July 9, 2013


Richard Matheson was already an established writer in 1959, the year he started contributing to The Twilight Zone. But it took him a while. Over the course of the 1950s he rose from pitching sci-fi magazines on his off hours as a mailman, to adapting his own material to screens large and small. He  sold his first story, “Born of Man and Woman”, to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950. After a couple of suspense novels fizzled, he garnered notice with his post-apocalyptic survival staple, I Am Legend (1954). It was his follow-up, The Shrinking Man (1956), that cemented his place in popular consciousness. He ingeniously sold himself as screenwriter as part of the film rights deal to Universal, and he would be a prolific writer for film and TV for decades to come (alongside his novels and short stories). As part of our week-long tribute to Matheson, following his death last month at the age of 87, I’ll be looking at the Twilight Zone episodes he declared to be his favorite, Steel and Night Call, both from Season 5. They present fantastical premises with procedural detail, as he also did with I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, bringing the spectacular down to earth.

After the success of The Shrinking Man and its movie adaptation (which added Incredible to the title), Matheson moved to television writing, often with collaborator with Charles Beaumont. They were close friends, part of a circle of fantasy writers that included Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. Matheson recalled that, “When we joined this agency [Adams, Jay and Rosenberg] it was such a strange new world out there that we decided to work together.” Beaumont and Matheson worked on cop shows and Westerns like Bourbon Street Beat and Have Gun — Will Travel.

Their most long-lasting contribution was to The Twilight Zone, which they both began contributing to, separately, in ’59. Rod Serling was a fellow traveler in the speculative arts, and provided an invaluable platform for the kind of material they wanted to write, even with showbiz compromises. Their material, as Matheson notes, “never made any social commentary”. They were detail men, interested in fleshing out their imagined worlds rather than allegorizing the existing one.

In Twilight And Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson, the writer declares that “Steel” is his favorite episode of the ones he wrote. He adapted the teleplay from his own short story, of a “sports item, circa 1976″, in which boxing was outlawed and replaced by bouts between lifelike robots. Lee Marvin plays the “Steel” of the title, a former pug turned down-at-heel manager, too poor to upgrade his rickety “Battling Maxo” bot, which mechanic Pole (Joe Mantell) keeps running through some spit and a prayer. Maxo is so old even his parts are outdated, and is only booked when a newer model is destroyed in a car accident. Steel needs Maxo to put up a fight so he can pocket the take and make some upgrades. Matheson’s small-scale story was later inflated into the 2011 blockbuster Real Steel.


Directed by auteur-fave Don Weis (I Love Melvin), this TV assignment replaces Weis’ usual ebullient charm for sweaty close-ups and grimy hallways, a portrait of broken American dreams as tactile as 70s fight films like Fat City. Lee Marvin shows he can ease up his ramrod military posture and ease into a slouching ignominy. A fast talking salesman like Peter Falk in Marbles, his pitches have lost their sheen, routines without conviction. Only when faced with annihilation does Steel show some backbone, replacing Maxo in the bout when the android pops some essential springs. Facing certain defeat, and possible death, Steel takes his shots and his money, ready to fight another day.

As in I Am Legend and The Shrinking ManSteel is concerned about the grungy details of these everyday futures, whether it is how to scrounge for food, evade a giant spider or make a low-tech living in a high-tech future. Night Call (Season 5, episode 139, 1964), is another of these daily grinds, which Matheson adapted from his short story “Long Distance Call.” Old spinster Elva Keene (Gladys Cooper) is living out her days in an empty home, her only company a harried maid. But every evening she receives cryptic phone calls from a moaning loner, which she first assumes to be a prank, but soon realizes is something far more disturbing.


Matheson claims he “talked them into hiring [Jacques] Tourneur” to direct the episode, despite the producers’ concern that a movie director would take forever to shoot an episode. Matheson recalls that Tourneur, “shot the shortest Twilight Zone schedule that anyone has ever done. It was like twenty-eight hours or something.” He was a fan of Tourneur’s work with Val Lewton (The Leopard Man, I Walked With a Zombie), and was thrilled to have him direct one of his scripts. It turned out to be one of the last projects Tourneur would work on.

It takes place almost entirely in two rooms of Elva’s house, her living room and bedroom. In frequent medium shots, Tourneur establishes her as the queen of an emptied out domain. It was the third of Cooper’s appearances on The telephone1964bTwilight Zone, and this after 60+ years of performing, having made her stage debut in 1905 in the musical Bluebell in Fairyland. She plays Elva as a shut-in battle-ax, jittery at any intrusions in her protective shell. The calls make her imperious exterior crumble, and you can see the regrets of the past rush through her softened features.

Richard Matheson wrote 14 teleplays for The Twilight Zone, and had two of his short stories adapted by others. Compromised as they are by commercial forces (“Steel” was the first episode sponsored by Proctor & Gamble), they offer variations on Matheson’s theme of process, how characters rationally deal with the unreality that is thrust upon them. Some trundle onward with brittle hope like Steel, or crumble in regret like Elva, but what Matheson is most interested in is the jagged path that leads there.


September 1, 2009


Every Tuesday night in September, starting tonight, TCM will be screening a diverse selection of films (23 in all) scored by the legendary Bernard Herrmann. As an appetizer, I’ve compiled a list of my ten favorite Herrmann scores, from radio, TV, and film. It’s easy to forget, but Herrmann was a master of radio orchestration before he created those distinctive tonalities for the screen. He had an innate sense of how to adapt his musical ideas to different formats, sounding more descriptive on the radio, and increasingly atmospheric and emotional on the screen. His work wasn’t merely music added to images – he composed out of these images, creating an organic whole that lifted the films he worked on into another level of artistry. How can one think of The Mercury Theater, Citizen Kane, or Hitchcock without him?

