Thursday, January 20, 2011

Spotlight on "O.B.I.T."

by Larry Rapchak

Everyone who is now reading this is doing so via a device not too far removed in concept and technology from "O.B.I.T.", and I am sure that we can all cite examples of government's tendencies (for lack of a better term) to inject itself into the private lives of us citizens.  However, the purpose of this commentary is to examine...and marvel at the OL episode at hand. 

We've seen the Outer Limits go from producing "big-screen"-style dramas ("Galaxy Being", "Tourist Attraction", "Borderland", etc), the excesses of which forced the down-sizing to a minimalist show ("Controlled Experiment"), leading now to an episode that indicates that the series has settled—in terms of scope, style, concept (and budget)—into the groove that would define The Outer Limits as it entered its "Golden Age".

"O.B.I.T." is, in many ways, as fine a piece of film making as the series ever produced, and exudes that dark, fascinating atmosphere that practically pulls the viewer into the O.B.I.T.-like TV screen (to quote Colonel Grover-"I can't not watch!").  A supreme example of the "Dynamic Duo" of Oswald and Hall operating as a smoothly integrated, super-charged unit, "O.B.I.T." turns up the intensity level through a most unexpected means—a compelling "chamber drama", in many ways tailor-made for the live stage.  Tightly contained in its settings,  without any high degree of visual pyrotechnics and a minimal "bear" presence, Oswald and Hall seem to thrive on the endless possibilities in a script that is, on the surface, extremely limited. And that's but one of the aspects of this episode that makes it so inventive, so satisfying.

And here we get the beginnings of that deliciously weird combination that these guys loved: gothic horror and sterile, technological settings. The show begins in a typical late '40's urban flea-bag hotel...so thoroughly associated with the noir style, flashing neon and all...with only a slight difference:  there's an outre, kooky control panel with a viewer screen, being operated by a nerdy guy wearing glasses that resemble the viewer screen....oh yeah,..and there's some kind of alien being that materializes on the screen, right there in the ol' Honeymoon Hotel. And that's just the (extremely brief) teaser!

And thus the OL creative team--certainly by normal TV standards of the day--having taken leave of their senses, proceed to spin out an unusually somber fantasy---one in which the emotional burden borne by the characters actually translates into visual terms; there are scenes in O.B.I.T where the creeping sense of dread seems about to suffocate the characters themselves, as the visual space surrounding them appears to close in threateningly.
  
And how cool is it that all of this takes place as a tightly controlled, high intensity court-room drama, where the minimalist, utilitarian government room, converted into an impromptu, mini "hall of justice", becomes the visual/dramatic playground for Oswald and Hall, as they transform this drab chamber into an endlessly fascinating,magical box, one that seems to embody the awe and mystery of the universe itself—especially when that strange machine is turned on.


I'll just point out a few of the images that define this episode for me: the pudgy, sweaty face of Alan Baxter (General Grover), which seems to swallow up the screen the more unnerved he becomes (as does the face of Jeff Corey as we progressively zero-in on him); the almost expressionistic set-up for the court stenographer, and the way in which her hands visually mirror the hands of Lomax, seated at O.B.I.T; the swooping, circular camera move around Peter Breck as Mrs. Scott leaves the room after her testimony; the stifling atmosphere in the outer hallway, with the oppressive presence of Jeff Corey and the neurotic, soft-lensed appearance of Joanne Gilbert, a woman obviously at the end of her emotional rope (incidentally, not long ago I watched Ms. Gilbert in the goofy stylized Western/musical "Red Garters", where she belts out a couple of tunes and is romanced by a wily, dashing, dancing caballero played by Gene Barry(!) [It's true!].  Ms. Gilbert's fine performance in O.B.I.T., chain-smoking beneath that monolithic bouffant hair-do, offers us a portrait of a real, mid-60's woman....bad complexion and all..... one of the few in the series that seems absolutely true-to-life, an unembellished, dead-on portrayal of a woman caught in the emotional meat grinder of her existence.   

Young Joanne Glbert in the goofy 1954 western musical Red Garters
And then there's Mr. Jeff Corey, a most unique performer, here recently returned from cinematic exile due to the 1950's Hollywood Blacklist; there's irony somewhere in his casting here, but I'm not going to attempt it.  The point is...in my opinion...there are few performances (and roles themselves as scripted) in OL that really stand out as true "showcase" accomplishments but, in this case, Jeff Corey takes a relatively small part and transforms it into something beyond the bounds of what one would expect.

