“Night Call” (season 5, episode 9; originally aired 2/7/1964)
In which the calls are not coming from inside the house…
It’s different at night. No matter how many stories, movies, and shows have used darkness to create suspense, terror, and despair in their audiences, that simple, brutal fact has never changed. Maybe I’m just more suggestive than most, but even as an adult, all of my most frightening moments have come sometime after midnight, in my room, the shadows around me grown thick with dread and portent. Partly it’s the fact that you don’t know what’s in all that blackness. But even worse is the way nighttime strips away the distractions. In the day, you can let yourself get caught up by routine. At night, everything holds its breath, and all you can hear is the rest of your life stretching out before you; how empty is. How silent.
“Night Call,” a deeply creepy half-hour of television, makes great use of the night, both in its visuals and in its premise. The story is relatively simple: an elderly woman named Elva Keene (Gladys Cooper) starts getting strange phone calls in the middle of the night. At first, all she hears on the other end of the line is static, which is bad enough. But as the calls continue, a voice comes on the other line, a man’s voice—moaning, and then trying desperately to communicate. Finally, Elva calls the phone company and learns the truth: a storm knocked down some lines locally, and one of those lines fell into a cemetery. The operator insists that it’s impossible for her to have received the calls she claims to have received, but Elva immediately recognizes the truth. The dead have been trying to reach her. And not just any dead.
Plot-wise, there isn’t a lot going on here: the episode never becomes repetitive (Richard Matheson, working from his own short story, makes sure that each call Elva receives pushes the narrative forward slightly—from static, to moaning, to actual words), and there’s no time wasted on the protagonist doubting the evidence of her senses. The people around her do; both the operator and Elva’s housekeeper/companion Margaret (Nora Marlowe) argue that she’s just imagining things. But while Elva relies on both to an extant, neither are able to dissuade her from her course. Which means that nearly all the drama of the half-hour is focused on the mystery of the calls themselves.
That this works as well as it does is testament both to Cooper’s performance, and to direction of Jacques Tourneur. Tourneur had made his name in Hollywood directing tasteful, wonderfully eerie horror pictures for producer Val Lewton (including Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie; he also directed Night Of The Demon, a British adaptation of M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes’), and he brought his talent to the small screen for this episode. Script-wise, the story’s most frightening effects are all audio: while Elva is, indeed, talking to a dead person, there are no walking corpses shambling through the climax, and Elva herself is never directly menaced. Tourneur, whose film-work relied primarily on the power of suggestion, rises to the challenge admirably, making Elva’s bedroom in the evening a dreary, empty place—a prison of solitude and regret. He also uses camera angles to suggest the phone as a stand-in for all of of Elvia’s fears and hopes; her terror at the strangeness of her situation, combined with her desire for contact from the outside world. There’s a terrific series of shots during one of the “conversations” when the episode cuts between Elva’s face directly filling the screen, and then in profile, placing the phone receiver itself in the center of our view. The effect is to make it seem as though we’re seeing two sides of the same conversation—Elva’s, and someone else’s—which reminds the audience that the focus of what we’re watching isn’t what’s visible, but what remains hidden. The receiver represents… something. But what?
While “Night Call” isn’t entirely a one woman show, Elva gets all the eavy-lifting of the half-hour, and Cooper delivers. This is her third appearance on the series (she previously starred in “Nothing In the Dark,” as an elderly woman attempting to keep away from Robert Redford, aka Death; and as a secondary character in “Passage On The Lady Anne”), and the actress is well-suited to the material; she has a presence and bearing that suggest history and a clear temperament without falling into caricature. The episode hinges on the idea that Elva is a strong woman, set enough in her ways to have built a life which has isolated her from friends and loved ones; at the same time, Elva has to be sympathetic enough that the ending’s cruel final reveal registers not a just desert, but as a legitimate tragedy. If Elva is too cold and demanding, the twist isn’t harsh enough to really come across dramatically effective. But if she’s too friendly and warm, the finale becomes more sadistic than striking.
