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The Nostalgic Attic: The Twilight Zone - Season One: 'Mr.Denton on Doomsday' and 'The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine'

5 July 2014

The Twilight Zone - Season One: 'Mr.Denton on Doomsday' and 'The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine'

"Portrait of a town drunk named Al Denton. This is a man who's begun his dying early - a long, agonizing route through a maze of bottles. Al Denton, who would probably give an arm or a leg or a part of his soul to have another chance..."

Once again we take a break from the comforts of our couch and dip a toe into the murky pool of The Twilight Zone - be sure to dim the lights, and lock the back door - because who knows just what could happen on this strange journey we are about to embark on. This week we have a double-whammy of lost souls, lost lives and that fleeting chance for redemption, backed up by some excellent casting choices. So let's dive right in here, shall we?

Episode Three -Mr. Denton on Doomsday

In his youth, Al Denton (Dan Duryea) was known as the quickest draw in his town. When he accidentally killed a boy in a draw, he found his life a ruin, turning to drink to get him through the darkness. Now the town alcoholic, he sings for a drink to the amusement of the abusive locals. One day, a travelling salesman by the name of Mr. Henry Fate stops by the town to find Al practically lapping up booze from a broken bottle in the dirt, devoid of all sense of self respect. When he regains consciousness, he discovers something lying beside him, apart from the empty bottle - a gun. Al soon finds that he has been given something better than booze; a chance to shoot straight again.

He doesn't waste time in dealing out a bit of justice to the town bully, even though he is lacking in confidence his bullets manage to hit their mark every time. Suddenly he is the town hero again, but Al knows what trouble this will bring. Soon enough, he has a challenge to a duel from a young rival gunslinger. When he goes out to the desert to practice, he finds his confidence still lacking, and can't make a shot. Enter again the mysterious Henry Fate, and his cart full of strange potions and medicines. He offers Al a tonic that will give him the most perfect shot, but for only ten seconds. Al, hungry for redemption, takes the tonic. But when he meets the young lad for the draw, he notices a similar vial in his hands. Has Mr. Fate played a trick on Al? Just what will happen when both men draw?

Once again, we are given a very human story here, much like that in 'One for the Angels', in which we get a real chance to feel sympathy and understand the plight of our central character. Al Denton is a sad sack that we are familiar with; the kind of homeless, run down person we pass every day in our lives but seldom stop to think about what put them there in the first place. What would these people do for a chance for redemption? Would they accept the lesson life has dealt them and make so much more of it? The theme of redemption is a strong point here; not just redeeming your own character from the shambles that your life has become, but by stopping someone making the same mistakes you have in your life, and keeping them from the fate you have endured. And isn't redemption at its strongest when you can save someone else from the abyss too?

The cast is great here, and Duryea plays the rummy Al to perfection. The supporting cast is interesting too, we get an early performance from Martin Landau as the town bully who gets his comeuppance, and Jeanne Cooper as the kind-hearted Liz despairing to see Denton drink himself into an early grave. 

Episode Four -The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine

Far away from the dusty, western world of Al Denton is that of the ageing film star, Barbara Jean Trenton (Ida Lupino), holed up in her gloomy mansion in Hollywood. A complete recluse, the only joy she now has is spending time in her private screening room, constantly running her old films, and longing for the days of romance and stardom that have now fled her. Her one friend is also her agent, Danny Weiss, (Martin Balsam) who tries to convince her to re-enter the world of film. He brings her to meet the head of a studio who is only happy to cast her in the film, in an age-appropriate role, of course. This sends her into a rage, convinced she was there to play the romantic lead. This drives her further into her fantasy world, believing that she will someday be a part of that movie magic again.

Danny decides to try an extreme tactic to make her snap out of this madness and accept her age and status. He arranges for one of her old co-stars to visit. Barbara, believing she is going to see the handsome Lothario who she is so familiar with on the big screen, is appalled to meet the elderly gent who is presented to her, who now runs a chain of grocery stores, of all things. She locks herself back in her viewing room, wanting nothing more than to disappear into the celluloid running at 24 frames per second across the white screen in front of her...

