloss on “rich folks protecting their own,” and neither of Anne’s romantic partners are much to write home about. Of the two, David is the only one who gets any serious characterization, and there’s no effort to connect his brash, idealistic past self with his bitter, present day assholery. It’s not that it’s impossible to see how he could go from point A to point Awful; it’s just that the transition is from one cliche to another cliche, robbing us of the actual drama of seeing someone fail to live up to the person they assumed they could be.

The same is true of Anne, and while she’s given a bit more depth than David (she is, after all, the only person in the story who has real agency), the episode’s basic design—the whole concept, really—robs it of any urgency. It’s more of a snow-globe than a narrative. There have been other Twilight Zone episodes with frozen-in-place concepts, but for the most part, those were about life or death situations, men and women who were doomed, either by fate or their own flaws, to suffer horribly over and over and over again. “Spur Of The Moment” is working in that vein, but the stakes aren’t spectacularly high, and the concept isn’t so inventive that it can hold our attention very long. There’s an inherent poignancy in watching someone trying to fix their own past, as the idea of wanting to undo what you’ve done when you were too stupid to know any better is something nearly everyone can relate to. But the relating only goes so far.

What a twist: The grim specter chasing Anne at the beginning of the episode is her older self, trying desperately to warn her not to throw away her life by marrying the wrong man. (The wrong man, in this case, is the poor one.)

Stray observations:

  • I’m not sure if it’s an early attempt at lampshading a premise, or if it’s just Matheson trying to throw off the audience, but when young Anne rushes home after the first chase, Robert Blake (Robert Hogan), Anne’s initial fiancee, makes a joke that the woman chasing her might be trying to break up their engagement. Nice catch, Bob.
  • So the moral is that you should marry Robert Blake when you have the chance. That’s… unexpected.
  • When David visits the house, Dad (Philip Ober) threatens him with a gun. The Hendersons do not mess around.

“An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” (season 5, episode 22; originally aired 2/28/1964)

In which you’re free until you aren’t...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

The fifth season of The Twilight Zone is 36 episodes long. This wasn’t unusual for the time (the third season had 37), but budgets were getting tight; and with each individual episode costing, on average, $65,000 to make, producer William Froug was looking for a way to save money. Enter An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, a most singular episode in what was a very singular show. The 1962 French short film had won awards at Cannes and the Oscars before making its debut on American television, and the rights to air it (only twice, which is why the episode was never included in any of the series’ syndication packages) cost a cool $25,000. That’s money saved, and a season completed, but the question for us looking back now is whether or not the film, edited somewhat to fit the shortened running time of a television program, fits in with the Twilight Zone aesthetic, to the extent that such an aesthetic exists. And, even more importantly, if Froug’s innovative efforts at money-saving resulted in a quality program.

Let’s tackle the first question first. An anthology series, by necessity, has to be flexible with its tone, its look, and its themes. But given the sheer tonnage of writing Serling did for his show, and given how even outside writers often presented scripts that were (intentionally or not) written to mimic the great man’s style, certain trends remain consistent throughout the run. Most of the Twilight Zone’s stories are about the intrusion of the unusual or the inexplicable into a previously “normal” life; and how that intrusion exposes some fundamental aspect of a protagonist’s character. Episodes lean heavily on dialogue to get their points across, offering some of the most accomplished television actors of the period a chance to tear into rich, meaty speeches. Conclusions strive for a sharp, definitive gut-punch, one that serves to clarify or recontextualize everything that comes before. Irony abounds, and the selfish, the cowardly, the arrogant, and the foolish typically receive some sort of existential punishment for their failings.

“An Occurrence At Owl Creek” breaks a number of these expectations. The first sign that something strange is going on is the most obvious deviation from the regular series: the episode has almost no dialogue in it. This isn’t the first quiet episode of the show (“The Invaders” springs to mind), but it’s still striking just how little information is conveyed via spoken word. Even “The Invaders” used a line or two to explain the twist ending. Here, everything is eerie, at a remove, and dream-like. There’s an vaguely diegetic feel to the few lines we hear; like it’s less scripted speech, and more sounds that the film crew just happened to catch while they were shooting each scene. All of the important exposition is delivered visually, whether it’s the sign about spies nailed to a tree in the first shot, or the slow, agonizing process of the Union army preparing to hang a Confederate man from a bridge.

