27 April 2011

Twilight Zone: Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room

Wow, I have not made the trip to another dimension in a long time. Not since I finished an analysis of the full first season of The Twilight Zone plus reviews of select episodes. But now that all of the original Twilight Zone episodes are streaming in HD on Netflix, it’s time to get moving again through a place not of sight or sound, but of mind, and sift through some of the episodes of season two.
Episode #39: Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room
Directed by Douglas Heyes. Written by Rod Serling. Starring Joe Mantell, William D. Gordon.

“This is Mr. Jackie Rhoades, age thirty-four. And where some men leave a mark of their lives as a record of their fragmentary existence on earth, this man leaves a blot: a dirty, discolored blemish to document a cheap and undistinguished sojourn among his betters. What you are about to watch in this room is a strange mortal combat between a man and himself. For in just a moment, Mr. Jackie Rhoades, whose life has been given over to fighting adversaries, will find his most formidable opponent in a cheap hotel room that is in reality the outskirts of the Twilight Zone.”

That The Twilight Zone even made it to a second season, which started in the fall of 1960, is a small miracle. Although a critical hit, the program was not a ratings smash—not remotely. If show creator Rod Serling had not secured another sponsor when Kimberely-Clark dropped out, The Twilight Zone would have been a single season long and never made it into syndication. But even with Colgate-Palmolive taking over sponsoring The Twilight Zone to keep it going, the show faced the new danger of the fearsome James Aubrey, an executive at CBS who wanted the show’s budget restricted. Aubrey has a notorious reputation for clashing with artists, and The Twilight Zone was the sort of creative beast that would suffer most from his reign.

For this reason, The Twilight Zone’s second season never gets near the heights of the brilliant inaugural one. The show was cut down from thirty-six episodes to twenty-nine, and six episodes were shot on video and transferred to 16 mm film (the “kinescope” process common to early TV), with awful results that robbed the show of its special cinematic quality. Thankfully, this video experiment was never repeated.

But working within a restrictive budget can stir ideas. “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” is one of the episodes that displays the budget pressure from CBS. This case turned out well, thanks to Serling’s skills as a writer.

“Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” is the first solid episode of the season. The episodes that precede it, “King Nine Will Not Return” and “The Man in the Bottle,” feel like first season rehashes. “King Nine Will Not Return” was specifically designed to fix the problems that Serling had with the pilot episode, “Where Is Everybody?”, but I prefer the earlier version of this story of a man finding himself alone in the world with no explanation, even though it has no speculative fiction element. “The Man in the Bottle” is standard “be careful what you wish for” fare, and has yet another all-powerful being making himself available to the protagonist and then screwing everything up. It isn’t Death, the Devil (don’t worry, he/she has three more episodes), an angel, or Fate this time, but a genie. The results are predictable, but the episode has a good performance from Luther Adler as the pawnshop owner who uncorks the genie.

“Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” isn’t one of the major classics of the show, but it delivers the drama better than the season’s first two episodes, and shows how a slender budget can work.

How inexpensive is this episode? It’s the exemplum of the “bottle show,” occurring entirely on one small set and featuring only two actors. But a playwright like Rod Serling knew how to work with a limited location and cast, and director Heyes exploits the cramped potential of the hot, rundown cheap hotel room to turn it into a crucible in which an anxiety-ridden cheap hood, Jackie Rhoades (Joe Mantell), sweats out his demons on the dark night of his cowardly soul.

Most episodes of The Twilight Zone introduce the speculative fiction element within the first few minutes, usually ending the teaser before the first commercial break with some realization of the strange force that will drive the story. “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” instead builds up a tense realistic drama for the first eleven minutes, and then the fantasy enters to create the turning point. For those opening minutes, Jackie, a low level shakedown man and gambler who has never amounted to anything important in life, quivers inside the cheap hotel room over the orders his boss (William D. Gordon, sort of a stick-figure image of Clark Gable) has given him: kill a bartender. Jackie is about ready to go do the job when his reflection in the mirror—actually, all the mirrors—of the room begins arguing with him. Jackie Rhoades has a chance to take a new path, if he’ll let the assertive mirror image, the part of his self that knows how to make the right decisions and not let others dominate him, take over and do what must be done.

The principle here is simple: externalize an inner conflict. An interesting shift that Serling does on the theme is to make the criminal Jackie Rhoades the weak, cowardly figure, and make the Jackie Rhoades who wants to abandon crime a tough-talking hardcase. Mantell is excellent playing both parts, even though the slang and attitude look dated today. Mantell sells the fear and self-loathing of Jackie Rhoades (the one on our side of the mirror) from the start: sweaty and quivering and clawing for anything to justify living the life into which he’s cornered himself.

Although the episode was designed to save money—which I’m sure it achieved; hell, even the title indicates cheapness—the execution of the special effect of Joe Mantell talking to his mirror image is excellent. The texture of the mirror-Jackie doesn’t match the rest of the film (it’s obviously a projection done in-camera), but it’s easy to go with the illusion, and the timing of the two Mantell performances sands off the rough edges.

But “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” lacks the boldness of the mirror doppelganger when it comes to the ending. It seems that Serling couldn’t squeeze the single location and two characters for a satisfying close, and it ends up feeling too pat. I don’t believe you can exit the rackets this easily.

Jerry Goldsmith composed an original score for this episode, and that may have affected my decision to review it. The percussive music, which depends on a few instruments and therefore contributed to lowering the budget, is as jangly and shivery as the title character, and ramps up the claustrophobic tension. It’s one of the most frequently recorded and released pieces of Twilight Zone music, and deservedly so.

Speaking of music, the second season is the first to use the now famous “Twilight Zone Theme” credited to Marius Constant. It was not composed specifically for the show, but fuses together two pieces of Constant’s CBS library music. After spending so much time with the somber and minimalist Bernard Herrmann cue from the first season, I now prefer it to the more famous one. I culturally burnt out on Constant’s theme a long time ago—it’s the go-to piece for comedy bits involving anything strange—and Bernard Herrmann’s theme has a way of creeping up on you during both the opening and the end credits. It’s a piece of insinuation, and I prefer that for this show.