I have problems with the episode’s conclusion, which we’ll get to in a moment, but those problems have nothing to with Cooper’s performance. With just a few lines and conversations, she creates someone who is at once tremendously proud, but entirely self-aware, a person nearing the end of her life who has had ample time to reflect on her choices, for good and for ill. There are no scenes of Elva fighting with strangers or rejecting relatives’ pleas for help; she isn’t one of the Twilight Zone’s ugly human monsters. Instead, she’s just a bit cold, a bit distant, a bit lost. It’s heartbreaking to watch, really, because it’s not hard at all to see one’s self in a similar situation. The vagaries of human contact can be elusive, impenetrable; and the actions that remove us from the flow of the world are rarely ones we recognize until it’s too late to change them. So while Elva is a bit short with the phone operator, it’s hard to blame her. And while she may be occasionally brusque with her housekeeper, she’s not a tyrant. The brusqueness is less a personal failing than it is the gap between her and everyone Elva now knows. (Plus, she says “Thank you”; it’s hard to despise someone who says “Thank you.”)
In Matheson’s original story, Elva finds out the calls are coming from the cemetery, and the next night, the voice on the other end of the phone says, “Hello, Mrs. Keene. I’ll be right over.” Which is so creepy that I get chills just thinking about it (seriously, when I read that this morning, I was legitimately unsettled for the next hour or so), but wouldn’t really work in an episode of television. It’s too abrupt, too limited; it renders the protagonist utterly passive and almost irrelevant to her own (again, really horrifying) fate. So for the adaptation, Matheon tried to twist the knife in a different way.
The result is mixed, although it’s grown on me since watching the episode. In the episode version of the story, the voice trying to talk to Elva from the cemetery isn’t some unidentified ghoul, but the ghost of her fiance, killed in a car crash decades earlier, the same crash that crippled Elva. Elva blames the crash on herself, and there’s a strong implication (which is basically stated flat out in Serling’s closing narration) that her need to control the people around her is the main reason she’s alone now. As if that knife wasn’t in quite deep enough, the last Elva hears of her dead fiance is him telling her that he’s leaving her alone because she told him to, and he always does what she tells him to do.
This has all the hallmarks of a classic ironic Twilight Zone twist. In an early scene, Elva comments on her loneliness; the end of the episode makes her inadvertently responsible for that loneliness. And adding a relationship with the disembodied voice on the other end of the line changes the nature of the conflict. It’s frightening for the first twenty minutes, and to be honest, the spookiness of the situation never entirely goes away. Even if Elva is eager to get back in touch with the man she once loved, he’s still dead, and the situation is so extraordinary that it doesn’t seem like something you could ever be completely comfortable with. At the same time, once she realizes what’s happening, Elva clearly wants the connection to continue. At least it’s contact with someone who isn’t paid to spend time with her. Losing something just as you realize how desperately you need it makes for a powerful conclusion. Not as scary as “Oh shit, a zombie is coming to kill me,” but perhaps more memorable and moving.
What bothers me is that I’m not sure Matheson is able to graft on this new endling as gracefully as he might have. For one thing, all the information we get about Ben (the dead fiance) happens after Elva finds out where the phone line has fallen, and makes her housekeeper drive her to the cemetery so she can see it for herself. While that’s understandable, in that revealing the name earlier could’ve tipped viewers off about what was coming, it means that the relationship is established just a minute or two before it’s ripped away forever. That’s a lot to process at once—not just the fact that Elva had a fiance, or that he died, or that the dead fiance is the one who’s been calling her, but that Elva herself was responsible for his death. Elva gives a monologue about what happened, and Cooper sells it quite well, but there’s a clumsiness to it the rest of the episode largely avoids.
Really, though, my biggest problem is the idea that Elva somehow brought all of this on herself. Serling makes this explicit: “It is man’s prerogative—and women’s—to create their own particular and private Hell. Case in point, Miss Elva Keene, who in every sense has made her own bed and now must lie in it, sadder, but wiser, by dint of a rather painful lesson in responsibility, transmitted from the Twilight Zone.”
