Tag Archives: Rod Serling

Night Call (1964, Jacques Tourneur)

Night Call’s pre-Rod Serling tag has lead Gladys Cooper having trouble sleeping through a thunderstorm. She then gets two phone calls at 2 a.m., with just static on the line. The next day, after the Serling intro promising Cooper’s in for a momentous event, Cooper tries reporting the phone calls to the phone company but they’ve been having lots of trouble on account of the storm. The operator kind of dismisses her, as does her day-time caretaker, Nora Marlowe. See, Cooper’s kind of a mean old lady–her family doesn’t want anything to do with her–so she gets zero sympathy from Marlowe and, really, Night Call.

The phone calls continue, with the buzz eventually becoming moaning (a man moaning) and then the moaning just becomes the guy saying “Hello” over and over again. Cooper in a full panic, Marlowe is just as unsympathetic (the utter lack of chemistry between Cooper and Marlowe probably hurts Night Call but it’s hard to even imagine they could have any rapport), the phone company is investigating. All Cooper can do is wait. While the calls keep coming.

And somehow Marlowe’s never around to hear them–she’s convinced Cooper’s lying for the attention or something. Turns out, of course, she’s not. Instead there’s some highly contrived explanation along with some pointless comeuppance–watching Marlowe berate Cooper in one scene seems like elder abuse but also with some sexism thrown in–and a pat, predictable ending.

Cooper’s performance is… mediocre. Better than Marlowe, though Marlowe’s got no character to even hint at playing, but still quite mediocre. Tourneur’s direction is similarly middling. The interior stuff is boring, the exterior stuff is not. Except when Tourneur’s got to hammer in the point for the big finale. Rather nice photography from Robert Pittack (especially outside) and solid editing from Richard V. Heermance.

Night Call doesn’t particularly have anything going for it–acting, directing, writing–it’s kind of fine, but so what.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; written by Richard Matheson; “The Twilight Zone” created by Rod Serling; director of photography, Robert Pittack; edited by Richard V. Heermance; produced by Bert Granet; aired by the Central Broadcasting System.

Starring Gladys Cooper (Elva Keene), Nora Marlowe (Margaret Phillips), and Martine Bartlett (Miss Finch).


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Seven Days in May (1964, John Frankenheimer)

Screenwriter Rod Serling really likes to employ monologues in Seven Days in May. John Frankenheimer likes to direct them too. And the actors like to give them. Because they’re good monologues. The monologues give all then actors fantastic material. Everyone except George Macready, who isn’t the right kind of scenery chewer for Seven Days. Maybe Ava Gardner, who gets the thankless role of being the only female character of note in the film; doubly thankless, given her part is of a fallen woman and her monologue is the weakest in the film, writing-wise. She’s at least good and effective, just shoe-horned in. Macready has a choice part and oozes too much through it.

There are a lot of actors in Seven Days, there are a lot of monologues. The only one not to get any monologues (well, within reason, given the size of the part) Kirk Douglas. For the first half of the film, he’s sort of bouncing between monologues as he has a conspiracy thriller discovery arc as well as a “why the heck are there so many facists in the Armed Forces” arc. Douglas works for Burt Lancaster, who’s the top dog general at the Pentagon. Lancaster gets some great monologues. Fredric March is the President of the United States, who’s just signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets. Lancaster thinks March is a weak sister. Douglas thinks the military should stay out of politics and, somewhat naively, believes it does. But he also doesn’t think fascists are okay, so when it seems like there’s something suspicious going on with an upcoming nuclear threat drill–Douglas goes to the White House and tells March there’s a conspiracy for a military coup of the United States.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And it’s a success. Seven Days is great entertainment. It just ought to be a lot better.

When the film starts, it’s Frankenheimer showing off. There’s a fight scene. Protestors for and against nuclear peace. Shocker, all the people against are white males. They throw the first punch. Riot in front of the White House. Frankenheimer shoots it stark, documentary style. There’s some issues with the scale of it, but it’s still an effective sequence. It’s also the only time Frankenheimer does anything approaching vérité. So while it’s distinctive, it’s a rouse. Seven Days isn’t going to be vérité. Though there are occasional later hints, which never pan out.

