March 30, 2013 § 2 Comments
“Mirror Image” (available online, at least for now, on YouTube) is the episode that Serling felt compelled to introduce the week before as a fine example of his ability to write meaty roles for women. Its star is Vera Miles, its director John Brahm; both have interesting backgrounds that blend to make this episode what it is.
Vera Miles starred as Lila Crane in Psycho, released a few months after this episode aired in February 1960. She had caught Hitchcock’s eye in the mid-’50s. The role that Kim Novak would make famous in Vertigo had been meant for Miles; but she was pregnant, and would wait a couple more years until she had her own chance at a doppelganger tale. She had a lovely, plain, open face, a kind of Everywoman quality, that makes her very effective in this episode.
John Brahm was a theatrical actor and director in Weimar Germany who fled to the U.S. with the rise of Hitler. There’s something very much like a stage play about this episode, and something of an Expressionist influence, as well. I love, for instance, the very simple set of the bus station, which is bracketed like the set for a modernist morality play by twin neon signs, bold, declarative, and emblematic of the content of the episode:
Yes: a lady, or ladies, with baggage. This would be a fine title for the next episode of the five, “Nightmare As a Child,” as well.
“Mirror Image” is a fine example of a TZ episode that takes a fairly simple premise — woman fears she’s been replaced by her evil doppelganger — and makes it memorable thanks to visual style, good writing, and a slow build of tension that keeps the viewer interested. The visual reveal of the doppelganger is especially effective.
As in “The Hitch-Hiker,” doom arrives in the mirror. More interestingly, there’s a gorgeous frame-within-frame composition here that calls back to “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.” That earlier film also featured a woman looking at an image of her own self — with a very similar gesture, actually, though the roles are reversed: here the “real” self (in the process of being made fictive) is the horrified one, where earlier it was the “fictive” self (whose place would be taken by the real self by episode’s end). The sign above the doppelganger makes explicit a theme throughout these episodes: the baggage that these women carry is, at least in part, the image of the self, which threatens to overwhelm and usurp the life of the person, the individual.
This is also another episode about a single woman, Millicent Barnes, traveling on her own, and as in “The Hitch-Hiker,” one can see a not-so-subtle subtext that such independence leads only to trouble, or to madness. “Offhand, mister,” says the washroom attendant to her supposed knight-in-shining-armor, Paul, “I’d say she needed some looking after… if you know what I mean.” She means psychological help, or institutionalization, but she could mean so many other things, as well.
But as in “The Hitch-Hiker,” the tone and structure of the episode at least partly undercut that idea. Oddly, both of the episodes are split in two between light and dark halves. After Millicent sees her doppelganger on the bus and faints, the station manager turns off the lights. When Millicent recovers, she heads for the ladies’ room again, hoping against hope to catch her double again: in the mirror, in a stall, somewhere. She’s connected the neon “Ladies” sign with the idea of multiples of herself, just as we viewers have.
The ladies’ room, especially in its darkened state, seems a realm of the Freudian unconscious, a place from which bizarre symbol has irrupted into reality. And so Millicent is carted off by the police to the nut house.
But in the reality of “Mirror Image,” Millicent was right, not insane, and the same thing happens to Paul — his double flees to take over his life, leaving him in the dust, a truly wonderful smirk on his face. The shadows and rain-slicked streets of this sequence are beautiful, and obviously artificial, in the mode of expressionist cinema. And as in much expressionist cinema, the episode can be seen as a societal indictment as much as a comforting horror that reinforces norms.
March 19, 2013 § 3 Comments
The backstory of “The Hitch-Hiker” (viewable online at Vimeo): it begins as a short story by Lucille Fletcher, who then adapted it as a radio play in the early 1940s (available for your listening pleasure here). Serling, nearly twenty years later, adapts it for TZ. The major difference? Serling made the main character a woman. The role was made famous by Orson Welles on the radio, and it was also a man in the original short story. (As a weird aside: the famous radio thriller series in which the radio play appeared, Suspense, featured music by Bernard Herrmann, who also wrote the TZ theme and so many other thriller scores. And Herrmann was Fletcher’s husband for ten years.)
Serling opens by telling us that Nan Adams is driving cross-country on vacation. She’s a buyer for a department store. She has a flat tire. SPOILER ALERT (though I mean, come on, it’s fifty years old): she’s already dead, though she doesn’t know it yet. As the mechanic fixing her tire says, in a great dual meaning, she “must be on the side of the angels.” As she drives away, she spots for the first time a mysterious hitchhiker who she’ll see all across the country, begging a ride just from her.
