Thursday, January 24, 2008

Twilight Zone: Vol. 3

Volume 3 of The Twilight Zone could very well be subtitled "The Nostalgia Disc." The four episodes included this time out are "Steel," "A Game of Pool," "Walking Distance" and "Kick the Can." The last two deal overtly with longing for youth and the way things were, while the former two deal with trying to recapture past glory ("Steel") and overcoming the past ("A Game of Pool").

"Kick the Can" is probably the most famous episode of this batch, simply because it was remade by Steven Spielberg for the 1983 movie version of the series. The original season 3 episode (1962, written by George Clayton Johnson) is a gentle ode to being only as old as you feel you are. There are several easily recognizable character actors from movies and television of the time on camera here, and the story itself is a kind of Little Red Hen/Pied Piper mashup. The Spielberg version went heavy on the saccharine, and this one is pretty frothy in its own right. Still, it never goes overboard and is great fun to watch as the conspiracy to have fun takes root in the retirement home.

"Walking Distance" (1959, written by Rod Serling) has one of the best titles of any Twilight Zone episode, and features Opie Cunningham (otherwise known as Ron Howard) in one of his earliest roles. It's a take on the classic SF "you can't go home again/time travel" trope, in which a man desperate to escape the corporate rat race unwittingly walks back in time to his childhood hometown. The protagonist is a likeable sort, even though he is quite possible the densest human being on the planet, being unable to grasp that he's traveled through time despite running into his 11-year-old self and deceased mother. There's a strong Bradbury-esque vibe going on here, and the wistful mood of the piece almost bogs down in sappy sentiment before pulling out in time for a bittersweet ending.

"Steel" (1963, written by the great Richard Matheson) features Lee Marvin as a former heavyweight prize fighter in one of the most overtly science fictional episodes of the series. In a future (actually, an alternate history from my 2008 perspective) boxing has been outlawed as a barbaric sport, and is now performed by androids. Marvin's character is the owner of a broken-down, obsolete model that circumstance has allowed to land a lucrative fight against a more advanced model. When Marvin's android fighter abruptly breaks down right before the bout, Marvin rashly passes himself off as the mechanical fighter. What follows is a deft revisionist telling of the John Henry story, only in this case, John Henry gets his ass handed to him by his automated competition. A very bleak story, there's no happy triumph for Marvin in the end--he even gets stiffed half his fight fee for not lasting a full round. Good stuff.

My favorite of the disc is "A Game of Pool" (1963, written by George Clayton Johnson) featuring both Jack Klugman and Jonathan Winters playing against type in dramatic roles. While there's little overt comedy in this piece about an up-and-coming pool hustler challenging a long-dead master of the game to a winner-take-all contest, there's heavy irony that both of these skilled actors have a field day with. Winters' famously expressive face is especially evocative as "Fats" Brown, and Klugman's angry desperation as Jesse Cardiff--a man who's sacrificed everything to be the best pool player who ever lived--is by turns endearing and disturbing. The contest between them never generates that much tension, as the staged trick shots don't convey the clash of titans they're supposed to, but that's secondary. This episode is really a character study with two well-defined characters on display, and in that sense it delivers in spades. Recommended.

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