THE TWILIGHT ZONE, PART 9: Alone Again, Unnaturally

From Season One, Episode 1, loneliness and isolation have been a major theme of The Twilight Zone. By the late 50’s, the age of extended families living under one roof or even in the same community had significantly disappeared in America, and it continues today, with mammoth urban apartment complexes, little-box suburbs, and condominium associations filled with single people who, having earned enough to buy a roof over their heads, rely on their pets and Apple+ TV to keep them company. (Ted Lasso is fantastic!)

Rod Serling saw this effect of post-war recovery first-hand. He saw a massive migration from the city, only for people to find themselves alone in a neighborhood full of strangers. Serling brooded on it, and then he and his fellow writers turned it into gripping, sometimes queasy drama. For tonight’s class, our instructor Elliot Lavine chose three episodes spanning the series that offer different takes on the perils of isolation: from Season One, Charles Beaumont offers a warning on the loneliness of immortality; from Season Two, Richard Matheson gives us a Twilight Zone classic involving a terrifying alien attack; and from Season Five, Matheson returns with a tale of terror and pathos. 

Best to watch all of these with a friend.

*     *     *     *     *

“Long Live Walter Jameson” (written by Charles Beaumont; original broadcast 3/18/60)

An awful lot of story gets jammed into this 25-minute slot, but the gist is the weighing of our all too human fear of death with the unimaginable weariness – along with the moral quandary – of being immortal. What I love about it is that Charles Beaumont accomplishes this with no super-heroes or villains, no outlandish science or magic talisman. (Get that ring right out of your minds, people!) Instead, Beaumont weaves his tale in the the towers of academia, where Professor Walter Jameson (Kevin McCarthy) is such an enormously interesting history professor that his students say it’s as if he were right there witnessing all the famous events he describes. 

When his colleague, Professor Kittridge (Edgar Stehli) invites him over for dinner, Jameson assumes that it will involve good food, some chess, and a chance to spoon with Kittridge’s daughter Susanna (Dody Heath), who happens to be Walter’s fiancée. However, Kittridge has other things in mind – like, how have the two men been colleagues for thirteen years and yet Jameson hasn’t aged a day. Or why does the Civil War officer whom Jameson mentioned in that day’s lecture appear in a Matthew Brady photograph looking just like him

Confronted with all this, Jameson doesn’t beat around the bush and tells Kittridge the truth: he is immortal. What ensues through most of the episode is a conversation between the two men about this, and it’s fascinating, especially as these are merely two scholars in a modest faculty house, discussing something utterly fantastic. 

Despite the occasional touch of humor (Kittredge asks, “How old are you?” to which Jameson replies, “Old enough to know this fellow . . .”pointing to a statue of Plato!), these two – one old and on the cusp of death, the other eternally young, discuss Jameson’s state with great depth and solemnity. There is no sense of one being good and the other evil. At the start, what Kittridge feels most is envy: he looks in the mirror, shocked at how quickly he has aged, and expresses his terror of dying. Jameson returns these feelings with a “be careful what you wish for” monologue. He explains how similarly he felt two thousand years earlier, how he met an alchemist and gave him all his money for this chance, how he emerged from a coma feeling the same as always . . . until he watched his wife, children and friends all begin to die of old age. He thinks back to the deal he made with the alchemist and murmurs, “I was wrong.”

And yet, the centuries of living have not done enough to cure Walter of his fear of dying. He has decided to make the most of his gift/curse by finding love and community where he can. The price is that he must either always run away from it or face the same devastating loss as the first time. This is where the conversation, as well as each man’s point of view, shifts: now Jameson will do anything to stave off the loneliness he feels by marrying Susanna, while Kittridge will do whatever it takes to protect her. But Jameson has the advantage of the limits of what the human mind can grasp and believe, and it looks like his eternal pattern will go on repeating itself.

Enter Estelle Winwood. 

One of my favorite actresses, Winwood was a successful star of the London stage who resisted film work for years and never quite took to it. (She expressed regret for appearing in the 1967 film The Producers as “Hold Me, Touch Me!” (She is hilarious in the part.) However, she had no such qualms about television and appeared in everything from quality theatre productions like Blithe Spirit to sitcoms like Bewitched and The Real McCoys. As for Perry Mason, she has the honor of having appeared in the final episode!