I have rewound many times to watch Corey perform the simplest of scenes...sitting at the O.B.I.T. control panel, demonstrating it to the court....and have been dazzled every time by the sheer level of the actor's craft displayed here: the little hesitations that betray his unease (and the animosity he feels for Senator Orville), the way he uses his (hairy) hands to accentuate his words, the cadence of his verbal delivery....all so beautifully paced, as if "orchestrated" to ultimately build to his climatic "reveal" speech at the end, a grand, glorious, theatrical soliloquy in which he seems to "toy" with us mere mortals, veering between a sort of casual small-talk ("and when we come here to live...") and a volcanic megalomania that bristles with hostility and contempt; he is one scary dude, so bookish and innocuous he seemed, but obviously wielding an unholy power, capable of both physical and emotional destruction (plus—he's one of the best damn' line-readers of any actor I can recall).

And Harry Townes, in a marvelously controlled and understated performance...a broken man who pulls himself out of his paranoiac retreat-into-the-void and back into the arena to make his stand...is most impressive.  Conrad Hall's work in the sanitarium scenes (perhaps recalling Joseph Cotten'sold-age scenes in "Citizen Kane"), is flawlessly designed to show us the shadowy, emotional "dead-zone" into which Townes has retreated. And, of course, one cannot ignore the contributions of TV tough-guy Peter Breck, he of the short fuse who can't wait to begin intimidating and insulting the staff of Cypress Hills with his supercilious, sarcastic manner. Interesting concept for the supposed "hero" of this episode, in which everyone we meet seems to be at least somewhat maladjusted.  


The single false note in this show for me is a very minor one;  during the old man's (Konstantin Shayne) testimony, somebody decided that sad music was needed as an underscore, so the OL guys went to the Stoney Burke cues and pulled out a gorgeous romantic tune known as "Soame's Theme" (in which Frontiere successfully captured something of a "Western" idiom), a cue which would make a much more impressive appearance as the love theme in OL's "The Guests". Its truncated appearance here feels contrived, especially for such a taut, bare-bones drama. Then again, it's barely audible, so what the hell am I complaining about?  (Oh, yeah...I wish that airplane hadn't taken so long to land in the opening of Act III....but it's at least as good a time-filler as puffed wheat in Dabney Coleman's face).

 

I can watch "O.B.I.T." again and again with total fascination;  I admit the Jason Wingreen "other" alien character was at first confusing ("oh...I get it.... those alien dudes all look pretty much alike in their human form....") , but I've sorted it out now.  Once again, a first-rate script from Meyer Dolinsky (he's batting 1000% so far!), supported by an absolutely first-rate dramatic and visual production.  One of OL's top-drawer episodes in every respect, hands down. 


Larry Rapchak is conductor of the Northbrook Symphony (IL) and a composer, whose works have been commissioned and performed by the major orchestras of Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, Detroit and Helsinki.  His opera The Lifework of Juan Diaz (yes, the same story adapted by Ray Bradbury for Hitchcock's TV show in 1964), written in collaboration with the author, was premiered by Chamber Opera Chicago and released on Albany records.  The opera is, according to the composer, the only one in the repertoire featuring a mummy as the lead baritone. Rapchak has an intense interest in certain popular things of the past, Thriller and Outer Limits among them.


An unrelated P.S. for Larry Blamire (from the management): 

21 comments:

  1. Bravo! Now guys - just hold onto John and Peter, whilst I aim this pile of rotting fruit at 'em.

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  2. I didn't recognize Ms. Gilbert, though I've seen "Red Garters" many times -- you just can't ignore a minimalist western musical starring Rosemary Clooney, can you?

    I agree about the love theme during that testimony -- it was out of place although the music itself is gorgeous and I like it in "The Guests" a lot.

    I never liked this episode but after watching it today I clearly was nuts. This one is completely fascinating!

    Great spotlight!

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  3. John and Peter, I'm with you on this episode. OBIT was ok but the court room drama was less than impressive and the monster's speech at the end sounded silly as hell. I just flung the pile of rotting fruit back...

