Rod Serling: Night Gallery | Kino Lorber (2021) | featured image

Rod Serling Undermines the American Dream with the Stories in ‘Night Gallery’

Existential fear about post-war American masculinity is dragged into disturbing light in Rod Serling’s dark tales of the American Dream, Night Gallery.

Night Gallery
Rod Serling
Kino Lorber
23 November 2021

Kino Lorber has persuaded Universal to allow a Blu-ray upgrade of Night Gallery, also known as Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, the supernatural anthology series that functioned as an early 1970s follow-up to Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-64). Night Gallery has often been seen by critics, and Serling himself, as something of a red-headed stepchild to the earlier series. Serling chafed over having no control over Night Gallery, whose producers often rejected or rewrote his scripts.

To call Night Gallery variable is to speak the truth, but if we’re really speaking the truth, that describes The Twilight Zone too. On its own terms, Night Gallery has many rewards.

A two-hour TV movie in November 1969 served as a pilot and introduced the title concept of an abstract museum in existential darkness. In the movie, the paintings stand on easels, while the series has them hanging by wires from the heavens. Serling strides or dashes into view and positions himself in front of a canvas, or a grouping of two or three. He’s no longer smoking like a campfire, as on The Twilight Zone, but he continues to provide portentous and unnecessary introductions to set the tone.

The most stylistically remarkable of the pilot’s three tales is the middle one, for two reasons. The reason that viewers noticed at the time is that Joan Crawford, in one of her last performances, dominates her scenes as a ruthless, selfish, wealthy blind woman who pays for experimental surgery to transplant ocular ganglia (or whatever) so she can have a few hours of eyesight for once in her life. Barry Sullivan plays the argumentative surgeon.

We must jump over the point that a person’s brain, if blind from birth, hasn’t been trained to interpret visual data into the coherent experience we call vision, and such a thing should take quite a long process. This is a moral fable, not a medical lecture.

The second remarkable element is that this segment is director Steven Spielberg‘s professional debut. He scored a Universal contract on the strength of an amateur short, and this was his first studio assignment. He handles it much like a “calling card”, pushing the boundaries of television style with devices that play with the motifs of vision and darkness. The ending is staged in a fanciful manner that resembles shattering the TV screen.

Night Gallery‘s first segment, directed by Boris Sagal, stars Roddy McDowall as a slimy Southern-accented toad who encourages the death of his moribund artist uncle (George Macready) and freaks out over one of the man’s paintings. Ossie Davis plays the loyal upright servant with a hidden agenda, a motif Serling returned to in a Season One story.

The last and longest segment, unless it only feels that way, stars Richard Kiley as a former Nazi death camp commandant hiding in South America. Sam Jaffe plays the ex-inmate who recognizes him at a museum, where the Nazi feels drawn to a peaceful painting of a fisherman. As in the first segment, it’s about the heavy hand of history, only more so. Like Sagal and Spielberg, director Barry Shear injects moments of gratuitous style to go with the surreal expressionist vibe.

All three segments are written by Serling, their asset and burden. At his most indulgent, Serling could come up with strong ideas and belabor them with bombastic “poetic” arias serving as dialogue. As the pathetic schlub who donates his eyesight, Tom Bosley must deliver the most self-conscious of these locutions. It seems that producer William Sackheim and associate producer John Badham made no attempt to reign these impulses.

On this Blu-ray, author Gary Gerani provides commentary on the pilot and offers personal anecdotes of working with McDowall. In his pioneering book Fantastic Television (Harmony Books, 1977), Gerani quotes Serling’s opinions of dissatisfaction with NBC over the series. Serling stated that NBC tried to dilute the series’ philosophy by turning it into more of an action program like Mannix (1967-75), its time-slot rival.

At the risk of an opinion slightly at odds with Serling, I’ll suggest that maybe series producer Jack Laird and NBC execs were trying to curb Serling’s loquacity and move the stories along. And they pretty well succeeded, for the series segments written by Serling are fairly pacy and often strong, and his intros notably briefer if no more necessary.

While the 1969 film version incorporates the paintings into its stories, the series wisely drops that device. By the way, the series paintings were the work of Thomas J. Wright, who moved on to a career directing television shows, especially with horror and sci-fi themes. The pilot’s paintings were by Jaroslav Gebr, who had a long career creating key art for Universal productions. There’s a gallery we’d like to see.

Another difference between pilot and series is that William Goldenberg composed the spooky electronic music for the pilot, while the series used an abstract electronic theme by Gil Mellé and background scores by Robert Prince. Productions like this were how ordinary TV viewers heard avant-garde music effects and unusual instrumental colors.

Season One of Night Gallery serves as one of four rotating elements in the umbrella series Four-in-One (1970-71), each having six episodes over the course of the season. One of the series, McCloud (1970-77), would become part of the mix at NBC Sunday Mystery Movie. Two other series, The Psychiatrist (with two Spielberg episodes) and San Francisco International Airport, vanished forever. Night Gallery continued on its own for two more seasons; we hope their Blu-rays will follow.

Season One consists of six episodes with a total of 17 separate stories, 12 of them scripted by Serling. One Serling tale, “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar”, received an Emmy nod for Outstanding Single Program and counts as one of the season’s best segments.

William Windom plays an increasingly alcoholic widower who’s put in 25 years as a PR exec only to feel dissatisfied with every aspect of his life, which he feels has been wasted and vexed by bad choices. The fact that a local bar is scheduled for demolition sends him into a tailspin of frustrating memories, such as when he arrived home from WWII to a celebration at that bar. He seems able briefly to travel back in time unless this is merely an illusion.

The idea is linked to themes of nostalgia as existential disappointment with the modern world that Serling explored before, sometimes in the context of “organization men”, as in his acclaimed 1955 teleplay Patterns (filmed by Fielder Cook in 1956), and sometimes in Twilight Zone escapism, as in his scripts “Walking Distance” (1959) and “A Stop at Willoughby” (1960), which are also about ad execs and time travel. In the Blu-ray’s audio commentary, film historian Craig Beam does a superb job of tracing this episode’s themes and connecting them to Serling’s life.

The story of Tim Riley’s Bar isn’t a model of perfection. In a nod towards hope, our hero is dogged by a pretty secretary (Diane Baker) who loves him thanklessly. After establishing the bitterness of the situation, the ending makes a sudden gesture of conciliation and goodwill that doesn’t feel like it’s going to solve much. Still, this is a typical Serling-esque undermining of the status quo and the American Dream via conformity to what’s expected of a “successful” person. It feels heartfelt and pertinent more than sugary and reassuring.

RATING 8 / 10