“The Chaser” (season 1, episode 31; originally aired 5/13/1960)
In Which Making Love Out Of Nothing At All Has Predictable Consequences
The first time I ever saw “The Chaser” was on Tales From The Crypt. Sort of. The Crypt episode, “Loved To Death,” starred Andrew McCarthy as a writer who becomes obsessed with Mariel Hemingway. He buys a love potion from his sleazy landlord, and it works—but too well. Hemingway becomes a doting imbecile, and McCarthy, unable to stand her constant attentions, goes back to his landlord. This time, he buys poison. Unfortunately, when he tries to murder Hemingway, he gets the drinks confused, and inadvertently kills himself. He wakes up in a cloudy, hazy place he thinks might be heaven. He’s alone at first, but then Hemingway finds him; she was so distraught over his death, she jumped off their apartment building. Now they can spend eternity together! Only, she isn’t quite so pretty anymore. High impact on concrete can have that effect on facial features.
If you’ve watched the first Twilight Zone episode we’re looking at this week, you’ll recognize most of the plot quoted above. “Loved To Death” is (according to Wikipedia) taken from Tales From The Crypt #25, and it’s a variant of a short story by John Collier—the story which gives our episode its title and its plot. I recounted “Death” for you because it’s what I always think of when I watched “Chaser,” and it’s a not-bad way of pointing out why TZ is such an infinitely preferable anthology series than TFtC ever was. The cheap cynicism masquerading as black comedy, the sleazy smugness of each ironic demise, the stream of smirking guest stars… Okay, the show had some good episodes, and feel free to take me to task in the comments, but surely we can agree that TZ was the superior of the two. TFtC’s version of the sad sack with the love potion tries to expand on the source material in a way that only serves to cheapen material of already questionable value. “The Chaser” isn’t really a classic, but it’s entertaining, and well-constructed, and the ending helps soften the protagonist’s potentially dark turn. “Death”’s ending forgoes the softening, and in doing so, lays bare a core of unpleasantness that ruins its own joke.
Thing is, though, that core is part of “Chaser” as well, which is the other reason I mentioned “Loved To Death.” The TZ version of the story follows roughly the same pattern as described above. Roger Shackleforth (George Grizzard) is passionately, desperately, hopelessly in love with Leila (Patricia Barry). She wants nothing to do with him, and on the advice from a stranger, Roger pays a visit to one Professor A. Daemon (John McIntire), another in a long line of TZ salesmen who’ve cornered the market on a very particular item. Roger buys a love potion from the professor; it works; Roger gets sick of Leila’s devotions, and returns to the professor, who offers him some “glove cleaner” at a very steep price. Roger buys the “cleaner,” but when it comes time to do the deed, Leila stops him in his tracks by telling him she’s pregnant. Roger drops the glass with the poison in it, and, telling himself he couldn’t possibly have gone through with the homicide, settles in for a life of marital bliss (?), with Professor Daemon blowing heart-shaped smoke rings out on the balcony. Neat, cute enough, and finished in under half an hour.
This is all fairly well-constructed, moving from beat to beat with reasonable speed, never going so fast that we don’t understand character motivations, or so slow that it becomes tedious. And while it’s all building to the punchline of an ending, “Chaser” never treads water to fill the running time. The twist here is telegraphed, but there’s enough mystery in how someone could go from wanting to woo the object of their adoration, to wanting that object dead, to make the “glove cleaner” foreshadowing effectively intriguing. Grizzard makes an appropriately pathetic Romeo, not utterly detestable, but sufficiently pathetic and whiny enough that it’s believable he’s not exactly lucky with the ladies. Daemon’s office is a great example of minimalist design used to unsettling ends, and McIntire clearly relishes his role as the perpetually put-upon professor. His clear irritation at Roger’s desire for a love potion is funny, and it works to the episode’s advantage by pointing up the fact that this sort of thing has happened many times before. In case you missed how another gentleman gave Daemon’s card to Roger (said gentleman having purchased the love potion and the “chaser” some time previously, one would presume), it’s all there on Daemon’s face. No one ever learns, no one ever listens, and no one is ever careful about what they wish for.
But I said something about a core of unpleasantness, didn’t I. Well, there’s poor, mind-screwed Leila to consider in all of this. Neither version of the story I’ve seen really gives much of a damn about her feelings. Barry is fine in the role, a pretty, maybe a little vapid society gal who’s maybe a little cruel to poor Roger—except, well, she isn’t. Roger is a pushy, needy nerd, constantly badgering someone who states clearly and repeatedly she has no romantic interest in him whatsoever. Maybe at some point, she led him on; maybe she used him for a few dates then cast him aside. We never hear any proof that, however. All we see is Roger pestering her and her telling him over and over to get lost. What does she get for her pains? Her entire personality is sandblasted away by chemically induced desire. It would be one thing of the potion simply made her romantically interested in Roger, but for the episode’s joke to work, she needs to be so utterly, mindlessly devoted to our protagonist that he can’t bear to be around her. The scenes post love-potion between the two of them do a convincing job of establishing why Roger would be so desperate to find a way out of his situation, but they also show us a woman who has been turned into a slave with no will or consideration for herself. We even see her waiting patiently at the door when Roger leaves to go buy the poison he’ll use to kill her. I wonder if she’s even able to feed herself at this point without him handing her the fork.