10. Taxi Driver1976

Biographer Steven C. Smith (buy his Hermann study, A Heart at Fire’s Center, here!) relates that after Scorsese pitched Herrmann on the idea of scoring Taxi Driver, the composer snapped, “I don’t know anything about taxi drivers.” After reading the script, and being particularly impressed that Bickle ate cereal with peach brandy, he signed on. Thus this swooningly melancholic score was created, with a little help from his friends. That opening theme, with its ebb and flow of muted trumpets, riding cymbal, insistent snare and pizzicato bass, is the low key entree to Bickle’s tortured psyche. Herrmann asked friend and collaborator Christopher Palmer to adapt an older piece of his for a jazz melody he needed for a scene with Harvey Keitel and Jodie Foster. Smith says Palmer, “took the first four bars of the soprano solo “As the Wind Bloweth” from The King of Schnorrers, then continued the melody line in a piece he titled “So Close to Me Blues.” Hermann was so delighted with the result that the theme became a key part of the score.”

9.  DraculaMercury Theater on the Air. Aired July 11th, 1938 on CBS Radio.

Bernard Herrmann was “reluctantly assigned” to Orson Welles’ landmark radio program. He had a terrible experience working with Welles a year earlier, on the Columbia Workshop radio production of Macbeth. Producer John Houseman relates that Welles arrived onto set with a script twice as long as expected, and so Herrmann’s score was useless. Welles brought along a bagpiper and conducted his own music cues throughout the show, while Bernard stood helplessly at his podium. The second time ’round, while still creatively fraught, was far more productive. Hermann himself looked back with fondness:

Welles’ radio quality…was essentially one of spontaneity. At the start of every broadcast Orson was an unknown quantity. As he went along his mood would assert itself and the temperature would start to increase till the point of incandescence…. Even when his shows weren’t good they were better than other people’s successes.

All of the Mercury radio productions are worth a listen, but the first is still my favorite. Herrmann’s work is spare and mournful.  Steven C. Smith, isolates his instrumentation as “muted brass and graveyard bell”, and that alone gives a sense of its haunted grandeur. Paired with Welles’ tour-de-force performances of the majority of the roles, it’s an unforgettable listen. Most of the episodes are available for download here, as well as anywhere else you care to look.

8. On Dangerous Ground1952

I’ll let the work speak for itself here, one of the most galvanizing themes of all time.

7. Cape Fear, 1962

Simplicity itself. A descending figure of four notes, with slight variations to freak you out. The repetition never resolves itself into a theme, but suspends in an air of uncertainty, putting you off center as the credits roll. When the swirling strings kick in, you think you’re losing your mind. Scorsese hired Elmer Bernstein to incorporate this theme into his 1991 remake. Bernstein told The Bernard Herrman society that Herrmann would “have killed me, he would have yelled and screamed with no question.” This theme was memorably used in The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare”, in which Sideshow Bob takes the Mitchum/DeNiro role.

6. North By Northwest1959

Herrmann takes a fandango figure, repeats it over and over again, and helps to create one of the most suspenseful sequences in film history. This is what they call genius.

5. Citizen Kane1941

Ok. You’re sick of seeing Citizen Kane on lists. I understand. But do you realize how important Bernard Herrmann was to the film’s success? Part of Orson Welles’ genius was his ability to surround himself with other geniuses, so he was able to wrangle Herrmann and Gregg Toland onto his first feature. Music is of paramount importance to the film, and Hermann carried over many tricks from their radio days, with a complex series of musical cues joining scenes, commenting on the action, and helping to tip Kane into hysteria, in his words, “unorthodox instrumental combinations…sound effects blended with music, music used in place of soundtrack.” (quoted in Simon Callow’s Orson WellesThe Road to Xanadu) Herrmann was given the luxury of composing music before editing began, so Welles could form the picture around the score’s rhythms. In short, Herrmann’s contribution to this inexhaustible work of art is immeasurable.

4. Twisted Nerve1969

You have Quentin Tarantion to blame for this one. This remarkable theme, of a childlike whistle couched against some soothing vibes, has a gothic, Ennio Morricone feel. I only became aware of it through Tarantino’s use of it in Kill Bill, when Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver whistles it as she attempts to fatally inject Uma Thurman. I have never seen Twisted Nerve, and have no idea of its value as cinema, but this theme has wound its way into my cerebral cortex, and I don’t think it’s ever going to leave.

3. The Twilight Zone, 1959

Self-explanatory. Possibly his most famous musical phrase, again utilizing a simple repeated melody to create an overwhelming sense of unease, and then the swirling strings take you away.

2. Psycho, 1960

Those slashing violins open up your veins and let loose fear. As often as it has been parodied, it still retains its power to shock and awe.

1. Vertigo, 1958

Jack Sullivan, in his book Hitchcock’s Music, nails it straight off:

Vertigo opens with triplets spiraling in contrary motion, plunging the audience into cinema’s most beautiful nightmare. Obsession receives its definitive sound in Hermann’s endless circlings, re-circlings, and suspensions.

The opening theme is seductive, hypnotic, and romantic. One wishes to get lost in its grandiloquent tremors, an artistic height that Jimmy Stewart will peer down from, causing his psychological breakdown. Blame Herrmann. Which in this case, means celebrating him. The greatness of Vertigo is inseperable from this score, which would be enough to put him in the pantheon. But as I hoped to have sketched out here…there is so much more.