Mack Williams column: The ‘dark side’ of TV
A great deal of TV programming in the late 1950s and the early 1960s was devoted to westerns, as well as a certain portion of my “programming” also, but some shows on television back then had plot themes from much farther “out” than out West.
In westerns, “evil” always wore a black hat, but there were other programs in which “otherworldliness” (sometimes consisting of evil, sometimes consisting of good) was explored, and sometimes harder to identify as “good” or “bad.” In the western, the unexpected was often encountered hiding around the next bend or boulder, but in these other TV shows, the unknown lurked just behind the next planet or had arisen from some unknown personal realm within.
I like to refer to these old programs as the “Dark Side” of television. My favorites were ”Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Boris Karloff’s Thriller” and “One Step Beyond.”
The Hitchcock program was the classiest, but how could it not be, with the great director in charge. One story had a man (played by Sidney Blackmer) and his wife hatching an insurance fraud scheme in which she disappears and is presumed missing. At the end of the prescribed time, she shows up and tells her husband that she is in love with another man, and he murders her. The insurance agent did not believe the man and had been dogging him constantly. At the end of the story, offering to help Sidney (well, the character, not Sidney, himself) with his rose garden, the insurance agent unknowingly sinks a shovel into the shallow grave where the woman was freshly buried.
The actor portraying the ever-patient insurance agent was Robert Emhardt, the same one who portrayed the highly impatient businessman from Charlotte in the episode “Man in a Hurry” on the old Andy Griffith Show. His portrayal of those diametrically opposed qualities of hurried impatience and dogged patience displayed his great versatility as an actor.
I thought about Alfred Hitchcock not long ago at the science museum where I work. Mockingbirds had constructed a nest in a tree growing along the walkway that connects the two buildings of the museum. One day (evidently not long after the eggs had hatched) I was walking from one building to the other, when one of the protective avian parents pecked me about three or four times, but nothing serious, more startling than painful. In reflection, I thought to myself, “I just had my Tippi Hedren moment!”
The lead-in to “The Twilight Zone” really set the stage for me with its depiction of twinkling stars above a stalactite-filled cave. I seem to remember a few starry lights also twinkling in the blackness of the cave, but maybe that’s just me.
One particular episode sticks in my mind. It involved a man during the Cold War who had built a fallout shelter for his family. He was the only one in his neighborhood who had constructed one, and when the Civil Defense (the earlier form of Homeland Security) sirens accidentally go off, his neighbors attempt to break down the door to his shelter, where he and his family have taken refuge. He is only one second away from shooting his neighbors to protect his family and himself when the siren sounds again and a message is broadcast informing everyone that the whole thing was a false alarm. He then puts his gun down, and everyone slowly and awkwardly walks home, leaving him standing there with a similarly awkward look on his face.
After seeing that, I thought about our neighborhood on the Old Concord Road, being glad that no one there had built a fallout shelter and that in the event of the “worst” my father, Mr. Ritchie, Mr. Cline, Mr. Lyerly, Mr. Norris, etc. would shake hands as gentlemen do, bidding each other a fond farewell.
One episode of “Thriller” was about the possibility of a centenarian woman living in a dilapidated Southern plantation by herself after having murdered her three half-sisters ages ago, as well as having just recently murdered a young man who sought shelter there after his car had become stuck nearby. I thought about the two elderly ladies who lived in a tree-shadowed house near the bend of the Old Concord Road at the spot which marked the northernmost beginning of our immediate neighborhood. They, however, would not have murdered anyone. Instead of being frightening, there were “terribly” sweet, as evidenced by the survival of my mother and me on later visits with them.
My finally mentioned television show of the “genre of the strange” was my favorite and I never missed it: “One Step Beyond.” Its distinguished-looking director, John Newland, was also the show’s soft-spoken spokesman, who “set the stage” and, at episode’s end, provided an equally eerie epilogue.
Both Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling had their personal elements of “strangeness,” which were an obvious prelude to what was to follow, but “One Step Beyond” director John Newland left the impression that a gently spoken, almost “matter-of-factness” could also lead to something outside the norm. Of all these type shows, this show’s theme music was the weirdest (and not just Maynard G. Krebs beatnik “weird”).
One particular episode dealt with a “smudge” that appeared on a wall. Over some weeks, that smudge gradually assumed the face of a person known to be dead.
This kind of thing, a “dead face” appearing on a wall, was very scary to me as a child. Things change over time, however, and now I think I it would be an interesting game of recollection rather than something frightening.
At this point in my life, there are an increasing number of “dead faces” from my personal past to test my memory skills. Some are crystal clear, while many are blurred in my mind, being without the necessary photographic or painted crutch to keep their image “hi-def” in memory.
Such a permanent visage of those half-remembered, departed relatives and friends, mysteriously hung by “something” “after the fact” between the framed pictures on my living room wall would fill the gaps of both wall space and memory.