Director: Boris Sagal (The Cemetery), Steven Spielberg (Eyes), Barry Shear (Escape Route)
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Joan Crawford, Ossie Davis, Richard Kiley, Tom Bosley, George Macready, Sam Jaffe, Barry Sullivan
In regards to Rod Serling even as a young child I have always been an admirer of the man’s ability with words to craft the nightmarish, the supernatural, the serious, and quite simply sublime masterpieces on the printed page. Most of the stories told me to in my youth at bedtime by my father ended up actually being episodes of the Twilight Zone and Night Gallery television series. This made for some intense feelings of Deja Vu when I became a teenager and a local station began to show Twilight Zone reruns. When confronted my father asked how else was he going to be able to tell me a new story for so many years without reading to me as well? Now I was of course not born when Night Gallery made its debut on television but my father did take me to our local Drive-In when the pilot was ‘re-released’ around 1978 or so…however I have not been able to find any information about this release or why it was done so. Perhaps it was an incident similar to that of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the pilot was released theatrically or perhaps the Night Gallery pilot was released by Universal to make some easy money? If anyone else saw this in a theatre or local Drive-In please leave a comment…because I’m wondering if I’m going insane. Mwa-ha-ha!
As we begin the film version of Night Gallery we are greeted by Rod Serling who introduces us to three red cloth covered paintings, explaining their importance to the gallery as written above. As Rod Serling lifts the first cloth…
…we see a Victorian styled mansion. A heavy wind blows the vines and leaves on the ground about. To the right of the mansion is a cemetery, what we will soon learn is the Hendricks family plot of earth to be buried in. As we see inside the mansion we see an exact painted image of it hanging on a wall next to the staircase, just before we are introduced to Osmond Portifoy (Davis), manservant to William Hendricks (Macready), a very wealthy old man banished to a wheelchair after his last stroke. Hendricks cannot speak, merely make pitiful motions with his hand to communicate his desires to Portifoy, once a painter the stroke victim cannot even hold his cherished paintbrushes as we soon witness. This is not his biggest problem we come to find out. As the manservant collects Hendrick’s lunch tray and removes himself from the bedroom and proceeds down the stairs we meet Jeremy Evans (McDowall), Hendrick’s scheming and belligerent nephew. From his interactions with Portifoy (There are some really great passive aggressive insults laid down by Davis) it is explained that Hendrick’s hadn’t known his sister had a son. Evans takes interest in the cemetery picture hanging beside the stairs, Portifoy informing him that it was painted just before the man had his last stroke. Evans explains that his mother, “…died at a relatively early age from overwork…and a surplus of pride. She couldn’t bring herself to crawl across to that rich recluse of a brother of hers.” Evans pays his uncle a visit upstairs and reveals that he found his Uncle’s will and that Hendricks made his late mother sole beneficiary of his fortune and if she were no longer living it would go to her sole survivor. Unfortunately for the elderly man, Evans decides to speed things up in gaining his inheritance by rolling the old man in front of an open bedroom window, locking the wheelchair and leaving the room. We learn in the next scene that Hendricks slipped into a coma from his exposure to the wind for so many hours and passes away, leaving the fortune to Evans naturally. We get the feeling that Portifoy is most probably going to leave his life of being a manservant behind but Evans tells him that his former employer had a stipend in his will for him…a mere $80 dollars a month for the rest of his life. Portifoy politely requests to stay on with Evans permission which the young man all but laughs in triumph at making the older man almost beg to keep his job. However on his way down the stairs Evans stops and stares at the cemetery painting…it has changed…there is now an open grave displayed. He asks Portifoy to look at it but the man says he sees nothing has been altered. Here we must end the spoilers for this segment.