That’s lovely writing, but the attempt to turn what happens into a situation with a moral seems inordinately sadistic. Worse—tone deaf. It’s not as though characters on the show haven’t suffered in other episodes; but for the most part, either a protagonist will earn their punishment, or the ugliness will be so divorced from who they are and what they’ve done that it feels less like an attack, and more a reminder of the occasional cruelty of fate. Elva’s resolution sits uneasily between these two poles. On the one hand, she caused the accident that crippled her and killed her lover, and she also yells at the ghost to leave her alone. But on the other hand, the accident was decades ago, and Elva is clearly under no illusion about what happened—she’s acknowledged her mistakes, and how those mistakes have left her alone and unsure of the future. Plus, it’s not like she yelled at the ghost because she was mean or because of some personal failing. She’s an elderly woman being tormented by an anonymous caller. What else is she going to do?
The result, then, is an ending that strains too hard to make sure the brutal gut-punch of it all lands. There’s no need to suggest punishment or comeuppance here. The conclusion is far more powerful when viewed not as any sort of divine judgment, but simply a tragic coincidence; instead of some mysterious presence wanting to remind Elva of her sins, it’s just the wrong wires getting crossed. Thankfully, the strong direction and central performance carry the episode over even if it stumbles in its final moments. What matters isn’t why Ben leaves in the end, but that he was there at all. In its way, those few phone calls are symbolic of the difficulties any adult faces when trying to connect with the outside world. There are moments of sympathy, but they’re fleeting; and more often than not, you’re left alone in the dark with nothing to show for it but the sound of your own heart, breaking.
What a twist: The phone calls Elva has been getting are from her dead fiance; when she tries to talk to him again, he tells her he’s leaving because she told him to leave, and he always does what she tell him.
- There’s no hint of it in the voice acting, but the only way the last conversation between Elva and the ghost makes any sense is if the ghost was intentionally trying to mock her. Why else would he come back at all?
- I guess the ending isn’t that bad, really. Elva stays pretty much in the same place she was at the start of the episode, only now she knows there’s some kind of afterlife, so that’s fun for her.
- The various noises the man on the phone makes are some of the freakiest things I’ve ever heard on this show. Or any show, really.
- It doesn’t relate to the episode in any way, but this was originally scheduled to air on 11/22/63, a day which Stephen King wanted to use for the title of a novel, so the show was postponed. (It also happened to be the day that President Kennedy was assassinated; I decided to stick to the Netflix order for simplicity’s sake, but that’s why the “originally aired” date for this one is so out of place.)
“Probe 7, Over And Out” (season 5, episode 10; originally aired 11/29/1963)
In which it was Earth…
That’s a great title, isn’t it? Super evocative and sort of poetic; there’s no specific reason for the probe to be probe number seven, and yet the number fits the rhythm better than any other single digit number would have. (It’s because “seven” has two syllables, I think. Also the ess-vee sound.) Using what could serve as a full line of dialogue for a title will always be striking; it’s not quite a grammatically complete sentence, but it’s still something someone could actually say without sounding stilted or forced. It suggests adventure, and space, and exploration. It’s not the most elaborate name the Twilight Zone has thrown at us, but I appreciate the punchiness of it. It sounds like an episode I’d definitely like to watch.
As for the actual episode itself… well. I dunno, gang. This isn’t the worst that Serling has thrown out; it’s not as deadly as some of the hour long episodes were, and while it’s easy to nitpick the plot, the basic story makes sense. There’s no sign that Serling took two disparate ideas and smashed them together in a desperate attempt to generate some kind of heat. Equally important, whatever its faults, this is a tale that’s complete in and of itself. It’s not undercooked or under-realized, and while it repeats many ideas the show has covered in the past (humanity is potentially violent; people basically just want to be together; astronauts are apparently amatuer poets; it was Earth all along), it doesn’t have that hollow, half-assed vibe that comes from the show’s least memorable entries.