I won’t go into details, but Winwood’s character Laurette forces Jameson to face the cost to others of his endless life, and she brings about his ultimate fate in a scene that is beautifully edited to seem as real as magic can be with the most basic effects. (Marc Zucree goes into some detail as to how George T. Clemens and the make-up guy brought about the illusion of Jameson’s aging and death.) In most of the stories about immortality that I can think of (The Picture of Dorian Gray, She), our sympathies are not with that long-lived person. Here, however, Walter Jameson’s end is dramatic but not tragic: Susanna will be spared Laurette’s pain, and Walter will finally achieve the peace he has been seeking for a long, long time.

*     *     *     *     *

 “The Invaders” (written by Richard Matheson; original broadcast 1/27/61)

Let’s talk about Agnes Moorehead.

Those who say, “Oh, yeah, the lady from Bewitched,” are cousins to the folks who say Agatha Christie was a great author – even though they’ve never read a book of hers and are guided only by Suchet’s Poirot. Moorehead certainly elevated Bewitched with her flamboyant performance and bitchy wit. I always rooted for Endora over “Derwood.” 

But Agnes Moorehead was so much more than that. A member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, she made her film debut as Charles Foster Kane’s mother, and in five minutes of screen time she gave an indelible portrait of a woman simultaneously cold and tragic. Then she doubled down and stole Welles’ next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, as Aunt Fanny. This is my favorite role of hers, although Madge Rapf, the part she plays in the Bogart/Bacall noir classic Dark Passage, comes very close. 

When the film Gigi was turned into a stage musical, Moorehead was cast as Gigi’s elegant aunt. She was quite ill at the time and ended up being replaced on Broadway (by Arlene Francis). However, the show had a try-out run in San Francisco, and so I got to see Moorehead play the role. She couldn’t save this travesty of the classic film, but it was wonderful to watch her live performance. 

Perhaps her most famous role was that of Mrs. Stevenson in the Suspense radio play, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” This suspense drama about a neurotic invalid left alone in her bed who overhears a phone conversation that she believes marks her as a dead woman was the series most successful episode, one that Moorehead repeated for the show seven more times over the years. It is a remarkable tour de force performance that everyone should hear at least once. 

Mrs. Stevenson was the performance that inspired The Twilight Zone to write “The Invaders” for Miss Moorehead, which puzzled her because “Sorry, Wrong Number” was all about her voice while the character she plays in TZ is essentially mute. It doesn’t matter: “The Invaders” is unlike any other episode, and Moorehead’s work is easily some of the best in the entire series.

This is one of the out-of-the-way places, the unvisited places, bleak, wasted, dying. This is a farmhouse, handmade, crude, a house without electricity or gas, a house untouched by progress. This is the woman who lives in the house, a woman who’s been alone for many years, a strong, simple woman, whose only problem up until this moment has been that of acquiring enough food to eat, a woman about to face terror, which is even now coming at her from . . . the Twilight Zone.” 

We don’t have time to learn if the solitary woman Moorehead plays is lonely; almost immediately, the simplicity of her existence is destroyed by visitors from another planet, who land on her roof and almost immediately begin attacking. The saucer and the little alien men look like something out of Lost in Space, but Moorehead makes them real with her intense performance. Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie score helps a great deal, as does Douglas Heyes’ direction and George T. Clemens’ cinematography. Clemens’ first reveal of the spaceship is brilliantly effective, and then he doubles down on a different camera move for the final twist. 

That twist might be a variation on Serling’s own Season One screenplay for “Third from the Sun,” but what Matheson says about the colonialization of space is quite different from the earlier, lesser episode. It calls into question the heroism behind Star Trek’s “five year mission,” and stands as a metaphor of the conquest of America by the Spanish, India by the British, and countless other examples. Is Moorehead’s reaction to the invasion of her home savage and violent? You bet it is! These beings land on her roof and end up shooting and stabbing her and blowing holes through the walls of her home. I’d give anything to learn what viewers felt in 1961 when the camera pans across the saucer to reveal the aliens’ identities. 

At least, we know how Matheson and Serling felt:

These are the invaders, the tiny beings from the tiny place called Earth, who would take the giant step across the sky to the question marks that sparkle and beckon from the vastness of the universe only to be imagined. The invaders, who found out that a one-way ticket to the stars beyond has the ultimate price tag. And we have just seen it entered in the ledger that covers all the transactions of the universe, a bill stamped “paid in full,” and to be found . . . in The Twilight Zone.

