Saturday, March 17, 2012

"Execution"


"Execution"
Season One, Episode 26
Original Air Date: April 1, 1960

Cast:
Joe Caswell: Albert Salmi
Professor George Manion: Russell Johnson
Paul Johnson: Than Wyenn
Judge: Fay Roope
Reverend: Jon Lormer
Bartender: Richard Karlan
Old Man: George Mitchell
Cowboy:
Joe Haworth

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (teleplay based on an unpublished story by George Clayton Johnson)
Director:
David Orrick McDearmon
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Merrill Pye
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and Keogh Gleason
Assistant Director: Kurt Neumann
Editor: Joseph Gluck
Sound: Franklin Milton and Philip Mitchell
Music: Stock

And now, Mr. Serling:
"This may look like some kind of kooky greenhouse. Actually, it happens to be a conveyance, a mode of travel, time travel. And next week you'll see Albert Salmi take an extended journey from 1880 to 1960. I hope then next week you'll be able to take another walk with us into
The Twilight Zone. (Serling vanishes from within time machine). Hey, where did everybody go?" 


Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"Commonplace, if somewhat grim, unsocial event known as a necktie party. The guest of dishonor, a cowboy named Joe Caswell, just a moment away from a rope, a short dance several feet off the ground, and then the dark eternity of all evil men. Mr. Joe Caswell who, when the good Lord passed out a conscience, a heart, a feeling for fellow man, must have been out for a beer and missed out. Mr. Joe Caswelll, in the last quiet moment of a violent life."


Summary:
    The year is 1880 and on a bleak patch of land a murderer named Joe Caswell is being executed by hanging for shooting a man in the back. Caswell is an unrepentant man with a twisted way of seeing the world and the events which happen in it. Before he is to be hanged, Caswell is given two opportunities to show his true nature. Even in the moments before his death, he is a mean and bitter man, shunning a preacher's attempt to say a prayer over him and even mocking the man he killed in front of that man's own father. Then it is time to slap the horse and hang Caswell. Except something extraordinary happens instead. Though the men turn their eyes away from Caswell at the moment of his hanging, when they look again his body has completely vanished.
    Caswell wakes up on a couch in a dark laboratory. He is greeted by a scientist named George Manion. Manion shows Caswell a large, glass-enclosed structure in the center of the room and informs Caswell that he, Caswell, has been the subject of an extraordinary experiment. Manion has constructed the world's first operative time machine and with it has pulled Caswell right out of the past and into the present, which happens to be eighty years in Caswell's future, the year 1960. While looking over Caswell, however, Manion notices the rope burn along Caswell's neck and it is apparent in the scientist's face that he fears he may have made a mistake about the man he pulled out of the past.
    Later, Manion is alone in his laboratory and is dictating details into his tape recorder. Caswell has told him a lie about who he is and what he was doing when Manion pulled him into the future. Manion is very suspicious about what Caswell has told him because of the rope burns and also because Manion simply doesn't like the look of Caswell. He has the look of a killer.
    Caswell walks into the laboratory looking very much disoriented by his surroundings. When Manion not-so-subtly pushes Caswell into admitting that he was at the end of a rope when he was pulled into the future, Caswell, predictably, reacts violently, attacking Manion and killing him by bludgeoning him with a desk lamp. Caswell panics and runs from the laboratory and into the streets of New York City. There, Caswell is bombarded with the loud sounds and bright lights of the city. It is driving him insane and he angrily lashes out at everything. He gets trapped in a phone booth and must burst through the glass to escape. Caswell eventually stumbles into a bar, empty except for the bartender. There, Caswell is confronted by the sounds of a loud playing jukebox. As the bartender watches in horror, Caswell smashes the jukebox into silence with a chair. When the bartender starts to object, Caswell brandishes a gun and demands a drink. Then he spies the television mounted above the bar and the bartender reluctantly turns it on. On it, an actor dressed as a cowboy on the set of a western program pulls one of his pistols and fires it at the screen. Horrified, Caswell pulls his own pistol and shoots the television screen, destroying it. The bartender, having had enough, yells for the police. Caswell flees back out into the street, brandishing his gun, waving it around, and scaring all the people on the street. He is nearly hit by an approaching car and shoots into the windshield.
    Finding his way back to Manion's laboratory, Caswell pleads to the dead man to come back to life and help him but it is, of course, to no avail. In walks an armed hood named Paul Johnson. He has come to rob the office. He thinks Caswell has come to do the same and holds him at arms length with his gun. Caswell takes an opportunity to knock the gun from Johnson's hand and the two men struggle over the weapon. Johnson eventually gets the upper hand and strangles Caswell to death with a length of cord from the blinds covering the window. Johnson then continues what he came to do and attempts to get into a file cabinet but cannot find the right set of keys. He sees a panel of knobs on the wall and turns them all. Electrical machinery can be heard turning on and humming idly. Johnson's eye is then drawn to the time machine in the center of the room and he cautiously steps inside the structure only to realize too late that he has inadvertently activated the device. The machine seals Johnson inside and he quickly vanishes. He is thrown back to 1880, the exactly moment when Caswell was pulled into the future, putting Johnson's neck right into the hangman's noose meant for Caswell. The three men that were to hang Caswell stand there in astonishment, unable to figure out what has happened. They say a prayer that they have not killed an innocent man and then they cart Johnson's body away. Justice, of a very strange sort, has been served.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"This is November, 1880, in the aftermath of a necktie party. The victim's name, Paul Johnson, a minor-league criminal and the taker of another human life. No comment on his death save this. Justice can span years, retribution is not subject to a calendar. Tonight's case in point, in The Twilight Zone." 