Oh come on, you say, I’m missing the point. The point is, ha-ha, well maybe there isn’t a point, exactly, but it’s funny because Roger thought he wanted something, but when he got it, it turns out it wasn’t what he wanted at all. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I have an aversion to stories which treat characters like props, and that’s essentially all poor Leila is here. You can say I’m not supposed to think much about her; you can argue that Roger, the man who got her into this mess, is suffering as much as she is by the end. But the latter is entirely untrue, and the former is short-sighted. The point of this story really should be that we often mistake “obsessive devotion” with “love,” and if someone doesn’t want to be with you, you’re both better off without each other. But this is undercut by the episode treating Leila in much the same way Roger treats her: as a thing, an object to be first desired, then repulsed by. The joke is still a decent one, but the laughs don’t last very long, and they have a mean-spirited undercurrent to them. (Just the scene alone when Roger begs his way into Leila’s apartment is enough to make me uncomfortable; it’s played for laughs, but the number of times she tells him to leave, and the number of times he refuses, has a unintentionally nasty edge.) It’s hard to really enjoy the chuckles at the end when the engine of the gag is an act that’s essentially a sanitized, fantasy-filtered form of rape. I don’t hate “The Chaser”; it’s goofy enough, and the subtext doesn’t destroy the ostensibly light tone. But I think maybe the ending isn’t all that different from the ending of “Loved To Death.” In both cases, a selfish man destroys a woman’s life. At least at the conclusion of “Death” we’re supposed to be horrified.
What a twist: Roger thinks all he wants is the girl of his dreams. Then he gets her.
- Of course, “Death” also ostensibly ends with both the nebbish and his victim doomed to eternity together, and the victim is still mangled from her suicide, so it’s not like there’s any justice in the afterlife. Once again, the only role the woman serves is to have an affect on the man. There’s a Gender Studies paper in there, although I’m too tired to write it.
- So, Leila’s pregnant. Just how screwed up is that kid’s life going to be?
“Passage For Trumpet” (season 1, episode 32; originally aired 5/20/1960)
In Which We Hear A Note Of Hope
There are plenty of themes running through the first season of The Twilight Zone; Rod Serling has his pet obsessions, and part of the pleasure of watching the show is picking up on each familiar thread as it reappears in some new, but fundamentally unchanged, fashion. There’s the acceptance of death, the dangers presented by cheap, sordid men, the need for escape from the modern world, and the loneliness of the passed over, missed, put aside, and down-trodden. It’s this last theme we’re returning to for “Passage For Trumpet,” a lovely, low-key story about a man at the end of his rope. It has its dramatic moments, but “Passage” isn’t about agonizing tension or hitting a greedy creep with some intensely painful just deserts. This is a fairly well-known episode (I’d heard of it before this week’s review, although I’d never seen it), but it lacks the painful dramatic punch of most of TZ’s best remembered stories, and that’s entirely to its benefit. Of all the various kinds of half hours we’ve covered in this first season, these melancholic-but-hopeful entries have been the most pleasant surprise; I knew I enjoyed “Time Enough At Last,” but its arguably easy to enjoy something that sharp and clear. “Passage” is subtler, and more reliant on its actors, its mood, and our fondness for losers who get one more chance at life.
Thankfully, my fondness for such things is pretty high, especially when the loser in question is played by Jack Klugman, who would ultimately star in four different TZ episodes. Klugman here plays Joey, a trumpeter convinced all the good breaks are behind him. We first see him begging for a gig at a local club, only to blow his chances when the club manager finds he’s still drinking. Joey tries to explain himself; like so many Serling heroes before him, he’s tired of the sordid cheapness of his life, of the cracks in the ceilings and the cheap rooms and the opportunities that keep passing him by. He’s not an alchoholic, exactly. He’s just a man who can’t think of a better way out than the next bottle, because the booze is the only thing that gives him any hope at all. But even that can’t string him along forever, so one day, he sells his trumpet at a pawnshop, and then goes out and throws himself in front of a truck. (Note the slightly-too-horrified onlooker’s scream here. Sure, it’d be upsetting to see someone jump out into traffic, but this lady acts like Klugman’s being eviscerated before her eyes.)