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  4. Well-done profile, Larry. You highlight some of the episode's easily taken-for-granted high points. We're getting into the Gerd Oswald era now, when these episodes become unforgettable snapshots out of nightmare. Speaking of which... A hands-down favorite classic, fashioned from Stagecraft 101, coming right up.

    "Soame's Theme," eh? I like to learn the names of these musical cues. I'm pretty fond of "The Guests" and will listen for it there.

    Excellent Spotlight!

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  5. Walker-
    Thanks for deflecting the first round of banana peels. I won't lie and say I didn't expect something like this would happen. It's only natural that a bunch of old TV nerds (the closest they've actually gotten to a girl, probably) would be jealous of two guys who have real jobs :>
    I don't hold it against them but if they think throwing fruit at me is gonna get Demon With a Glass Hand four Zantis, they got another thing comin'!

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  6. Well spake, Larry. Nice points, and good details--particularly about Corey's performance. And I echo Ted and Lisa on that nifty music cue info. More please.

    Now, maybe, just maybe, you (or someone else) can illuminate re: a quietly mixed cue I'd never noticed before (as many times as I've watched this) just as Townes--still at the home--decides to testify; it's a mixture of tense and noble and pretty interesting I thought.

    Okay, major props and a resounding HA! to "the boys" for the quick T-shirt. But can we get one with a big fat Lomax face on it? With big fat glasses?

    Peter: Oh dude, that last crack was so lame and so sad and, on behalf of the "O.B.I.T." lovers, I'm so sorely tempted to respond with something boastful yet completely true that would make you subsequently worship me like a powerful mangod.

    But I'm above all that.

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  7. Terrific spotlight, Larry. O.B.I.T may be saddled with a courtroom structure, but it' so hardcore OL in terms of flavor and style, that I've always considered it a significant entry. And yes, the "sci-fi noir" mini-teaser set in that hotel room is brilliantly concise and evocative, one hell of a way to spend fifteen seconds!

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  8. Larry B. - See revised design. We aim to please.

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  9. Shades of I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE; Mr. Lomax and Barbara Scott are Doing It, shure ' nuff, and she must have been one baby step away from getting zapped with that mystery power wand ("have you what you need this time?") if she tipped over, or waxed confessional. I wonder what the Scotts talked about that night over cocktails, after the alien made his grand exit. Cut to Col. Grover in his jockeys, slamming a growler, spying on them with OBIT. "I can't NOT look!"

    Confirmed OUTER LIMITS follower Bill Malone and I got Jeff Corey for one single day, during our luxurious three-day shoot for our PERVERSIONS OF SCIENCE episode, "The Exile," also starring Jeff Combs, David Warner, and Ron Perlman. We stuck Corey atop a high dais in the judiciary position, where he got to hammer the gavel and deliver the deathless line, "Guilty, guilty, GUILTY, scumbag!" It was precisely because of "O.B.I.T." that Bill sought to cast Mr. Corey, who remembered his brief foray into THE OUTER LIMITS with great fondness. (We weren't smart enough to grab a snapshot of this unique meeting, however ... the shoot was just too frantic.) But I'm proud I got to shake his (decidedly less hairy) hand!

    Nerdish, Mr. E? Maybe. Don't make me slap you with a tofu patty.

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  10. Larry-
    I'd deflect all your rants and raves but I'm busy bench pressing two chicks and watching NFL highlights right now. NFL= National Football League.

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  11. Kudos to Mr. Rapchak for his excellent profile of my favorite OL episode, a high point dramatically as well as for Jeff Corey's outstanding performance. And kudos as well to Peter and John for this highly enjoyable blog.

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  12. Only two, Peter?

    Thanks for reminding me how my Pats just crumbled like tiny little babies, but I'm glad you know what NFL means.

    DJS, you worked with Jeff Corey and you are now even cooler than you were five minutes ago.

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  13. John: Saw the revised T-shirt and it's pretty sweet. Okay, you guys are cool again.

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  14. DJS transcended cool and entered a new plane of admirable achievement (via the Bifrost?) when he created The Black Lagoon Bugle.

    Season 2's T-shirt will feature alternating pictures of hands: Shatner's hand, Culp's hand, hand puppets---

    "The hand, my...hand, tells me what to do."

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  15. Larry-

    Very nice article. Glad I'm not the only one here that thought the ending was spectacular. I was pretty sure this ep. would be well liked, but then again, I thought everyone would regard Moonstone as a classic.

    Peter-

    Even though I would be the last one to throw fruit at you and John, I take offense to your put down of some of us bloggers. I for one, am a spry 33 years of age. As far as being close to a 'girl,' well, I met one off of Craigslist that came over for our first date to watch O.B.I.T. She left after the opening credits and after I got done putting on my Captain Video outfit, but that's not the point. I've also bet $500 smackers on Green Bay this weekend.....So you tell me, "Who's a real man!?"

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  16. UTW-

    I would never question your manhood after your reccing me TATE (another ep watched last night--Tate is sent to kill a man and falls for his daughter--four so far and all very good). It's these other strange lookin' fellers 'round here. I've got Green Bay all the way, baby (well, after my Pats got killed last week). They beat Pittsburgh in the Bowl. Put money on it.

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  17. Ted Rypel said... "Season 2's T-shirt will feature alternating pictures of hands: Shatner's hand, Culp's hand, hand puppets---

    "The hand, my...hand, tells me what to do.""


    Speaking of hands, I don't know if anyone else mentions this, but, isn't it interesting this recurring prominence of "the hand" in The Outer Limits. In "The Sixth Finger", the 6th finger is used to show evolutionary advancement. "Demon with a Glass Hand", the hand is almost like a god. Remember in "Feasibility Study", there is that shot where a Luminoid hand shoots up into the frame. In "The Borderland", his hand is reversed by going through another dimension. Shatner's hands mutating in "Cold Hands, Warm Heart". Rocks melding into hands in "Corpus Earthling". The hair-covered hands in "O.B.I.T.". And here is something I bet not too many people know about. Leslie Stevens penned the screenplay to a movie called "The Left-Handed Gun", directed by Arthur Penn. So let's give this series a big hand!

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  18. OBIT was ok but the court room drama was less than impressive and the monster's speech at the end sounded silly as hell. I don't know how I felt when this episode originally aired,but watching it on the SCI FI Channel years back,the ending came off as a lam duck.Jeff Corey turns into a one eyed alien,yelling we here.you know it,so what<we"ll all be back and theres nothing you can do about it.He then dissappears.
    All I could think it,is the cyclopean alien gets so excited,pooks out his own eye and pilots his space ship into the sun.The rest of the aliens wait back home,wondering what became of ''Charlie'' and his mission on Earth.
    I guess this was statement on Communism,being single minded or having a narrow veiw or such,but it just come off abit silly in the end.

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  19. Well I'm three years late to this party but thanks for your loving look at my favorite hour not just of The Outer Limits but of all episode TV, period. I was surprised to see the bloggers slam this masterpiece but heartened that so many OL fans -- plus your spotlight -- have risen to its defense, detailing its controlled brilliance almost shot by shot (or note by note, in Frontiere's case).

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  20. Another episode that gets better with each viewing.

    MY intro to Jeff Corey was the 3rd-season STAR TREK episode, ":The Cloud Minders", where he plays the city administrator, who at one point issues a death sentence on Captain Kirk should the guy ever show his face in town again. Later, Kirk kidnaps him down into a gas-filled mine, and as Kirk slowly starts to lose it himself, he yells, itchy-finger on the phaser trigger, "I SAID DIG!!!"

    Unlike LOST IN SPACE's 3rd season, where every story felt like it was shot from a 1st-draft script that needed just a little more fine-tuning, sadly, STAR TREK's 3rd season suffered from the reverse-- too much network interference, each re-write dumbing down the scripts more and more.

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  21. didn't you guys ever notice that between 37:00 and 38:30 the Byron Lomax character is sitting at his O.B.I.T. monitor in a hotel room while the alien monster is murdering the night watchman named Young at Young's apartment?
    Well then if Lomax was an alien monster in disguise there mustve been 2 alien monsters, since Lomax was in a hotel room while the monster was murdering Young at a different location.
    that means the Lemox alien monster that rage quits at the end and leaves the courtroom inquiry (and earth?) was just one of two or more (that's the ending of Scream). but it's pretty clear that the humans who saw Lenox exposed at the inquiry never did realize that there were two aliens at work on the base, giving the second alien monster freedom to continue his work unmolested by curious humans for another four or five decades.
    perhaps Lemox's overdramatic rage quit scene was always meant to curtail further investigation of aliens on the base (it worked too).

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