Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Twilight Zone: The Four of Us Are Dying

"The Four of Us Are Dying" feels less like a coherent episode of The Twilight Zone and more like an incomplete crime picture from the 1940s with a sci-fi hook. It has a strong conceit and a couple of great scenes, but I felt frustrated when it ended. Interesting setups aren't paid off, and the resolution we do get feels forced and unsatisfactory, almost as if a character from a completely different story came in to blow it off at the knees.

The episode center on Arch Hammer (Harry Townes), a con artist with the ability to change his face. Until the very end (with a bunch lap dissolves as the various identities fade in and out), we never physically see the change. Hammer will look  in the mirror, move his head around, and then the show will cut to a new angle or a new shot to show Hammer with his new appearance, with Townes replaced by a different actor. It is a subtle but effective method to show his power without relying on showy special effects. In one neat sequence, Townes' Hammer is being taken from his hotel to the police station by a detective, but he makes a break for it the lobby, dashing through the revolving, and when he gets outside, he appears as someone else. There's a nice reveal involving a shadow hiding Hammer's face that reveals he's changed back to his own persona when someone lights a cigarette for him.

Anyway, as you can imagine, Hammer uses his ability for gain, impersonating a number of dead men, including musician Johnny Foster (Ross Martin), who was killed in a car accident, and Verge Sterig (Phillip Pine), a gangster whose boss put the hit on him. Later, in a pinch, he adopts the persona of boxer Andy Marshak (Don Gordon), which comes back to bite him when he runs into someone from Marshak's past.

The strength of "The Four of Us are Dying" - written by Rod Serling, based on a story by George Clayton Johnson, and directed by John Brahm - is the consistency of Hammer's character. All four of the actors playing Hammer in his various incarnations do a splendid job of suggesting that they really the same person. Whether it's the smooth musician seducing his girlfriend or the gangster threatening the boss, it feels like the same slimy, crafty persona is just beneath the service. The film noir atmosphere is also nice. When Hammer walks down the street, beneath the glitzy lights of signs as the slanted camera follows, it suggests that it's easy for a chameleon like Hammer to operate in such a noisy, chaotic world.

Unfortunately, the plot feels disjointed. As the musician, Hammer sets up a rendezvous with the dead man's girlfriend, but then she's never seen again after their initial meeting. The detective who arrives to take Hammer downtown is not mentioned before he arrives, so I wasn't sure who he was or how he had targeted Hammer; their brief interaction suggests they know each other.

Also disappointing is the ending in which Hammer, as Marshak, is gunned down by Marshak's father, who blames his son for breaking his mother's heart and ruining some unnamed, unseen girl. First, it's a mighty fine coincidence that he would just happen to run into Mr. Marshak, but secondly, it just feels off. When Mr. Marshak gets this great big monologue in which he lashes at his supposed son and all the wrongs he's done, it just feels melodramatic and false. It's like, who is this old guy and why should I care about his grievance is?

I suppose it's ironic that Hammer, for all the wrong we see him do, is killed because he assumed someone's identity, which includes their crimes, but I was more interested in Hammer's actions. Was he going to meet up with the girl? Were the gangster's goons to going to find? What about the detective and what he knows? I wanted to see that play out

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