But this is still a slog, at times playing like a parody of all of Serling’s worst impulses. Col. Adam Cook (Richard Basehart) is one of the writer’s classic cynical-optimists, a man who’s seen enough of the world (and the universe) to know that people rarely change, but who still hopes deep down that they might. It’s not a character that can work, and Basehart certainly does what he can with the role, but the guy quickly becomes insufferable. Apart from the dispatches he receives from home, he does nearly all of the talking in the half-hour, and boy oh boy does he go on. He’s understandably stressed about his situation, stranded on a planet (it’s Earth) with a busted up space-ship, unable to hope for rescue because the people of his homeworld (which isn’t Earth) are in the process of killing each other, leaving him stranded (on Earth, it’s okay because he’s stranded on Earth). But unlike, say, Charles Bronson in “Two,” an episode which this one strongly echoes, Basehart comes across as, well, kind of a putz. When he hears the news that war has broken out back home, he’s more petulant about his own fate than he is broken up about the deaths of billions. I mean, sure, billions dead is an abstract concept that’s almost impossible to feel the full weight of, but at least he could recognize that his own situation isn’t really the worst thing that’s happening here.
Then again, maybe that’s intentional on Serling’s part. Because he needs to keep the reveal hidden until the final moments, the author can’t get very explicit about the planet and people Cook is leaving behind (hell, we don’t learn Cook’s first name until the end, for reasons that should be obvious), so the messages the colonel gets don’t have a lot of personality to them; it’s really just a series of talking heads delivering melancholic, noble speeches about the world ending. And the whole thing happens fast, too. The story needs to isolate Cook, given him no place to return to, and build his relationship with the planet’s only other apparent human refugee (Antoinette Bower as Eve Norda), and none of these threads are given enough time to really develop. The destruction of home is too sterile and conceptual; Cook’s isolation never really sets in; and the outcome of his interactions with Eve are so preordained as to lack any real tension.
The whole arc of this episode is to get us to the ending twist, and it’s a twist that has no real emotional content in it whatsoever. The show has already done “Oh my god, the characters we thought were from Earth are actual aliens!” a few times, and putting a Biblical spin on it is cute, but not particularly revelatory. Adam and Eve’s friendship lacks the uneasy negotiations that made “Two” so memorable. They squabble a bit, but the squabbling is contrived, and the subtle but undeniable way the story gives Cook authority and focus is, at least viewed from today’s perspective, pretty off-putting. We don’t speak Eve’s language, so she comes off as only slightly more developed than an ape in human clothes. The idea of her spending the rest of her days listening to Adam’s patronizing lectures about life is more cringe-inducing than is inspiring.
It’s possible to nitpick the details: the improbability of two living beings with seemingly similar genetics both crash-landing on a planet that can support them, and crashing near enough to actually come in contact, is a stretch. Worse, you can’t take the Biblical Adam and Eve story literally, because if you do, the genetics don’t hold up. Two people alone can’t be responsible for an entire race, and by putting an allegory into a semi-realistic context, Serling trades in myth for absurdity. But if the actual story was engaging, none of this would matter. “Probe 7, Over And Out” fails because it begins and ends with a twist, and that twist only serves to put a rhetorical weight on material that can’t support it. Some episodes retain their power no matter how many times you try and describe it; others live best as anecdotes. This is one of the latter.
What a twist: His name is Adam, her name is Eve, her language names the planet Earth, and they’re off to the garden of Eden. Also, in case any of this was unclear, there are apples.
- I wonder if this would’ve worked better if the collapse of Cook’s civilization had happened before the story began. As is, he doesn’t even have time to mourn what he’s lost, which makes his situation seem that much more unreal.
- As long as we’re speculating, this also could’ve been more interesting if it had been told from the woman’s perspective. A man coming across a strange (and yes, beautiful) female in an unknown new world is basically a sex fantasy, even if the episode doesn’t explicitly reference sex; and while Eve manages to knock Adam out, he’s never in real physical danger from her. Reverse the genders, and there’s a lot more tension and uncertainty. The most striking choice anyone makes in the half-hour is when Eve decides to return to Adam, despite her fears—but because the story is told entirely from Adam’s point of view, that choice remains largely opaque.
Next week: In a twist that still stings, we’re all stuck with me for the duration. Next week, it’s time for “The 7th Is Made Up Of Phantoms” and “A Short Drink From A Certain Fountain.”