I’m a big fan of titles. That probably sounds weird, but I think there’s an art to them. I love a good one and have this weird idea in my head that it should flow like dialogue. I never liked classic Doctor Who titles; they were usually crap and they got worse over time with The Terror of this or the Revenge of that. Pulp! Pure pulp, like no orange juice I want to drink. The Twilight Zone usually had some strong titles and I’ve got to say the Outer Limits typically did a solid job with them too. But this particular episode has a title that just fails the whole story. The story focuses on Arch Hammer played by the ever-likable Harry Townes, who may have been a Time Lord, since he is able to change his face to look like anyone. Arch is going to learn that you can’t hide from Karma, no matter what face you wear!
Honestly, that’s the story in a nutshell. Arch changes his face from the one he’s wearing when he’s introduced, to that of a dead musician to “get the girl”. He follows that up with a mobster’s face, to get money. I mean, it looks like the man has a plan, right? Girl, check. Money, check! But what did he think would happen when going up against mobsters? He gets attacked, of course, and forgets how to get away even with his most special of powers, proving that brains really are more important than looks. He has to think up a face, because the other 2 he used that very night were not fresh in his mind, so he takes the face of a boxer (whose picture is on a nearby poster) just to escape the mob. Rather than do the smart thing when the mobsters leave and change back to his actual face, he keeps the newly acquired face and runs into his dad (well, the dad of the boxer whose face he’s wearing). Dad has a vile reaction to seeing his son thus proving some men probably shouldn’t be fathers. Arch manages to get away from Grumpy Dad, but is found by the police. When he gets picked up, he comes up with new strategy: transform while in the revolving door. The worst thing is, the cop falls for this even though there isn’t anyone else in the revolving door! (I guess it would be hard to dispute, but it seems like a weird time to make the change. Me? I would have gotten in the car because while driving, the cop won’t be looking in the backseat. Change while back there and then get out saying you’ve no idea why you were arrested and you’ve been telling the cop he had the wrong guy the whole time. Make people question his skills and get away all at the same time! But no, Arch doesn’t think like that.) Arch then goes back to the last face he had, that of the boxer, and runs right into Grumpy Dad again, who walks the streets with a gun. Boom, he’s shot and “the four of us are dying” is never even uttered. And here’s why: Arch Hammer has been more than 4 people in his life. It’s a talent; he uses it all the time, or so we are lead to believe. And he never claims they are dying, Rod Serling does that for us. So the title just didn’t feel right. See? It’s an art; you can’t throw any old title on the screen!
The best part of the episode was the cop. “Is that where you normally stand? Behind a door?” Arch is cool as a cucumber when answering and his reply actually makes complete sense. The cop then asks where Arch keeps his coat, which gets the very angry reply, “in the closet!” I mean, the vehemence was funny. And it wasn’t like I was not enjoying the episode, it’s that the “punchline” is just so weak. Ok, so maybe there’s a lesson here. Don’t allow yourself to be followed by crazy old men claiming to be your father? Well, clearly that’s a good lesson too, but no. We’ve already established that brains are more important than looks because Arch sure knows how to look like whomever he wants but fails to think of a way out of his troubles. Then there’s the obvious: sooner or later, trickery will bite you in the bottom. No matter how many people Arch looks like, it’s just a matter of time before… well, before exactly what happened happens! And if we go by Serling’s narration, Arch has the ability to change his face. So he can’t change his hair color or height, right? What about his clothes? Did no one notice the fact that the person being chased had the exact same clothes on as the person they found? (Maybe that’s why Arch wears generic suits!) The cop, for instance, doesn’t think it’s weird that the guy who was right in front of him is wearing the same exact thing Arch was wearing? (Again, intelligence matters…)
I often wonder why there are some episodes of this series that don’t repeat frequently, like during the yearly 4th of July marathon. I understand why this one is kept off the list of top stories; it’s a bit embarrassing. And maybe it offends people with good looks, who feel the story is mocking them. Who can tell! To me, it was just a weak story with a weaker title. There are some characters that even Harry Townes can’t make more likable. People who smoke cigarettes while shaving for instance. They deserve whatever fate they get in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
At the start of this episode, Rod Serling tells us the premise of the story in a very matter of fact way. Arch Hammer can change his face. The economy of storytelling that typifies a Twilight Zone episode can be both impressive and frustrating. There is no explanation of how or why he has that ability, and I don’t mind that at all. Serling strips away all the boring technobabble that infects most sci-fi series, and just invites us to accept something magical and go with it, moving straight on to the implications of the supernatural ability. On the other hand, it does seem like a waste to blow the surprise straight away. I would have loved to see some of the scenes play out in this episode without the prior knowledge of how they are happening. The explanation of these four men being the same person, or at least a couple of them, would have made for a great twist, after watching dead men apparently return to life.
Instead, we are aware of what Arch can do right from the start, and we get to see his talent in action straight away. I replayed the scene of him looking in the mirror and changing faces several times, following his arm moving down to the cigarette and back up again, and I still have no idea how they managed that illusion, considering it’s the whole actor changing, not just the face. However it was done, it’s a great trick.
The first face Arch takes on is a dead man, whom Arch impersonates so that he can visit the man’s girlfriend. It’s disturbing to watch, and I wasn’t sure at first whether his actions were cruel or kind. He has an ability that is not intrinsically evil, or good, but could be used to improve or worsen people’s lives. It’s soon obvious that his intentions are more towards the cruel end of the spectrum, or at the very least selfish. The return of the dead man makes Maggie enormously happy, but it’s hard to imagine that happiness lasting, as he’s a different person who is wearing her boyfriend’s face. I’m not sure how long it could last before she starts to feel something is wrong. Actually, I wanted a whole episode about these two. Examining the nature of love, which is more than just based on how somebody looks, would have made for a great story. I really wanted to see Arch learn the lesson that it’s not just possible to step into somebody else’s shoes, because Maggie loved more about Johnny than his face. The only fault I found with this scene is that Maggie never seems messed up enough at the sight of a dead person joining her for a drink, and then she starts chatting about how she felt after his death, without asking him how he comes to be there in the first place. In the end, Arch has to volunteer the information. The cruelty of what he is doing is really highlighted for the first time when an old friend of Johnny’s spots him leaving the club, and he swiftly changes faces to avoid a difficult conversation, leaving the poor guy confused and doubtless devastated after a moment of hope that the impossible just happened.
When we move on to the second change of face, I thought Arch had lost his mind. We can see the newspaper and above the face he chooses are the words “Gangland killing”. Might that not be a slightly dangerous face to wear? He gets away with it, but it left me confused as to why he couldn’t come up with some kind of a safer way to get a lot of money. The face of a rich man, perhaps? The reaction of the murderer was everything that was missing from the scene with Maggie: absolute shock, astonishment and fear. Great stuff. Ironically, Arch survives the danger of gangland murdering thugs, only to fall victim to a father who was wronged by his son. It’s a really, really sad end to the episode, but if you watch Twilight Zone you have to expect that to happen in plenty of the episodes. These weren’t made to give the viewers a warm and fuzzy feeling. They were made to make us think. And this episode left me pondering on the impact each of these individuals had had on people’s lives, the empty holes left by their deaths, and the cans of worms Arch opened. We’ve already had an episode that showed us that you can’t relive your own past. This one shows us that somebody else can’t do that for you either. We are all unique in our own ways. Nobody can step into our shoes. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Third from the Sun