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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Twilight Zone: “Nervous Man In A Four Dollar Room”/“A Thing About Machines”

Illustration for article titled The Twilight Zone: “Nervous Man In A Four Dollar Room”/“A Thing About Machines”

“Nervous Man In A Four Dollar Room” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 10/14/1960)

In which he’s looking for the man in the mirror

As the series entered its second season, The Twilight Zone faced one of the problems that’s bedeviled envelope-pushing, critically acclaimed television since the medium’s inception: It needed to figure out a way to save money. The show was never a monster hit during its original run, though it did well enough for CBS to keep it around (presumably based mostly on critical acclaim). But where the first season very often would take a premise that seemed like a natural to stay confined in one room—say, that episode where the guy goes to see the psychiatrist to talk about his nightmares—and make it more cinematic, the second season was faced with a situation where the need to save cash would necessitate trying a bunch of different things. We’ll bump into one of the most obvious ones in a few episodes, when the show changes over to shooting on video, but in “Nervous Man In A Four Dollar Room,” Rod Serling and company try their hands at a fairly classic bottle episode.

And when I say bottle episode, I mean maybe the most rigorous example of the form ever produced. The episode confines itself to one set—a grungy little hotel room. And for most of its running time, it confines itself to one actor, as Joe Mantell spends most of the running time locked in an epic struggle with, well, himself. It’s a hell of a performance, and if Mantell seems to be overplaying his character’s over-the-top inability to stand up to his criminal boss early in the episode, that’s because he’s setting the scene for another version of the same character to step on the scene, a guy who’s recognizable both as the man we’ve been watching and who that man would have been if a few things had gone differently.

The idea that someone would be different if there had been different circumstances in their life is an old one, of course, and it’s one that science fiction has always enjoyed playing around with. One of Twilight Zone’s most obvious descendents, Fringe, has based whole seasons around teasing out the slight differences between two different versions of the same person. But “Nervous Man” isn’t playing around with ideas about parallel universes or the like. It’s going after something far more metaphorical, about how every single one of us contains several different people, and we choose to show off a different version of ourselves, depending on what the situation is. Jackie Rhoades, that sad, nervous little man who’s allowed himself to get sucked down into a life of crime simply because he took the path of least resistance, also contains within himself John Rhoades, a more confident version of himself, who wants out and wants to go live a normal life, with a house and straight job and wife. And he’s going to do whatever he can to take over this mild-mannered killer, to stop him from making another big mistake.

It’s an interesting idea because in most stories about a criminal going straight, the desired outcome would be that white picket fence and the kids running around in the yard, with our bad guy having finally gone good, after a long struggle with himself. Yet “Nervous Man” plays all of this as sinisterly as possible. When John refuses to let Jackie head out into the night to kill the old man his boss George has ordered him to kill, the moment plays out with a mirror that spins wildly out of control, like it’s become demonic, John coming closer and closer with each revolution, heading toward the motel room where Jackie struggles with his own soul. And when we see George reach down to touch the man we assume to be Jackie, it’s amazing how Mantell conveys that John has taken control of the body now, simply through posture and the way he sets his jaw. There’s an element of victory here, of a man finally shrugging off a life he didn’t really want. But there’s also an element of absolute horror.

Serling wrings absolutely every bit of drama that he can out of a little motel room, and he uses mirrors that keep popping up in new places for Jackie and John to keep arguing. He’s also got some great camera setups from director Douglas Heyes, who takes us up to the ceiling of the room, makes it feel as claustrophobic as possible, and announces the arrival of John via a puff of smoke hitting Jackie in the back of the head. It’s a gorgeous image, and it suggests the moment that occurs in every episode of this show, when the curtain of reality parts, and we’re headed into something else entirely. I also really like the way that it seems like nothing exists past this hotel room, like if Jackie were to open that door, he would step out into the void. In general, the best episodes of this show work when it feels like everything has been removed from the actual, physical world and sent elsewhere. That’s doubly true for this episode.