In many ways, this episode feels like the flip side of the previous one, Mr Denton on Doomsday. We have a once popular character now at the lowest point in their lives, though Barbara still seems to have her wealth. Both are given the options to redeem themselves, but both in very different ways. While Al is given the chance to change someone elses life for the better, and find his redemption that way, Barbara is constantly urged by those who care about her to return to 'reality', to snap out of the self-obsessed delusion she has placed herself in over the years. Instead, she decides to go the opposite way; to chase dreams and wishes to a point where reality no longer exists. And while she does get her wish, you can't help but feel this a bittersweet ending; is it good to live a fantasy life and shun reality, no matter how harsh it can be? 

Classic film fans will find plenty to enjoy here, with the nods to Sunset Boulevard and with Martin Balsam getting plenty of screen time. One of the few flaws, however, is in that seeing Barbara in her earlier roles on the projected screen loses much of the impact when she looks so similar to her character in the present age of the story. It's a pity she didn't have an early film they could have used for these moments, as the real-life difference of 20 or 30 years would have had quite an impact. It possibly would have led to other licensing issues for us watching so far in the future, though, so maybe it was wise to not do that. 

I'll leave you with the musings of Rod Serling to close things off today:

"To the wishes that come true, to the strange, mystic strength of the human animal, who can take a wishful dream and give it a dimension of its own. To Barbara Jean Trenton, movie queen of another era, who has changed the blank tomb of an empty projection screen into a private world. It can happen - in the Twilight Zone."

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At 7 July 2014 at 11:56 , Blogger Wes M said...

[ Spoilers Ahead ]

Excellent stuff John... Two rather wishy-washy episodes I think after the great opening salvo of Where is Everybody? / One for the Angels but still fine in their own right and featuring some fantastic Rod Serling writing... I think it's Serling's wrap-up narration on Mr.Denton on Doomsday that really ties the whole episode together with the line "A fanciful little man in a black frock coat who can help a man climbing out of a pit, or another man from falling into one", which is really beautiful stuff. Nice as well to see a young Doug McClure as the eager gunslinger - reminds me of all those fantasy adventure movies he appeared in the mid-70's, not to mention Humanoids From the Deep, which I must grab off my shelf and see again. And Landau is pretty great as well - with that mean-as-hell and wide-as-a-mile grin of his...

There's probably more meat on the bone for The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine, which I might describe as a cross between Sunset Boulevard and The Purple Rose of Cairo (albeit in reverse!). The pivotal moment for me in this episode is where Ida Lupino's character is completely deflated by her former leading man's current life as a supermarket chain owner - which is something I must admit I've been guilty of - when I discover that some great band who had a brief day in the sun end up working ordinary day jobs - I always find it hard to reconcile that with their former glories. So right there is a fine example of The Twilight Zone handling those kind of awkward ideas. Martin Balsam is really terrific in this - I was just checking dates, and it's very likely, Balsam's next job or close-to after his stint on this episode was probably Psycho. Watching Ida Lupino I couldn't help but think of Annette Benning who would have been a dead ringer for Lupino a few years ago. I have a lot of respect for Ida Lupino, trailblazing a path for women directors - she might have only directed 7 features but for a woman to call the shots on a film set in the fifties, even the kind of small independent productions she worked on, is quite something... I liked the way this one played out - in less confident hands it might have ended with Lupino's character withdrawing into madness or some such rational explanation, but Serling's declaration that the world is full of strange peculiar magic is really marvelous...

At 7 July 2014 at 13:06 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Absolutely Wes, if these episodes didn't have the guiding voice of Serling they would be lost. I think I might be a bit more forgiving on Mr. Denton on Doomsday, mainly because of the heart it has. Funny that I didn't pick up on McClure, even when researching this, there is never a bad time to dig in to Humanoids From the Deep!

Good call on Purple Rose - I knew there was another, modern connection there somewhere! That moment really is the pivotal scene in the episode - the same can be said for when we bump into past girlfriends or friends we might not have seen since growing up - only to discover that twenty years have past, they've had children, been married, and grown into very different people than we had in our heads. Unsurprisingly, I tend to live in the past (though I don't dwell on it) so I can relate somewhat! Yeah, was thinking Balsam was due for his famous tumble down the staircase not long after when writing this up, he's an actor I really enjoy watching, no matter what kind of role he had.