Nan, the independent working woman driving across country for nothing more than fun, is given no backstory, no man she’s chasing down or fleeing from, no tortured or angelic past. She shares her name with one of Serling’s daughters, and maybe this has something to do with the refreshing absence of the typical moralistic or misogynistic structure of a story of a woman alone on the road. Nan’s internal monologue, in the voiceover of actress Inger Stevens, carries the episode along, as it would in a radio play. However, this is accompanied by abundant shots from within the car of America flying by — unusual at a time when so many driving scenes were done in studios with stock footage playing in the background — and Nan’s face registering her anxiety about the hitch-hiker’s reappearances.
The episode, overall, has a wonderful lightness and gentleness, especially within the parameters of the “thriller.” Nan describes her sense of “disquiet” (not even fear) and the hitchhiker himself as “vague”; it’s not a bad term for the feel of the episode. The director, Alvin Ganzer, and Serling knew that they had a fine, natural actress in Stevens, and Ganzer uses a great deal of natural light, also unusual for the period; this, too, adds to the vague or hard-to-define tone of the episode. There are a number of terrific closeups of Steven’s face that exhibit the kind of subtlety that was never the trademark of TZ overall, ranging from perplexity to an occasional, unexpected, eerie calm and peace.
The episode is almost perfectly divided between sunlight (natural light!) and darkness. The turn to darkness is accompanied by a return of flickering lights — neon, this time, but still reminiscent of the strobe of the projector in “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.”
Nan, out of gas after midnight, runs through the dark to a gas station. It’s closed, of course, and the proprietor is in no mood to get out of bed and pump. At this point Nan is startled by a sailor: after he’s grabbed her shoulder and she’s recovered a bit from the shock, he asks, “Lady?”
She delivers the following reply: “Yes. That’s what I am. I’m a lady.”
The blend of relief, simple recognition, despair, and desire here is breathtaking.
Desperate, she begs the sailor to ride along with her, and he accepts, persuading the station owner to sell them some gas. While the sailor makes some mild comments about her looks and, after she veers wildly in an attempt to hit the hitchhiker, she tries to get him to stay with intimations that she wanted him to “take her out,” the encounter is of a piece with the gentle, humane tone of the entire episode: there’s the threat of sexual violence that comes with the fictional presentation of any encounter between a woman and a stranger at night, but in the end, it’s the sailor that flees, scared off by Nan’s intensity and confusion.
Nan learns, via cross-country call in a phone booth by the flickering neon light, that her mother has had a breakdown due to Nan’s death. So yes: women going mad, women dying who dare to live and travel unaccompanied. But that’s not what one takes away from a viewing. This was such a popular story at the time that many viewers would have known that it originally featured a man. And the ending makes clear that Nan’s death is not a punishment; it’s just the way of us all, a fact that must be accepted eventually.
The final appearance of the hitchhiker is in Nan’s rear-view mirror. Mirrors will come up again in the next post. Here, the counterpoint of Nan’s look of exhausted acceptance and the hitchhiker’s wry smile is exquisite. Stevens’s performance in this episode is likely my favorite of the entire first season, especially that look into the rear-view mirror.
March 18, 2013 § 5 Comments
See the first post in this series on the five female-protagonist episodes of The Twilight Zone season one for background.
“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” (viewable online at Vimeo) is a quintessential TZ episode, and Rod Serling script, in the way that it teeters between indulgence in nostalgia and examination of nostalgia as a force in American life. It was directed by Mitchell Leisen, an art director and costume designer who broke through and became a director of some important films in the 1930s and ’40s. It makes perfect sense that he worked with Billy Wilder and other heavy hitters of the studio golden age; this episode would be a great entr’acte or palate cleanser for a double feature of Sunset Blvd. and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, between which it fits chronologically.
Leisen’s emphasis on costumes and design shows through in the episode, which features an aging actress (Ida Lupino) who, rather than seeking out new roles, prefers to sit in her darkened study watching her past performances, alone, wearing terrific dress after terrific dress, with a glass of something strong. It looks great, and the flickering light of the projector is used evocatively and beautifully as a visual motif. (You’ll have to take a look at the episode online; I’m too lazy to gif or video clip examples of these sequences at the moment.)
Early on, the episode features a gorgeous sequence in which Barbara Jean, the actress, startles her maid by emerging from behind the screen on which her younger self, playing a nurse in a golden-age war romance, is being projected.
The episode had begun, in Serling’s narration, with a “Picture of a woman looking at a picture.” The reflexivity of this construction, the near-mirroring of Barbara Jean’s younger (ostensibly fictive) and older (ostensibly real) gestures, and the horror on that supposedly fictive self’s face, are the first glimpses of the theme that Serling, the episodes’ directors, and the talented actresses would carry through these five season one episodes: women mirrored, glimpsing their own objectification, their troubled place within both the episodes’ contemporary America and the frame of the viewer’s television screen, their supposed need and desire for the attention and protection of others.
