“Good evening. And welcome to a private showing of three paintings displayed here for the first time. Each is a collector’s item in its own way; not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a canvas, suspends in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare. Our initial offering: a small gothic item of blacks and grays. A piece of the past known as the family crypt. This one we call simply “The Cemetery.” Offered to you now, six feet of earth and all that it contains. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Night Gallery.”
The above words were spoken to the viewer by Six-time Emmy winner Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone), as he introduced the pilot episode of the “Night Gallery.” The anthology series aired on NBC television from 1969 through 1973, and was nominated for two Emmys during its run. The 98 minute pilot episode, which premiered on November 8, 1969, consisted of three stories: “The Cemetery,“ directed by four-time Emmy nominee Boris Sagal (Masada), stars Emmy winner Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes). McDowall’s character, Jeremy Evans, is the unscrupulous nephew of wealthy artist William Hendricks (George Macready). He is not only counting the minutes until his uncle’s passing, but attempting to help expedite it. Once Hendricks dies, his fortune passes to Evans as his sole beneficiary. Evan’s actions are found utterly contemptible by Mr. Hendricks’ long serving butler, Osmond Portifoy, played by Emmy and Grammy winner Ossie Davis (Finding Buck McHenry). Portifoy’s contempt, however, for Evans, isn’t as genuine as it seems, and at the conclusion of the episode, both men get more than they bargained for. The third episode, “The Escape Route,” directed by Barry Shear (Across 110th Street), deals with life on the run for a former Nazi, SS-Gruppenführer, Josef Strobe, portrayed by two-time Golden Globe winner Richard Kiley (A Year in the Life). He is living in Argentina under the name Helmut Arndt, and is constantly plagued by nightmares. Desperate for peace, he thinks he might have discovered a way out of our world, and having to constantly be on the lookout for the Mossad, but his desire to escape punishment for his crimes leads him to make a fatal mistake. While I was entertained by both episodes, and appreciated the Rod Serling brand of justice that was doled out to the characters, this post is about the second episode of the pilot, “Eyes.” (As an aside: “Eyes” and “The Escape Route” are based upon stories in Rod Serling’s novella “The Season to Be Wary,” published in 1967).
In the episode “Eyes,” there exists the culmination of one career, that of Oscar winner Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce), and the burgeoning start of another, Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan), who went on to win, so far, among a multitude of other awards, three Oscars, and is known the world over for creating some of the most beloved films of all time. For her work on the episode Crawford was compensated $50,000 for her time, compared to Spielberg who earned $275 dollars. I don’t have any idea what Spielberg’s financial situation was at the time, but I would think the money on that particular job was secondary, because he was being paid to direct for the first time ever. As it turns out, after Spielberg was hired, Crawford almost derailed his dreams. She contacted the then studio chief of Universal Pictures, Sid Sheinberg, and stated that if Spielberg wasn’t removed and replaced by a veteran director, she was quitting. Sheinberg informed Crawford, that the studio planned to stick with Spielberg, and if she left, they weren’t going to stop her. Crawford relented, and wound up becoming friends with Spielberg, a friendship that lasted until she passed away on May 10, 1977. (As an aside: Two-time Oscar winner Bette Davis (Dangerous) was the first choice to play the role of Claudia Menlo, but she turned the part down).
In the episode, Crawford portrays the heartless, elderly, wealthy, Miss Claudia Menlo, a woman who has been blind since birth. She has arranged for Dr. Frank Heatherton, played by Emmy nominee Barry Sullivan, to come to her penthouse on Fifth Avenue, because she wants to discuss something of great importance with him in person. From the exchange of dialogue between the two, it is made clear to the viewer, that Miss Menlo and Dr. Heatherton have already discussed the matter on the phone. What Miss Menlo wants is for the doctor to perform an experimental eye surgery on her. The catch is, the procedure, which has only been performed on animals, restores the vision for no more than twelve hours. Heatherton logically points out, that even if he were willing to perform the operation, he can’t think of anyone who would be a willing donor for the procedure. Miss Menlo dismisses him outright, insisting that everyone has a price, and that she has already found herself a donor. The news is something which stuns Dr. Heatherton.
The donor Miss Menlo is referring to is habitual gambler Sidney Resnick, a role acted by Emmy nominee Tom Bosley (Happy Days). He’s in debt to a loan shark for $9,000 and has no possible way to pay the money back before harm comes to him. Miss Menlo doesn’t just take Resnick on his word that he’ll show up for the operation, she makes her lawyer draw up papers, making the entire procedure legal; after Resnick signs, he will receive his money. As the viewer will soon learn, neither Dr. Heatherton, nor Miss Menlo’s lawyer, want any part of the ghastly deed, but both men are being blackmailed with information that could end their respected careers. As to what she has on the lawyer, it is never revealed. In regard to Dr. Heatherton, however, we learn that if he doesn’t perform the procedure, Miss Menlo will release information about his involvement in a butchered abortion, resulting in the death of a young girl.
Miss Menlo gets her surgical procedure. Before leaving, Dr. Heatherton gives her instructions about removing the bandages, explaining that they should be removed slowly, and that the lights in the room should be dimmed, to give her eyes a chance to gradually adjust to light. Miss Menlo waits for Dr. Heatherton to leave, and she can’t unwrap the bandages quickly enough, the lights have also not been dimmed. Once she unwraps the last bandage, she opens her eyes, and then….
Spielberg’s work, on the episode, did not look like that of a first time director, but rather the creation of someone who had worked in television for a number of years, and knew what they were doing. He experiments with the conventions of the way television was filmed at the time; and utilizes several interesting angles for certain shots. For example, at one point, he films Joan Crawford by showing her through the reflection of a crystal chandelier. Crawford was able to summon up an excellent performance, and Bosley and Sullivan gave very competent performances. Spielberg would return to “Night Gallery” to direct the episode “Make Me Laugh,” which premiered on January 6, 1971. For fans of the director, or merely film in general, who want to see the professional beginning for an icon of the entertainment industry, all of the seasons of “Night Gallery” are available on DVD. The episode “Eyes,” as of the writing of this post, can also be found on-line.