Commentary:
    "Execution" is the second contribution from Twilight Zone writer George Clayton Johnson and the episode has a great deal in common, both in theme and style, with his first contribution, "The Four of Us Are Dying." When Johnson originally made his way to California in the late 1950's, he broke into the film and television industries by selling short fiction or story treatments before writing his own original teleplays. He is still remembered today for selling the story that eventually became the 1960 film Ocean's Eleven starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr.  and which was remade into the 2001 film of the same title starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts.
    For The Twilight Zone, Johnson proceeded in much the same way. Through his connection to writer Charles Beaumont, Johnson was able to get his foot in the door at Cayuga Productions and get a few of his story treatments into the hands of series creator Rod Serling and producer Buck Houghton. It was Beaumont and fellow friend and Zone writer John Tomerlin that encouraged Johnson to take the leap into writing teleplays. During the second season, Johnson sold a story titled "Sea Change" to producer Buck Houghton. After getting resistance from show sponsor General Foods about the gruesome nature of the story, Houghton asked Johnson to buy the story back. Johnson did with the caveat that Houghton buy another story Johnson had prepared, "A Penny For Your Thoughts," and that Johnson also be allowed to write the teleplay. It took Houghton more than a week to agree but it is doubtful he ever regretted the decision. Johnson became one of the core contributors to the series, crafting a small number of exceptional episodes over the course of the second and third season. For now, however, he was still a contributor of stories for adaptation from the likes of Rod Serling and Charles Beaumont.
      Johnson falls into the style of science fiction and fantasy writers that are not overly concerned with the explanation of how something may be possible but rather with what the consequences would be were such a thing possible. This approach is why Johnson fit the show so well, as it is fundamentally a show about ordinary people experiencing extraordinary events. In "Execution," he gives us a time machine and uses it as a plot device for furthering the notion that the battle of good and evil that exists within each human being is timeless. Thematically, the episode functions primarily as a condemnation of senseless violence and is probably the most violent episode ever to air on the series.
    "Execution" is also the first western-themed episode since "Mr. Denton on Doomsday." The western theme is one which Rod Serling, and occasionally other writers for the show, felt comfortable enough revisiting for it to become its own subcategory within the show's broad range of subject matter, much like the war episodes or episodes of interplanetary travel. Unlike the majority of other western-themed episodes, however, "Execution" is also a time travel episode* and affords the audience an opportunity to view the juxtaposition between the past and the present, viewed through the perspective lens of an unrepentant killer in the form of cowboy Joe Caswell. It is the fable-like quality, and somewhat simplistic, nature of the plot that lends "Execution" its similarity to "The Four of Us Are Dying." More so than that, it is in the filming techniques of the episodes where the true similarity lies. Though the episodes were directed by two different directors (John Brahm directed "The Four of Us Are Dying" and David Orrick McDearmon directed "Execution"), both episodes posed their respective directors similar challenges. Both required special effects which worked better if the effect was not explicitly shown. As stated before in previous posts, it was important for each episode that relied on special effects as an integral part of the plot to not overdo the effects for fear of the episode falling into a laughable state. This is also true of "Execution," and the effects are kept necessarily subtle. When showing Joe Caswell's body disappearing from the hangman's noose, a shadow was shown on a large boulder disappearing instead of attempting to make the likeness of actor Albert Salmi disappear, the latter of which would have been difficult to achieve with substantial effectiveness. The disappearing effect that had to be achieved later on the character of Paul Johnson within the time machine was a much easier set piece in which to manage the effect.
    The most commanding sequences of "Execution" are the scenes in which Caswell is thrust out into the bustling city at night. Like director John Brahm's work on "The Four of Us Are Dying," director McDearmon, and photographer George T. Clemens, use extreme camera angles and frenetic camera movement to convey the mindset of Caswell as the city's noise and lights bear down upon him. One of the more recognizable effects that Clemens reused from his earlier work on "The Four of Us Are Dying" is the effective image of floating neon signs.
    As stated previously, the overbearing theme of the episode is the innate urge for violence in each human being and the struggle to control that urge. Early in the episode actor Russell Johnson, as scientist George Manion, states that "I fear that I have taken a nineteenth century primitive and released him in a twentieth century jungle. And God help whoever gets in his way."  Serling chose to highlight this line by repeating it again later in the episode and it perfectly illustrates the theme that both writers were trying to achieve.
    Actor Albert Salmi, who would go on to appear in two additional Twilight Zone episodes, is the outstanding actor of the episode and not surprisingly since he is given the meat of dialogue and nearly all of the screen time. Salmi does an exceptional job in the role and, though he is undoubtedly a human monster, even manages to elicit a bit of pathos from the viewer when describing the hardscrabble existence of a cowboy in Old West. Salmi was a fine actor that achieved critical acclaim early in his career when he portrayed Smerdyakov in 1958's The Brothers Karamazov. His performance was recognized for its excellence by the National Board of Review. Salmi would go on to amass a number of credits on television for the next three decades, appearing in classic genre anthology programs such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond, and Rod Serling's Night Gallery. After seeing his excellent performance in "Execution," it is easy to imagine that his biggest presence on the small screen would be in westerns. Salmi appeared in classic westerns such as Have Gun, Will Travel, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Rawhide. He guest-starred on several other classic television programs, a few of which include The Fugitive, Combat!, Hawaii Five-O, and Knight Rider. Samli's life ended on a terribly tragic note. Long suffering from clinical depression, Salmi took the life of his estranged wife as well as his own life on April 22, 1990 in their home in Spokane, Washington. Salmi was 68.
    Actor Russell Johnson would achieve television immortality when he portrayed Professor Roy Hinkley (sometimes Hinckley) on the comedy Gilligan's Island from 1964 to 1967. Before that, Johnson was a prolific actor appearing in a number of television shows and genre films. In the same way that Albert Salmi excelled at portraying rough and tumble cowboy types, Johnson excelled at portraying clean-cut intellectuals. His other claims to genre fame are his appearances in films such as It Came From Outer Space (1953), This Island Earth (1955), and Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). Johnson also appeared in episodes of Boris Karloff's Thriller and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
    Overall, "Execution" is a capably produced episode, well acted, and contains some good dialogue in the classic Serling style. One of the more memorable moments connected to the show, however, wasn't in the episode at all but rather is the promotional teaser for "Execution" that originally aired at the tail end of the previous episode, "People Are Alike All Over." In it, Rod Serling stands within the glass-enclosed time machine and, after delivering his dialogue previewing the episode, disappears before the viewer's eyes. An effect of a similar nature would be echoed for Serling's first on-screen appearance in an actual episode when he appears and then disappears as a figment of an author's imagination at the end of the final season one episode, "A World of His Own."
    Though writer George Clayton Johnson would not contribute as many episodes as his friends and fellow writers Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, the quality of what he did contribute made up for the low quantity. Very little of what he contributed to the series was below average and most was well above. "Execution" doesn't stick in the memory quite like some of Johnson's other episodes, "Nothing in the Dark," "A Game of Pool," or "Kick the Can," for instance, but it is still a memorable episode and one that packs a pretty good punch. 