The second segment deals with Miss Claudia Meno (Crawford), a vastly wealthy blind woman, living a solitary life of her own choosing bemoaning how, “…in the 54-year history of my sojourn on Earth, no one has ever done me justice, beginning with God.” At the beginning of the segment we are introduced to her family physician, Dr. Frank Heatherton (Sullivan). A surgeon who Meno has called back to her apartment to discuss a risky operation that could possible grant her vision for a few hours…at the expense of the donor being rendered permanently sightless. Dr. Heatherton tries patiently to explain the small odds of such an operation working, the only two successful cases were on a chimpanzee and a dog, but Meno refuses to take no for an answer, even when the good doctor explains that no one would ever willingly give up their sight so she could have maybe up to 13 hours to finally view the world. Meno gleefully explains that her lawyer has found such a man, one the lawyer had defended in fact, willing to give up his eyes for a mere $9000 dollars. We learn from her that this man is in a desperate need of money, which we later learn is to pay off a bookie. Dr. Heatherton informs Meno that there are possibly four surgeons skilled enough to pull off this operation, him being one of them, and he can speak for the other three and they will all refuse to do the surgery. Meno responds by pulling out an envelope from her desk, the insides containing a unfortunate past regarding an abortion gone wrong, the doctor didn’t perform the operation but seen a young woman to someone unqualified. There is also the small possibility that Dr. Heatherton was having an affair with the young woman. Meno threatens to release the information to the papers if he doesn’t agree to proceed with the surgery. We next meet Sidney Resnick (Bosley) who is being grilled by his bookie, but saves himself a beating by explaining he will have all the money the next day because he is to undergo a secret operation, he is in fact going to meet a doctor and a lawyer that very day. I have to state here that the late and great Bosley does such a magnificent job in the meeting scene, there is a part that I won’t spoil where he…well, he kind of talks about his life that makes me tear up every time. I’ll stop all spoilers for this segment here so as not to jeopardize the rest of the tale.
The final segment concerns escaped Nazi war criminal Josef Strobe (Kiley) hiding in South America, Buneos Aires, as a simple fisherman. Strobe as we witness is having nightmares of his past atrocities and when he awakes everything in his dingy little room reminds him of it. The noisy fan beside his bedside causes him to recall women and children crying and screaming before the sound of machine gun fire drowns them out. The faucet dripping makes him hear the ‘Heil’ of the Nazi soldiers. He cannot fall back to sleep because of a drunken pair outside his door, a sailor and a prostitute that lives next door to Strobe, and we witness his quickness to brutality. The woman is also German and seems to know who Strobe actually is. In the next scene we learn that he is actually Gruppenfuhrer Herme Arndt and is quite wanted by the authorities as they are in Buneo Aires to find him. The very next scene Strobe senses he is being followed and narrowly avoids capture by jumping on a city bus and thanks to a traffic block has time to run into a museum in search for a place to stay hidden. While inside Bleum (Jaffe), a Jewish concentration victim strike up a conversation with him about a particular painting that has deeply disturbed him. A gruesome crucifixion of a prisoner in a concentration camp, the stranger explains that he witnessed his best friend perish the exact same way. Strobe tires to walk away but Bleum inquires where they have met before, the former Nazi insists they have never met and the older man apologizes and walks away. Strobe finds himself pulled to a simple outdoor painting of a man in a fishing boat on a sunny day near a mountain. As he gazes at it, the painting changes to include himself in the boat. The museum closes for the evening but he returns the very next day and the painting still shows him to be occupant in the fishing boat. He returns the next day to the museum as well and Bleum appears beside him, calling him by his real name as he has recognized him from his days at Auschwitz, Strobe feigns ignorance of the matter and turns his attention back to the painting when the older man leaves. This time Strobe is transported into the painting…of course we end with spoilers for this tale here.
This pilot film if you have not had the fortune to watch it yet is a must. A demonstration of how to do an anthology movie the right way. Each of the three tales are chilling in their own way and benefit from a strong showing by their actors. To be honest the third segment is the weakest, though like all my reviews this is only my opinion. I bestow four and a half pumpkins out of five to the Night Gallery. For more Night Gallery goodness make sure to check out the Retroist’s excellent podcast of the television series!