Zone wasn’t always able to provide realistic backdrops, even when an episode’s setting wasn’t particularly fantastical, but the look can still be visually effective, and “Passage” looks tremendous throughout. Even before Joey takes his dive and wakes up… in the Twilight Zone (dun-dun-dunnnnnn), his world is one of stark angles and shadows, a place without much mercy for a wash-out and a drunk. After the accident, things get worse in a hurry—it’s night now, and no matter how hard he tries to get their attention, nobody in the city knows he’s alive. He visits his familiar haunts, expecting to see familiar faces, but the strangers in the ticket booth, on the street, standing behind the bar don’t see him, or hear him, trapped in their own little worlds. While Joey spends a few minutes doing the usual TZ routine of failing to acknowledge the painfully obvious, to his (and the episode’s) credit, he does catch on eventually. What makes this episode striking is that Joey is one of the rare TZ heroes allowed to be self-aware without being forced to face some sort of punishment. He thinks back on the life he had, and he realizes he misses it, and he misses how much good there was still left to him. There are exceptions, but often on this show, protagonists are plagued by something they don’t understand, and they spend most of their time denying its obvious truth, or unable to grasp the impact that truth will have on their lives. Here, though, it’s almost as if Joey gets his twist ending a bit earlier than expected, which means he isn’t cut short by Serling’s door-shutting narration. He can mope a bit, and start having regrets.
It goes almost without saying that none of this would work without Klugman. Up until the last couple of scenes, the episode basically depends on him to carry it, and he does so with aplomb, hitting the pathos without overplaying. There’s something immediately warm and likable about him, which is crucial, because this episode lives and dies on how much you want to see Joey get his second chance. Oh sure, we all want a nice guy not to get killed by a truck, but that wanting needs to go beyond simple kindness. Given the low-key tone of much of the episode, the single most valuable element in “Passage” is our willingness to invest in Joey’s troubles, and our worry that he may have gone too far to be saved. Which is a little melodramatic of me, but all that really happens here is a guy who’s been having a bad time brushes up against death, decides to take another go at things, and meets a pretty young woman. Sure, there are fantasy trappings, and they’re fairly nifty for what they are, but there’s no real momentum or edge to them, no major conflict Joey has to defeat. By the time he meets the angel Gabriel, he’s already passed whatever meager test lay before him: he wants to live. The episode works (or, at least, it worked for me) because of Klugman’s humanity, and because I wanted him to get that happy ending. We talk a lot about dramatic moments in TV shows (or movies, or books, any kind of story, really) about those shocking, devastating reversals or betrayals, the scenes where the world turns bloody for the characters we like; these are often considered the hallmark of great drama, whether or not the blood is metaphorical. But the real key, and one of the main reasons we look to storytelling, is change. That shift between keys, of going minor to major, which so rarely happens in the real world, is immensely powerful, and it doesn’t have to be negative to work. Most guys in Joey’s shoes would just wind up sore and broken and mean. He doesn’t, and that, in and of itself, is a big deal.
Before I fall into the trap of just trying to describe the same concept sixteen different ways, it’s worth noting that Joey’s brief visit into the “afterlife” isn’t as simple as it first appears. It’s logical to assume, as Joey does, that he’s dead, and the people he sees are alive, and that’s why he can’t see them. But when Joey finally meets someone who does see him, he learns this isn’t the case. He’s visiting a kind of limbo, and the “people” he’s seeing are are actually the real ghosts, stuck between worlds because they aren’t quite ready to acknowledge the lives they led are over. Joey has been given a chance to see this place, and decide once and for all if he really wants to give up on life. The man who explains all this has a certain fondness for trumpeters, it seems—maybe Joey just gets a second chance because he’s a good man, but I like to think that Gabriel decided to visit him, one hornblower to another. (John Anderson makes for a solid angel; you might remember him as the car salesman in Psycho, or as MacGyver’s grandfather.) Characters don’t recur through the Zone, but ideas do, and if there’s some childish dark god who delights in ruining people’s lives, it stands to reason there’d be some sort of opposing force as well, one that occasionally pushes things so they turn out okay.
More than that, though—just because every episode starts ostensibly from scratch doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to be gained from watching them all. Continuity still exists in anthology series, a sort of rough context that stems not from the details of plot or character, but from our growing familiarity with the creative minds working behind the scenes. We recognize themes, but we also recognize that in the Twilight Zone, stories can have unhappy endings. There was no promise Joey was going to get back onto that sidewalk; he could’ve just as easily denied Gabriel’s offer and stayed mired in self-pity. The bad endings, the nasty, painful ones where you wince even as you enjoy the construction, are worthwhile in their own right, and they also serve to make endings like this one, with Joey finally catching a break, all the sweeter. It’s not the biggest break in the world—he gets his horn back, and he has a date—but it’s better than a pair of broken glasses in the wasteland.
What a twist: Joey tries to kill himself, and instead gets some one on one time with Gabriel, who helps him realize he’d much rather be breathing than not.
- Sorry this is so late. The past few days have been amusing, in a way that isn’t exactly “funny,” but was tedious, inconvenient, and exhausting. So, not really amusing at all, I guess.
- Gabriel calls himself “Gabe,” and in case anyone in the audience had recently experienced a concussion, goes on to clarify with “Short for Gabriel!” Gee, really?
Next week: Todd spends some time with the sure to be not-at-all-irritating “Mr. Bevis,” and then remembers why mannequins are terrifying with “The After Hours.”