I don’t know that the episode completely works, all the same. The biggest problem here is that we’ve run into the most consistent problem this show has, where there’s one dramatic beat, and the episode keeps hitting it over and over and over. Now, when you’ve got a performance like Mantell’s to hold everything together, that’s not the worst thing in the world by any means, but there’s still the fact that we sort of know where this is heading, and we’re just waiting for it to get there for far too long of the episode’s running time. There’s something very poignant about the way that John has been waiting for his chance to take over, and I suppose the episode could have made more of that, but there’s just not a lot of room to expand here.

That, ultimately, is the danger of any bottle episode. The best ones make the very confinement inherent to the idea of such an episode feel like a virtue. But other ones too often make us constantly wonder why the characters don’t just open the door and leave the room. The longer Jackie stays, the more we realize that John will be triumphant. And the longer we wait for that to happen, the more the episode loses its urgency. “Nervous Man” is an episode well worth seeing, simply for Mantell’s performance and to see how Serling and Heyes respond to the challenge of confining everything to one room and two actors (one of whom shares the screen with himself for nearly 20 minutes of screentime), but it’s not an absolute essential.


What a twist!: Jackie’s reflection that starts speaking to him is another version of himself named John. And John’s not leaving without taking charge.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • This episode reminded me in many ways of a short story (by Philip Jose Farmer, I believe) about what would happen if you were looking at a mirror and you suddenly were aware you weren’t looking at yourself, at least not quite. It’s an intensely creepy notion, almost intimate in its terror, and it’s one many works have played off of to great, scary effect.
  • Jerry Goldsmith’s very good score for the episode only heightens the claustrophobia of what’s happening.
  • When Jackie says, “You talkin’ to me!?” to the mirror, it’s hard not to think of a film that would use the same lines, iconically, 16 years later. I wonder if Paul Schrader ever saw this episode?
  • Your assignment: work the term “gleep” into every conversation you have today.
  • Mantell’s performance really does seem sort of silly in those early scenes, all knuckle biting and panicked trembling.

“A Thing About Machines” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 10/21/1960)

In which the machines are alive, I tells ya! Alive!

I sort of doubt this was intentional, but this might be the funniest episode of The Twilight Zone yet. The idea of machines rising up and overthrowing their human overlords is one that’s old hat nowadays, even if it’s usually the robots doing the job and not the toaster ovens, but it was fairly new when Serling dragged it out for this episode. So I have to imagine that the idea of our “hero” being chased around by, say, his electric shaver is meant to be taken at least slightly seriously. Now, over 50 years removed from the initial broadcast of the episode, it’s easier to take the whole thing as a hoot, a twist on an idea that’s become one science fiction writers turn to again and again because it digs deep into our own fears about how much we rely on our machines. But it’s still awfully silly.


Part of the silliness comes from Richard Haydn as the amazingly named Bartlett Finchley. Finchley is the most effete man to have ever appeared on television, I imagine, and he’s listed, alternately, as a sophisticate, a bachelor, a recluse, and a cantankerous old coot. At first, I wondered if he was meant to be gay, in that coded old Hollywood way, where a “confirmed bachelor” was actually someone meant to be a man who preferred the company of other gentlemen. There’s probably some of that to read into Finchley—what with his ridiculous airs of sophistication—but the episode also gives us great pains to show that he’s a bachelor because nobody really wants to be around him, much less his machines.

If there’s a “scary” part of the episode, it comes around the midpoint, when Finchley’s secretary leaves and the machines really start in on him. The part where the typewriter suddenly starts typing out threats to him, and then a Flamenco dancer on TV turns to the camera to say the same is pretty great, and I like how much mileage Serling and episode director David Orrick McDearmon get out of having various inanimate objects harass Finchley. They even make the sound of a clock chiming sound menacing—granted, because it’s bonging well after Finchley’s smashed it into bits. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen a million times before in things influenced by this episode, most likely, but that doesn’t stop this particular section from being pretty great.