But then it almost immediately becomes Douglas’s movie. For the first half of the picture, until he tries to seduce Gardner for information to take down Lancaster, Douglas is the protagonist. The movie’s about the conspiracy, sure, but it’s about how he’s reacting to his role working against his commanding officer. After the Gardner seduction, the movie reduces Douglas to a supporting role. It’s got no real lead, just March, Lancaster, Edmond O’Brien, and sort of Martin Balsam. Balsam’s the only other person in the main cast not to get a monologue. He and Douglas are doers. Everyone else is a talker, especially O’Brien, who’s a drunken Southern senator who chows down on every line, sweating profusely and spectacularly. It’s a thin role at times–O’Brien gets to talk the movie version of politics, which hurts everyone who has to expound on it eventually; not even Lancaster and March can make the third act work.

See, Seven Days is able to get away with its American exceptionalism but not warmongers movie politics because Serling and Frankenheimer never double down on them. The thriller aspect is bigger. There’s even a military sand-crawler chase sequence. For a while in the second act, right after the film drops Douglas down, it seems like it might get action-packed. Then it doesn’t. It goes through a series of false endings and hinges the whole thing on the movie politics and how well Serling can write monologues about them.

And he chokes a little. There are too many monologues in the third act and they’re all too long. Lancaster gets away with one too long monologue. Poor March gets two.

Acting-wise, almost everyone’s fantastic. Not Macready. Andrew Duggan’s got a great small part. Lancaster’s great, March is great, Douglas is great. The problem is Serling’s switch from specific protagonist–Douglas–to a general one witnessing the events, which ends up being March most often. Serling fumbles that switch in perspective, but he and Frankenheimer keep the narrative distance about the same. So it’s not successful, but far from a failure.

Gardner’s good. The part’s crap. Even in the context of the story, the part’s crap–she’s Lancaster’s former now drunk mistress, who Douglas exploits for information. She’s got like three scenes, interacting with no one but Douglas. Again, shoe-horned in. Still, she makes the part work. It’s just she and Douglas really get boned by the script in the second half.

O’Brien’s kind of amazing. He’s a little broad, but he and Balsam as globe-trotting spies is one of Seven Days’s nicer second act touches. Balsam’s good too, he’s just got a far less showy part.

The film’s got great production values–big scale from Frankenheimer–amazing editing from Ferris Webster, good photography from Ellsworth Fredericks, solid Jerry Goldsmith score. It’s great entertainment.

It’s just a little thin.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Frankenheimer; screenplay by Rod Serling, based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II; director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Cary Odell; produced by Edward Lewis; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kirk Douglas (Col. Martin ‘Jiggs’ Casey), Fredric March (President Jordan Lyman), Burt Lancaster (Gen. James Mattoon Scott), Edmond O’Brien (Sen. Raymond Clark), Ava Gardner (Eleanor Holbrook), Martin Balsam (Paul Girard), Whit Bissell (Sen. Frederick Prentice), George Macready (Christopher Todd), Hugh Marlowe (Harold McPherson), Richard Anderson (Col. Murdock), Bart Burns (Secret Service White House Chief Art Corwin), and Andrew Duggan (Col. William ‘Mutt’ Henderson).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE AVA GARDNER BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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A Long Time Till Dawn (1953, Richard Dunlap)

A Long Time Till Dawn is usually able to keep disbelief completely suspended. It’s a television play and Rod Serling’s teleplay is more ambitious than the budget or the constraints of the medium. Most of the sets are interiors and fine–a diner, a living room, a bedroom. They can even get away with a front porch, though it is where Dawn stretches its visible credulity the most.

The porch scenes are also a stretch due to Ted Osborne’s performance. Osborne is just a small town man. His daughter-in-law (Naomi Riordan) has suddenly come to live with him, running away from New York City, back to small town New Jersey. It just happens she leaves New York the day before her husband (James Dean) gets out of a six-month stint in prison.

Riordan’s timing never gets discussed. It’s apparently just narrative efficency, not her trying to hide from Dean. Though when Rudolf Weiss, playing Dean and Riordan’s kindly New York neighbor (a delicatessan owner), tells Dean about Riordan leaving it’s like a) she doesn’t want Dean to know where she went and b) she’s been gone a while.

