11 July 2009

Twilight Zone: The After Hours

As we near the end of the first season of The Twilight Zone, we come across another of the show’s classic episodes.Episode #34: The After Hours
Directed by Douglas Heyes. Written by Rod Serling. Starring Anne Francis, Elizabeth Allen, James Millihollin.

“Express elevator to the ninth floor of a department store, carrying Miss Marsha White on a most prosaic, ordinary, run-of-the-mill errand. . . . Miss Marsha White on the ninth floor, specialties department, looking for a gold thimble. The odds are she’ll find it, but there are even better odds that she’ll find something else, because this isn’t just a department store. This happens to be the Twilight Zone.”

And shopping in the Twilight Zone closes in another fifteen minutes. Please take your purchases to the front counter.

“The After Hours” is so well-known among The Twilight Zone’s canon that its surprise no longer feels like one—but it doesn’t matter, the episode is still powerful. It’s famous enough that Albert Brooks and Dan Ackroyd chat about it in the opening of Twilight Zone: The Movie, although they talk about it as a “scary” episode. Which it isn’t, at the core. It does have an intense suspense scene when Miss Marsha White walks through the empty department store after it closes—a still-life place any of us would find intimidating—and starts to hear the mannequins whispering to her. But all this fear is only Marsha’s willful misunderstanding of the nature of her life. All the strange activities around her, such as a trip to floor of the department store that the management claims doesn’t exist, and finding the exact thing she wants is the only object for sale on the floor, lead not toward terror, but a re-establishment of identity. Marsha White discovers what Serling’s narration calls “her normal, natural state.”

The emotion around this rediscovery is one of bittersweet and subtle longing. The strength of “The After Hours” isn’t in the twist, but its implications of a greater emotional tale that hangs around the edges of the one on our screen. It’s the sort of story that fits into twenty-four minutes, but spreads beyond it with questions and wonder. It’s one of the show’s most delicately presented tragedies; as Anne Francis returns to join her people, leaving behind her month-long vacation, she says she had “ever so much fun, ever so much fun” in her time outside. What did Marsha do in the real world? We never see her outside the walls of the store, never see anything outside of it, so we can only wonder what things happened to her that made her forget where she came from. Did she simply enjoy the pleasures of walking streets, riding buses, sleeping in a bed? Did she start to fall in love with someone? And who is this “mother” for whom she claims she needs to buy a gift? “Ever so much fun.” There’s tremendous weight in that statement.

Actress Anne Francis deserves huge praise for making the episode work. Serling’s script is wonderful, but it does need a performer willing to act beyond how the character appears from moment to moment. From the first time we see Marsha White moving through the department store, there is something unusual about her. She has a sharp tongue, and an insistence, even a coldness, that feels bizarre but at the end make complete sense. Her fear mixes with bewilderment in her walk through the apparently empty store, showing a deeper understanding of the situation that her surface terror thinly masks. And she handles the slow adaptation back to her real life, and the final “ever so much fun” so superbly that it’s no wonder nobody who sees this episode ever forgets it.

Also worth noting is the humorous performance of James Millihollin as an irritable floor manager, the stunning shadowy photography, and the excellent use of Bernard Herrmann’s music from “Where Is Everybody?”