I wasn't aware of Lupino's director credits until I was researching this - was great to see that she also was the only person to direct and star in an episode of The Twilight Zone! Kudos to her, though I do think there aren't nearly enough female directors, even at this point. Would love to see more of them working in genres such as action and horror, which are typically male- led. I think they could do wonderful things there, surely the world could do with something other than Jason Statham Covered in Grease part 6, or Girl Tied to a Chair Screaming for 90 Minutes part 9!

At 8 July 2014 at 00:50 , Blogger Wes M said...

Kathryn Bigelow would be one obvious woman director, but more attuned to our wavelength might be Doris Wishman, who’s films really are terrible – I’ve seen her Chesty Morgan films and they are truly sad and depressing spectacles. The woman that immediately comes to my mind is Roberta Findlay, who had an incredible career in Exploitation Cinema. She was the cinematographer on Snuff and Shriek of the Mutilated, and directed a number of sexploitation films including hardcore stuff, under a male pseudonym, before moving onto more mainstream exploitation fare in the mid-80’s with the like of The Oracle and what I would consider Findlay’s masterpiece, the violent, scuzzy urban exploitation pic Tenement – be sure to check it out if you haven’t seen it already !

At 8 July 2014 at 01:51 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Ah Wes, here was me with Bigelow or Campion on my mind, and you had to jump to Wishman and Findlay! I like your train of thought! Two definite gutter directors if there ever was one - didn't Wishman do the horrid 'Let me Die a Woman' flick, too? Her slasher film, A night to Dismember, is another bad one, though possibly a notch up on some of her other work.

I think i was vaguely aware at the back of my mind that she was involved in Snuff ( a film, incidentally, with truly terrible cinematography) but am quite a big fan of Tenement - it's a nasty little film for sure, quite surprising in parts for its violence!

I guess I was thinking more along the lines of what a director of the caliber of Bigelow or Campion could do in male orientated genres like action and horror. I know Bigelow paved the way for it in the 80's and 90's, and made some excellent genre pictures, but her films are a little more high brow these days. I guess women such as Gale Ann Hurd are just as important, being a hands-on producer on films such as Aliens and The Terminator films. She also produced excellent films like Tremors, Alien Nation and the current The Walking Dead series.

At 8 July 2014 at 02:35 , Blogger Wes M said...

John I’m scanning thru my film list here now and out of the hundreds of directors, I’ve got just 10 women-directed films – as well as Roberta Findlay and Tenement, there’s Mary Harron (American Psycho), Věra Chytilová (director of the great surreal Czech new waver Daisies), Maria Saakyan (director of the Tarkovskyesque Lighthouse), Sophia Coppola (Lost In Translation), Kathryn Bigelow (her fantastic debut The Loveless, and Near Dark), Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter), Jane Arden (director of the extraordinary, weird and abrasive Other Side of the Underneath) and Antonio Bird (Ravenous)...

At 8 July 2014 at 03:35 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Wow, that's shocking, and I don't mean on your behalf, as no doubt I've got even less. That Lighthouse one has been on my radar a good while now, I really should check it out. Haven't heard of the Daisies one, though it sounds interesting. Near Dark and Ravenous, both excellent and unusual genre entries. The Night Porter is strong stuff, though I haven't seen Other Side of the Underneath.

I guess it highlights how poorly represented women are behind the camera; shocking really!

At 8 July 2014 at 20:12 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I like both of these Zones - though I do think they were still finding their way a bit. I'm a big Ida Lupino fan, though - and if anyone wants to know more about her career - including films that could have been the source for the flim clips seen in this Twilight Zone - as Ms Lupino had been acting since the 30's - here's a link...


At 9 July 2014 at 06:50 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Excellent Craig, it's nice to get some background on Ida Lupino. It's great that she carved her own little niche in the directing world - we could do with more women like her!


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