09 June 2009

Twilight Zone: The Four of Us Are Dying

Today’s Twilight Zone episode is brought to you by the Greater Jerry Goldsmith Appreciation Society.
Episode #13: The Four of Us Are Dying
Directed by John Brahm. Written by Rod Serling from a story by George Clayton Johnson. Starring Harry Townes, Phillip Pine, Don Gordon, Ross Martin, Beverly Garland.

“His name is Arch Hammer. He’s thirty-six years old. He’s been a salesman, a dispatcher, a truck driver, a con man, a bookie, and a part-time bartender. This is a cheap man, a nickle-and-dime man, with a cheapness that goes past the suit and the shirt; a cheapness of mind, a cheapness of taste, a tawdry little shine on the seat of his conscience, and a dark-room squint at a world whose sunlight has never gotten through to him. But Mr. Hammer has a talent, discovered at a very early age. This much he does have: he can make his face change; he can twitch a muscle, move a jaw, concentrate on the cast of his eyes, and he can change his face. He can change it into anything he wants. Mr. Archie Hammer, jack-of-all-trades, has checked in at $3.80 a night, with two bags, some newspaper clippinngs, a most odd talent, and a master plan to destroy some lives.”

Rod neatly sums up the basis for this episode, so I’ll get right to my point: Jerry Goldsmith.

If you’ve wandered around my blog for any length of time, you probably know that I love film music with a lethal passion, and that the late Jerry Goldsmith is my favorite film composer. During the 1950s, Goldsmith worked for CBS doing radio and television scores. He was a young emerging talent, and had only started to budge into films, doing his first movie score (the forgotten Western Black Patch) in 1957. By the time he did his first score for The Twilight Zone, he had completed two more movies, Face of a Fugitive and City of Fear.

Goldsmith would go on to do a number of classic Zone scores, and would eventually compose the fantastic music for Twilight Zone: The Movie. This episode is where it all starts. Goldsmith’s score is a striking jazz-based one, filled with tremendous energy and a swingin’ vibe. It’s a thrill for me to hear this very early music from him, since it’s clear he was already a major talent brimming with creative musical ideas and gifted with a spot-on sense of drama.

Okay, the episode: it’s a good piece that thrives on style more than substance. In essence, this is Twilight Zone: Film Noir, and all the personalities that Mr. Hammer (Harry Townes) assumes come from archetypes of this genre: a jazz musician looking for his old flame (Ross Martin); a gangster getting back at the man who double-crossed him (Philip Pine); and a downtrodden prize-fighter with family issues (Don Gordon). The soundstage-based world of sleaze is a wonderful visual creation, and further evidence that Zone was leading the way in “cinematic” television. The jungle of flashing neon signs doesn’t look realistic for an instant, nor should it.

However, this is a rare case of a episode of the show that fits irregularly into the half-hour format. In the fourth season, The Twilight Zone expanded to an hour-long slot, and Serling and Co. had a tricky time adapting to that expanded length without losing focus. “The Four of Us Are Dying” might have worked better at an hour, since we hardly spend any time with the different personalities that Arch Hammer culls from the obituaries, and we only get slivers of information about this complex scheme he had planned. His plot to “destroy some lives” never gets anywhere. When the finale arrives, with Hammer trapped in the wrong face at the wrong time, the irony doesn’t have much strength, and it’s easy to see it coming from almost the start of the episode.

A bonus for this episode, especially for a geek like me, is the appearance of Beverly Garland, beloved Mystery Science Theater 3000 actress, as a torch-singer in a jazz bar. She performs a lonesome rendition of “One More for the Road.”

This was the first episode of The Twilight Zone broadcast in the 1960s. New Years’s day, actually. It’s also the first story from George Clayton Johnson, who would turn into one of the show’s resident scribes. Watching The Twilight Zone in chronological order gives me the thrill of seeing the show’s various talents emerge and come together: Goldsmith, Matheson, Meredith, Johnson, et. al. It’s appropriate I mentioned four, isn’t it?