Thursday, April 28, 2016

Silence Is Not Always Golden

"But the ugly affair has proved two things, hasn't it, Archie? That that boy down there is stronger than you gave him credit for, and you are considerably weaker."

George Alfred (Jonathan Harris)

In "The Silence," the episode of the Twilight Zone that first aired on this night in 1961, members of a private men's club were witnesses to the proposal of an unusual wager. A longtime member (Franchot Tone) was annoyed by the unceasing talkativeness of a young nouveau riche member (Liam Sullivan) who was regarded by many as a poseur, primarily because he would speak of fabulous deals that had been proposed to him, then he would make a pitch for a loan from his listeners.

Tone's wager was $500,000 that the young blowhard could not remain silent for one year. If he accepted the wager, he would have to consent to live in the club and be available for any member to observe at any time. He would be furnished with anything he wanted, but he could not speak a single word. He could make his wants and needs known through writing on a tablet of paper.

Tone's character believed the young man could not possibly remain silent for a year. He might remain silent for a few weeks, perhaps a month or two, and then fold under the pressure. In the meantime, Tone's character would have enjoyed a period of "exquisite silence."

He also, apparently, did not expect the young man to accept the bet — but he did. He left the club to make his preparations, vowing to return the following night to begin his year of incarceration. Before he left, Tone's friend and legal adviser (played by Jonathan Harris, who was perhaps best known as Dr. Smith on TV's Lost in Space in the 1960s) told the young man that Tone was serious about the wager. That was when the audience learned the young man's wife had expensive tastes ("She shops at Tiffany's the way other women shop at a supermarket," the young man said) that had left him in need of money.

That was what motivated him.

The wager began as planned the following evening.

And the audience soon became aware that the young man had lasted far longer than Tone's character ever dreamed he would. At first, that was a source of bemusement — but as the months passed, Tone became more concerned that he would lose the bet so he took to spending time around the glass booth where the young man was living, uttering rumors and gossip about the young man's wife's alleged infidelities while he was out of the picture.

As they got closer to the time when the year would be over, Tone became more desperate, making offers of a few thousand dollars if the young man would give up the bet. But he insisted that the bet would stand.

So the bet stood, and on the appointed day, the young man emerged from his glass cocoon to the applause of the other club members.

And Tone was forced to admit that he had lost most of his money years before. He could not pay the $500,000. He would have had to go begging in the streets, he said, just to raise a few thousand dollars to pay off the young man for giving up the bet. But he had not given up the bet. Tone said he would resign his membership.

Turned out the young man, knowing he could never keep his end of the wager, had arranged to have his vocal chords severed before beginning his incarceration a year earlier.

Neither one had been entirely honest, and they both paid for their dishonesty.

An interesting side point about the making of this episode.

Tone filmed part of the episode before suffering an injury to the left side of his face. Even now, more than half a century later, the circumstances surrounding the injury are hazy. Sullivan said it happened when Tone fell over a terrace while trying to pick a flower for a female companion. Rod Serling contended that Tone was injured by a romantic rival.

A different actor could have been hired, but that would have required re–shooting scenes that had already been shot. Instead, Tone was filmed in profile after the injury, which kept him from having direct eye contact with Sullivan in the scenes where he tried to persuade Sullivan to call off the bet and at the end when Sullivan demanded to be paid off.

Entirely unintentionally, that made Tone's character more complex.

I wasn't aware of that the first time I saw the episode. But, once I did become aware of it, I decided that I liked it. It was a nice touch.