It’s the other stuff in the episode that doesn’t work as well. We’ve already discussed the way that the electric shaver dances in midair like a snake, then chases Finchley down his own stairs. (After the last episode, I was surprised to see that this one appeared to be a bit of a budget-buster, by Twilight Zone standards.) But that’s small potatoes compared to the bits where Finchley has to deal with other human beings. I think part of the problem is that by the time he’s begging his secretary to stay—even though he was just treating her like shit—he’s laying out this thing where he says  the machines are out to get him, but we don’t really see evidence of this, beyond the clock chiming and the weird inability he has to work with machines. His behavior here is so odd. He’s a bastard to the TV repairman, then he’s a bastard to the secretary, and then he’s saying that he’s pretty sure the machines have him marked for death. It’s all very odd, and the way the episode keeps swinging between presenting him as a jerk and as someone who doesn’t deserve to be drowned by a car (more or less) is its greatest fault.

Once the machines begin to attack, the episode picks up again, at least a bit, though I do think it hits a point of diminishing returns, where the machine attacks become less and less interesting the more the episode comes up with new ones. By the time his car is chasing him around, it seems like we were inevitably going to get here, since that’s the fear we’ve all had about the machines coming to life (or at least I assume we’ve all had it). I don’t know whether it was a limitation of budget or imagination—almost certainly the former—but I found myself thinking that all of this could have been a lot more chaotic, and it would have made Finchley’s decision to just stay at the bottom of that pool make a lot more sense. Once the world’s risen up and tried to remove you via automobile, suicide becomes a much more readily understandable prospect. (I know we’re supposed to conclude that the machines are behind the fact that Finchley doesn’t rise back to the surface, but I like the idea that when he gets in that pool, he’s not coming back up of his own volition. And the machines have done their job, in that case.)


That this works at all is a credit to the work of Serling, sure, but especially Haydn and McDearmon. It’s McDearmon’s job to stage all of this wackiness, and he does a good job of keeping things perched just between silly and scary, so that you always know somebody somewhere in the production of this thing knew that this was all pretty ridiculous. And Haydn is always there to let us know that he’s sort of irritated by how inconvenient this all is. He treats his machines rebelling against him as a minor annoyance at first, at least until they’re actively trying to kill him. I suspect that’s part of what unbalances the episode later, so that it seems a little strange that the whole episode comes unhinged as quickly as it does, but I still found Haydn’s performance a lot of fun. I half expected him to start calling out for his butler and sneering at his razor as it chased him around the house.

In a lot of ways, “A Thing About Machines” feels half-finished. Why are the machines doing this to Finchley now? Why did they apparently form a grudge against him early in life? And, to be sure, that the episode doesn’t answer these questions is probably a good thing, since it’s hard to think of a version of this story that pins more of this down and is more satisfying for it. But at the same time, it’s such an odd and goofy scenario that it’s hard not to wonder just why any of this is going on at all. I wouldn’t say that this is one of the bad episodes of the show, but what makes it work is almost entirely incidental, and I’m also not quite sure it was intended. Indeed, if you watch this as a very dry comedy about a man who’s hounded to his death by machines that have taken a somewhat irrational disliking to him, it becomes much better. But the fact that it seems to be trying to keep a serious expression as it winks at us makes “Machines” very confused indeed.


What a twist!: The machines hate Bartlett Finchley, and they’re going to kill him if it’s the last thing they do.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:

  • I rather like Barbara Stuart as Edith, even if I’m pretty sure she should be able to type a lot more quickly if she wants to work for a man such as Bartlett Finchley.
  • Even Finchley’s job is perfectly calculated to make him seem as ridiculous as possible. Maybe I’m not giving this episode enough credit for its sheer comedy.
  • I know that Zack covered this a bit last week, but it’s sort of nice to have the classic Zone theme song snapping into place (even if the title sequence is different) and to have Serling popping up on camera consistently. I particularly like the way the show keeps placing him in odd parts of the frame.

Next week: Zack confronts the devil in “The Howling Man” and learns that beauty is in the “Eye Of The Beholder.”