Weiss tells Dean about Riordan’s departure just after copper Robert F. Simon has stopped by the diner to warn Dean not to become a repeat offender.

So of course Dean has to beat up Weiss to find out where Riordan has gone. Then he heads home to Osborne and Riordan’s dread and hope. Simon follows soon after to investigate Weiss’s assault. Because even though everyone can just drop everything and go to small town New Jersey, Dean and Riordan never did it before Dean’s small time crook phase.

From the dialogue, it seems like that phase was about a sixth of the three years Dean and Riordan spent in New York. Serling’s teleplay has very, very little logic going for it. Ditto Dunlap’s direction (the finale has Osborne talking about some character who was just onscreen but Dawn forgot to take notice).

At its best, Dunlap’s direction is utterly mediocre. More often it’s a problem. Dean’s excellent, Simon’s excellent, Weiss is excellent. Riordan is okay. Osborne is not. He gets these lengthy monologues and he clutches the melodrama heartstrings so tightly their effectiveness withers.

Up until the third act, though, it really seems like Dawn is going to make it. But it doesn’t. The third act set pieces are poorly executed–thanks to Dunlap and the budget–and Serling’s denouement, largely thanks to Osborne, is a fail.

It’s a shame. Dean’s phenomenal, even when the writing is a little weak. When it’s more than a little weak, not even he can do anything with it (not with Dunlap’s direction “aiding” him), but his performance is mostly great. Simon also makes a lot out of his part. Serling gives the characters a lot of texture–except Osborne, which is bad–and Simon takes advantage.

A Long Time Till Dawn needs a better director, a better performance in the Osborne part, and a few rewrites.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Dunlap; written by Rod Serling; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Dean (Joe Harris), Ted Osborne (Fred Harris), Naomi Riordan (Barbie), Robert F. Simon (Lt. Case), and Rudolf Weiss (Poppa Golden).


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Patterns (1956, Fielder Cook)

Patterns is a short and simple picture. Van Heflin is the new man at a corporation; he suspects he’s there to replace his assigned mentor, Ed Begley. He has a ruthless boss (Everett Sloane) and a similarly ruthless wife (Beatrice Straight). Will Heflin, called a rising young man (Heflin was forty-eight on release), give in to the temptations of money or will he remain true to his ideals, the ones he got playing football? He was All-American, after all.

The first half hour of the film is spent setting up the rest–there’s no detail to the business, presumably because screenwriter Rod Serling wants Patterns to encompass almost any business. There’s also very little detail to anything else. The one scene Begley gets to himself has his teenage son (Ronnie Welsh) chastising him for not being a better father. The lack of detail gets to be a problem because it helps turn Sloane into a shallow villain, something Serling’s lack of characterization is already enabling.

Heflin’s phenomenal. Regardless of being suspiciously old for the part as written, he glides through it. There’s a lot of talking (Serling adapted the screenplay from a teleplay) and a lot of listening for Heflin, a lot of acting and reacting. He excels at both. Unfortunately, the only person who really holds up against him is Elizabeth Wilson, who plays Begley’s former secretary. She also gets a lot of implied characterization; Straight, unfortunately, gets none.

Outstanding photography from Boris Kaufman. Director Cook doesn’t get in the way of the actors or the screenplay; both are kind of a problem. The lack of personality from Sloane is a real issue. Begley’s pretty good, but his part’s thin. He’s the supporting player in his own story.

Maybe if Patterns offered a single surprise, a single moment not telegraphed in those first thirty minutes (or even if the subsequent sixty minutes followed a similar–no pun intended–pattern of pacing), there might be something to it. But Serling wants to do a particular kind of thing and the film does and it’s thin. Great performances from Heflin and Wilson aside–and Kaufman’s photography–it’s just too slight.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Fielder Cook; written by Rod Serling; director of photography, Boris Kaufman; edited by Dave Kummins and Carl Lerner; production designer, Duane McKinney; produced by Michael Myerberg; released by United Artists.

Starring Van Heflin (Fred), Ed Begley (Bill), Everett Sloane (Mr. Ramsey), Elizabeth Wilson (Miss Fleming), Beatrice Straight (Nancy), Ronnie Welsh (Paul) and Joanna Roos (Miss Lanier).


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