It is, unsurprisingly, cinematic in a way that “normal” Twilight Zone episodes never really get to be. Which isn’t to say that the show is usually ugly or visually bland—more that “Occurrence” is operating in an entirely different realm of expression, one interested less in concrete narrative than in creating a series of haunting, memorable impressions. The story is presented in the simplest terms imaginable. A Confederate man is hanged from a bridge; as he falls, the rope snaps; he swims away from the soldiers firing at him; after escaping, he climbs onto dry land and then runs all the way back to his home and his family; his wife, crying, comes out to greet him; they touch; the man jerks back, and then we’re back at the bridge, to see him dangling from a rope that didn’t break after all.

So: not a florid monologue to be found (although Serling does provide some swell opening and closing narration). Which leads to another major difference between “Occurrence” and the series as a whole: character is basically irrelevant here. We know hardly anything about Peyton Farquhar (Roger Jacquet), the story’s nominal protagonist. He interfered with the railroad; he got caught; and when he dies, he’ll be leaving behind a wife and children. That’s pretty much it. Oh, and he doesn’t want to die, and he’s very grateful when it looks like he didn’t die after all, which is conveyed both through Jacquet’s relieved expression, and the folk song that pops up from time to time over the course of his journey home.

In a more standard episode, we could’ve expected a few conversations between Peyton and his captors, maybe a sense of why he did what he did, a rant about Confederate pride, and probably some lovey-dovey stuff between him and his wife. Here, almost everything that would make him distinct as a person has been stripped away. His personality has nothing to do with what happens to him, if he even has a personality at all. The Twilight Zone is, at heart, a profoundly humanistic show; Serling and the writers who worked for him often punish their protagonists, and individuals routinely suffer at the hands of wanton gods, but the humanity of even the prickliest, most monstrous individual is never in question. In “Occurrence,” humanity seems like a distant memory. The soldiers who send Peyton to his doom are stock figures, faceless even when we can read their features. His connection with his wife is presented in the most abstract fashion imaginable. A few missteps, and her scenes could read as a parody of overwrought melodrama.

And yet there’s something at the heart of this that feels very true to Serling’s vision, even if the route it takes to get there isn’t the typical one. There isn’t any moral or message to “Occurrence.” Its cruelly abrupt ending doesn’t offer any lessons one can apply to one’s daily life. (“Don’t fuck with Union trains” is probably a good idea, although not something that will come up very often nowadays.) But the simplicity of the tale, the lack of adornment and more traditionally recognizable signifiers, strips it down to its essence. For a few moments, we are positioned on that board over that river, with the noose around our necks, waiting for the drop to end everything. And for a time, we are allowed the relief of escape, that this one inevitability might not affect us after all; that death might pass us by for a few moments longer. Then the noose pulls tight and our neck snaps.

There’s nothing truly supernatural about what happens in “Occurrence.” But its fable-like tone, and its primal interest in the way we use our imaginations to distract us from our inescapable mortality, make it a fine fit for The Twilight Zone, and a fine film in general. It’s possible to wonder what might have happened if the show had gone past the fifth season, and if Serling and Froug had tried to seek out other short films to present on American television. It could’ve been a whole new direction for the series. But instead, we get a curious outlier; one that ultimately leads to nowhere but itself, but is more than worth the trip. Watch that first step, though.

What a twist: Peyton thinks he’s escaped, but it’s just fantasy his brain conjures up before his neck snaps.

Stray observations:

  • It makes perfect sense in context, but the scene of Peyton running towards his wife and taking forever to get to her reminded me of Lancelot running across the field in Monty Python And The Holy Grail.


Next week: We hang out with the “Queen Of The Nile” and try and figure out “What’s In The Box.”

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