Grade: C

*The exception to this is the timeslip fantasy "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim."

Notes:
--Albert Salmi appeared in two additional episodes of The Twilight Zone, "A Quality of Mercy" from Season Three and "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville" from Season Four. He also appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "The Waiting Room."
--Russell Johnson also appeared in "Back There" from Season Two.
--David Orrick McDearmon also directed "A Thing About Machines" and, again with Russell Johnson, "Back There" from Season Two.
--Than Wyenn appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "The Doll," based on the story by Algernon Blackwood.
--"Execution" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Don Johnson.
--As stated by Martin Grams in his book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR Publishing, 2008), actor Neville Brand was originally cast in the role of Joe Caswell, even rehearsing with the cast and crew, before calling in sick and having to be replaced with Albert Salmi. Brand would later appear in the controversial fifth season episode, "The Encounter."

--Jordan Prejean

3 comments:

  1. I like this episode, but it doesn't stick in my mind quite as much as some of the others. I guess "C" means average for a TZ, which is probably above-average for anything else! Albert Salmi is great, but anything with Russell Johnson is worth a look, if you ask me. I can't wait till you get to "Back There"! This was another excellent commentary, for which I thank you.

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  2. Yeah, Jack, a C is average for the show but, like you said, that still puts it high in quality by comparison. "Back There" is also one of my favorite time travel episodes and Russell Johnson is excellent in it, whereas he felt too much like a bit player in "Execution" with too quick an exit. Many thanks for reading!

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  3. I agree with the aforementioned comments. Execution lacks the charisma of the best Zones. There's no room for character development. If anything, it seems to be pushing the theme of predestination, not an idea I care for. I thought the ending was poorly thought out and, if you'll excuse the word usage, executed.

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