Leisen does wonderful work with these frame-within-frame structures throughout the episode. But Lupino adds her own strokes of genius (I presume, not having seen the script, not having been on the set): the way, in the sequence shown above, her hand begins and stays at her neck, while her younger self’s hand begins at the mouth and works its troubled way down to her neck, exposes her self-consciousness about aging, and about, well, her neck. (Lupino, incidentally, would later become the only woman to direct an episode of the original TZ series.)
Barbara Jean’s agent encourages her to “get [her] war paint on” and come to her studio to hear about a new part being offered to her. Dressed like a young starlet, she is told that the part would be that of a mother. Horrified that she is no longer expected to play the young romantic lead, she leaves in a huff, retreating to the screening room.
Seeing her leading man, now an happily aged businessman, is the last straw: Barbara Jean manages to will herself into the screen, living inside the projector in Hollywood’s idealized past, a half-person half-projection. Now, there is more than a little of the typical 1950s plot element of a woman needing her man above all in this episode (more than in the others under discussion here). But in the end, Barbara Jean makes her own choice, and that choice has as much to do with “the pictures getting small,” to paraphrase Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. The questions remain more or less the same today: Who wants to play a second-fiddle mother when they’ve been the lead? And why can’t the romantic lead ever be older than 25?
This escape into film is set up beautifully by the episode’s beginning, in which the viewer’s television screen is filled with the film being projected onto Barbara Jean’s screen, making the fictive “real” until the camera cuts to her watching that screen. It is somewhat interesting to speculate on how obvious it was to contemporary viewers that they were watching a pastiche of an old Hollywood film: the treacly lighting and music tend to make me think that they were partly let in on the joke, but it’s not as though material so far removed from this were uncommon on television in 1959.
Hearing the cries of her agent from within the screen to come back and live in the present, “Barbie” (as he calls her — and yes, the Barbie doll was launched earlier in 1959, and yes, this will come up again) turns back to the “camera” and camera, gazes out at him, kisses and throws her scarf toward him (or at least, toward the fictive “camera”).
Leisen’s background really comes together here: in this shot and others, the layering of interior set on interior set, the inclusion of frames within frames, the desire to wear elaborate, cumbersome, gorgeous costumes always, leads to a conclusion of remarkable beauty. (It’s also possible, as an aside, to see the episode, and especially this ending, through the lens of camp and the gay embrace of glamour, especially in light of Leisen’s oeuvre.)
Barbara Jean’s decision can be seen as a choice to become an image, an object: she is blowing a kiss and throwing a scarf to messy reality, to her declining prospects for celebrity or employment, to a woman’s natural aging. But of course she is performing as a subject, too, choosing to “live” on her own terms rather than “age gracefully.” It’s probably my least favorite of the five episodes under discussion here, but it contains riches, and it fills me with questions about its production and how (or whether) it fits with the other episodes in Serling’s writing.
March 17, 2013 § 5 Comments
On February 19, 1960, at the end of the twentieth episode (“Elegy”) of a new series entitled The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling, the mind behind the series, unexpectedly came onto the screen and delivered the following message:
[First clause cut off in surviving footage, likely “I want to”]… settle an argument to the effect that I’m not at my best when writing scripts for women. Miss Vera Miles takes my side, in a most unusual and unique story we call “Mirror Image.” I hope to see you next week: you in your living room, and Miss Vera Miles and the rest of us in the Twilight Zone.
I’ve been watching the Twilight Zone in chronological order via Netflix’s streaming service; on-screen appearances by Serling were not yet a normal part of the series, so this made me sit up and take notice. It made me notice, too, that only two of the first twenty episodes had focused on female protagonists. I would agree that these were not the best-written episodes, but I had appreciated the conceits of both episodes, and they were among my favorite episodes visually.
As it happened, the weak ratio of female star turns in the first season only slightly improved — five of 36 (36!) episodes — but these five clearly mattered a great deal to Serling, and I’d love to research the backstory of his reasons for the on-screen proclamation. The five episodes hang together in fascinating ways, and form (consciously?) a suite of stories about women in American life on the cusp of second-wave feminism.
In some ways, the focus in the series on male protagonists and, often, exclusively male narratives was in keeping with the 1950s television (and broader cultural) emphasis on the heroic male in westerns, science fiction, and other genres with pulp roots. The female episodes of The Twilight Zone must have stood out for contemporary viewers from such offerings, especially as all five are focused not on domesticity or even married women, but women working, traveling, making their own decisions (for better or, more often, worse).
I’ll explore each of these five episodes in a series of posts. I’m especially interested in a really interesting subtext in these five, and in series as a whole: women as subjects as well as televised objects, women looking back at the male gaze. This would be nicely summarized in the very first image of the opening sequence used for the last few episodes of the season: