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The Twilight Zone (Episode #39): “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” (airdate 10/14/60)
The Plot: A two-bit criminal is giving something to chew on while he waits in broken sauna excuse for a lousy motel room.
The Goods: If the previous episode was an example of some of the worst the series has to offer, this is certainly an example of the best. Instead of cliches and the expected lesson to prevail, this tale recruits Joe Mantell to play opposite himself in a shared monologue about the directions life takes you.
Mantell plays Jackie Rhoades – a nervous man who’s not even a good example of a criminal. Unlike other criminal figures in the series like Rocky Valentine, Jackie is on the lower end of the spectrum both as a villain and as a human being. Full of excuses and flop sweat, Jackie is holed up in a crappy room awaiting his next job, but when gangster heavy George (William D. Gordon) tells him its time to graduate from petty robbery to murder, Jackie has the entire evening to drive himself crazy with the jail bars and a hard place he’s stuck between.
What works beautifully about this episode is Mantell’s ability to pull double duty as the pissant Jackie and as the confident Jack in the mirror, trying to talk his lamer version out of destroying both their lives. Apparently, buried deep down is a part of Jackie that still commands respect, that still makes the right choices. Unfortunately, every time a big decision was teed up, sweaty Jackie bunted instead of listening to that part.
Mantell is so committed to the parts that he probably spent the entire shoot grinding his teeth from having both personae live inside of him. He’s utterly convincing as a sniveling, sick man who sees his 15 to life flash before his eyes. He’s also equally convincing as the counterpart that tries his damnedest to talk himself out of making the biggest in a long line of mistakes.
Plus, it’s subtle, but being told the room is stiflingly hot and watching Jackie fan sweat from his forehead throughout is incredibly effective. It’s a fantastic example of visual storytelling that makes the heat of whatever room you watch it in rise incrementally as you put yourself in Jackie’s shoes.
There’s no twist here; just strong character work and solid acting. Honestly, it may be the closest that Rod Serling ever gets to Shakespeare.
The overall result is a gripping story where (as we know from watching the show) anything can happen. Jackie could turn his life around with a little bit of fantastical help, or he might make the same old bad decisions and wind up learning a lesson that the Zone is so fond of teaching.
As a final note, what’s most trivially interesting about this episode is that it really doesn’t have any sci-fi or fantasy elements in it. Not really, anyway. Jackie speaks to a version of himself in the mirror, but we’re really only seeing a manifestation of the internal made cinematic. Unless a phantom part of him really does exist and live within that polished glass, waiting to jump into his body.
It could be read either way, but using the first way, this is a rare moment where The Twilight Zone has a pure pulp story to tell without any other genre notes.
What do you think of the episode?
The Trivia: Mantell was a king of television, but he also had the side role of Walsh in Chinatown.
On the Next Episode: Just because it’s not moving now, doesn’t mean your toaster isn’t plotting to kill you.
Catch-Up: Episodes covered by Twitch / Episodes covered by FSR
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.