Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Twilight Zone Goes West--Part 1

During its five year run, The Twilight Zone did a total of 8 episodes partially or completely set in the Old West. There were several Civil War episodes (at least 3 that I can think of), but for our purposes today, we are going to stick to gunfighters, settlers and outlaws.  I'm going to do an intermittent series looking at those episodes one at a time.

I'm doing this series because.. well, because its my blog and I want to. Also, its an excuse for me to watch some Twilight Zone episodes again, which is never a bad thing.

"Mr. Denton on Doomsday" aired on October 15, 1959--it was the third episode of the series' premiere season. Written by Rod Serling, it isn't often listed among the best episodes, but it really is quite excellent.

Dan Duryea is Al Denton, the town drunk--a former gunfighter who had long ago drank away both his skill and his dignity. A local bully (Martin Landau) forces Denton to literally sing for a drink.

But then Denton finds a pistol lying in the street. It goes off by seeming accident, with the shots disarming the bully. Suddenly, Denton has the respect of the town. It's not just Al or "rummy" when they speak to him. It's "Mr. Denton."

It was here that the story could have gone in two different, equally legitimate directions. Denton could have regained his confidence and, in fact, become arrogantly over-confident. The story would have then probably played out as a tragedy.

But instead, Denton does regain his dignity, but also realizes that he doesn't stand a chance in a real gunfight. And now that he's regained his reputation, it's only a matter of time before someone looking to make a name for himself calls him out. He knows he's doomed.

Duryea was a great character actor and its his performance that really makes this episode great. Though the half-hour format does force the plot and character moments to unfold a little too quickly, Duryea brings a pathos and later a sincere sense of dignity to Denton. It's one of the things that made The Twilight Zone such a classic series: in the best episodes, we are shown characters we can easily think of as real no matter how overt the supernatural or fantasy elements are.

Because this IS The Twilight Zone and so of course there's a supernatural element to the story. A peddler named Henry J. Fate is somehow responsible for Denton's lucky shots after Denton finds the gun. And later, when Denton is about to face off against a younger gunman (played by Doug McClure), Fate gives him a potion that will make him the fastest gun alive for ten seconds.

But Denton's opponent turns out to have the same potion.

The story uses this plot twist to pull a satisfying and legitimately uplifting climax out of this situation, with the combination of Sterling's solid script and Duryea's fine performance endowing it with honest emotion.

So The Twilight Zone's first trip to the Wild West is a successful one. There's one more journey back to that time period in the show's first season. Well, sort of. We'll take a look at an episode that is set mostly in the 20th Century, but still draws its main character from the 19th Century.

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