*     *     *     *     *

 “Night Call” (written by Richard Matheson, based on his short story “Long Distance Call;” directed by Jacques Tourneur; original broadcast 2/7/64)

Speaking of “Sorry, Wrong Number” . . . 

Matheson’s original short story, “Long Distance Call,” is like many you would find in Vault of Terror, Tales from the Crypt, or any EC Comic book. A woman receives phone calls that she discovers are coming from a long ago lover who died as a result of her careless driving. He is able to call her because the telephone wire has snapped during a storm and landed across his grave. In his final call, he tells her he’s coming over . . . 

The TZ adaptation is richer and more poignant – but just as scary – for a number of reasons. Somehow, the producer was able to snag the great French film director Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Out of the Past) to helm the episode, and it is chockful of atmosphere from start to finish. Tourneur evokes a spooky sense of place, but mostly he keeps his camera right on his leading lady’s face. Casting the terrific English film actress Gladys Cooper (Rebecca, Now Voyager) was the next stroke of genius. In her third TZ appearance, she plays Elva Keene, a lonely invalid living in Maine whose isolated existence is disrupted by mysterious phone calls. At first, she only hears static, then a ghostly male voice repeating over and over again, “Hello.” As his vocabulary grows with each succeeding call (“Where are you? I want to talk to you.”), Elva’s panic rises. The sound design is incredible: like Elva, we are both drawn to, and terrified of, the weird sounds emanating from the phone. We want to hang up – and we want to hear more . . .

Matheson wisely drops the horror element at the finale, trading a zombie visitor for a more poignant twist. Elva demands that her companion Margaret (Nora Marlowe) take her to the cemetery, where she finds the wire draped over her late fiance’s grave and reveals her responsibility for his death. At last, she can speak to her lover and make things right; at last, she will no longer be alone. But that night, as she pleads through the line for Brian to talk to her, his voice returns for one parting shot: “You told me to leave you alone. I always do what you say.” 

Tragic, to be sure. But better than a visit from a corpse . . . 

*     *     *     *     *

As a bonus this week, Elliot gave us links to two films. The first, in honor of Kevin McCarthy, was Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’ve only watched this one about a hundred times, and it is, always and forever, the best of its kind. (The remake set in San Francisco is fantastic, too!) Loneliness as a theme fits here, as Dr. Miles Bennell (McCarthy) starts to realize that all his friends are being replaced by giant pea pods from outer space. The original ending, with Bennell running across the highway toward the Golden Gate Bridge screaming, “You’re next!” is as bleak as it gets, particularly in light of the (different) McCarthy witch hunts the pods represent. The “feel-good” coda that the studio demanded be tacked on doesn’t ruin the picture; in fact, Jack Finney’s book had its own happy ending, where the pods simply die off. (Nobody watered them!) But the final image of McCarthy would have chilled the blood of 50’s filmgoers and their spawn for generations to come. 

The other film Elliot handed us was The Fearmakers, a 1958 Commie noir thriller that was directed by Jacques Tourneur and stars Dana Andrews, Dick Foran and Mel Torme. I had never heard of this one, and Elliot sold it as having “a curious Manchurian Candidate vibe to it.” Now, Candidate happens to be one of my top ten all-time favorite films, so Fearmakers had a great deal to live up to. I lasted about fifteen minutes. Sorry, Fearmakers, too much pressure!

Next week is our last session, and the three episodes selected for us include what might be the most famous Twilight Zone of them all. I won’t go into detail here . . . let’s just say this half hour really brings home the bacon!

3 thoughts on “THE TWILIGHT ZONE, PART 9: Alone Again, Unnaturally

  1. Three terrific choices Brad and urban dislocation, depersonalisation and isolation is a great wraparound theme, really nice idea. Walter Jameson is probably my favourite Beaumont entry actually – could easily have worked as an hour but is just superb as is. Must admit, always found the 70s version of Bodysnatchers just a bit too cool for me. But it is certainly even scarier, though the characters seem to have far less to go to reach pod status in this one … I like the notion of The Invaders as a kind of sequel to Third from the Sun, but then Matheson did write the story for that one too after all. Or maybe Moorhead is a victim sent to the fields, from It’s a Good Life 🙂


  2. I’ve seen The Invaders so many times and somehow it still works for me every time. As far as I’m concerned Richard Matheson could do no wrong.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s