The Twilight Zone: The Grave

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959Montgomery Pittman gives us The Grave; an episode that strangely lacked any opening credits.  I’m frankly a little tired of these trips into the Wild West, but that’s a personal issue.  It’s just that I really think the street justice of that time is better off forgotten and put behind us.  It makes it difficult to stomach sometimes.   Of course, when this was aired in 1961, the wild west was less than 100 years earlier, so it might not have seemed that far removed for some, but for a show so often considered timeless, I felt the pang of disappointment to be watching another western.  Until it turned into a ghost story.

I was surprised to see Lee Marvin and Lee Van Cleef in this.  Was it a convention of the Lees?  Both were veteran actors that I had seen in countless movies in my younger days.  James Best also plays a small role as the guy who provided the score for the episode since they didn’t have a budget for it otherwise.  (This made me laugh, because he strums his guitar like he knows he’s just adding background music!)   Speaking of, let’s talk about the plot…

Outlaw Pinto Sykes is gunned down in the street.  Conny Miller (Lee Marvin) shows up after he’s been killed.  Supposedly Miller was always one step behind Sykes, leading some to think he was never really trying hard enough to catch the outlaw.  The locals say that before he died, Sykes threatened to kill Miller even from beyond the grave.  Serling’s opening narration really got me; I felt he set it up like we were going to be in for a zombie story.  Color me surprised when we instead got something out of a classic ghost tale.  During my childhood I had a ghost story vinyl album (external link) that I loved listening to.  One of the stories was called The Hitchhiker and it reminded me of this.  Probably for the eeriness of the grave, but it connected to my childhood in a very positive way.

It’s all built up on a dare.  Apt that this should have aired just days before Halloween in 1961, because this is an effective ghost story that would have been right at home on Halloween night.  When Conny Miller hears the tale one late night in the local saloon, a wager is set.  The townsfolk want to know if he’s brave enough to go to the grave of the dead man.  The audience sees some of what happens before Miller is suddenly pulled down.  We’re going to have to wait until the next day when the locals go to the grave and see what happened.  Miller lies dead at the grave of his former enemy but how did he die?  Lee Van Cleef offers a suggestion but Skyes’s sister Ione helps sell the rest of the story.  It gets a marvelously chilling end and Elen Willard (who plays Ione) truly created such a terror to the sequence, that I think her small part was the icing on the cake.  Her laughter on the grave and her explanation that seems to strengthen the idea that Miller was killed by Sykes is chilling indeed.

I don’t think a lot of these episodes have the material for 25 minutes but this one kept me on edge throughout.  On a personal note, I was also mesmerized by two character names in this because when I started at my current job some 14 years ago, there were two people with the same names.  Not unusual when the names are common but Mothershed and Ionie (Ione, in this story) are by my reckoning far from common.  I don’t think that influenced my enjoyment, but it didn’t hurt it either.  And I do still love a good ghost story…   ML

The view from across the pond:

At the beginning of this episode, my first thought was: oh great, a flipping western. It’s a genre I like about as much as football, lumpy mashed potato or dental surgery, and before long I was groaning at lines such as this: “well, well, lookee what the wind blowed in.” Luckily it did not take too long before I was engaged by the story, which really could have taken place in any setting, because this is a classic ghost story.

Remarkably, this is the first Twilight Zone episode that goes down that very simple route, and I’m surprised they didn’t decide to do more ghost stories. It’s a good fit for the format, easy to put across to the viewers within the time restraints necessary, and surely a better option than the kind of weak morality tales we’ve had for most of this season’s episodes so far. If the quality seems a little higher than usual, that might be because this is a holdover from the previous season. It might also be because it’s not written by Rod Serling, who increasingly seemed to be recycling ideas or struggling to translate a simple idea to an engaging story by this point. The Grave was originally saved for broadcast at Halloween, and it’s a good fit for that time of year.

Despite not being a Serling script, The Grave shares the familiar problem of odd pacing that we often find with his work. Writer Montgomery Pittman spends far too much time with his characters in the saloon, talking about the plot. It takes about 16 minutes to get to the point, although the only information that really needs to be imparted is that Conny has been trying to track down Pinto, who has been killed in his absence, his bravery is being called into question and the only way to settle his reputation is to accept a bet to visit Pinto’s grave at midnight and stick a knife into the soil, despite Pinto’s claim on his deathbed that he will reach out from his grave and grab hold of Conny.

Having taken a very long time to impart that information, with Pinto’s sister as an unwelcome, overacted distraction, Conny finally gets to the grave, which is the bit we have been impatiently waiting for. At that point, Pittman hasn’t left himself enough time to do what he needs to do. Up to that point, Conny has never wavered from seeming to be a brave, unflappable man, being accused unjustly of cowardice. Mainly that’s down to the performance of Lee Marvin, but also the way the script doesn’t allow for much doubt in that respect. The claims of the other men seem like nonsense, and the deathbed taunts of Pinto just evil baiting, because Marvin plays Conny as a man who will have no trouble going up to the grave and carrying out the deed. I wouldn’t want to bet 20 weeks’ wages on a man like that chickening out of a relatively simple task. The problem facing Pittman is he has to then make a heart attack through fear believable, and all he has time to do is show Conny reacting to the banging door of a nearby tomb. That’s not enough to make his fate work as a believable plot development. Much more time needed to be spent on Conny’s walk to the grave, dismantling his courage to the point where we could understand how the rumours about him might have been true after all, and he could actually be a man who might have a heart attack just because he stabbed through his own coat.

If we can gloss over that, the little twist in the tale is great, albeit delivered by the one over-acter in this episode, but if there’s one time of the year we can forgive a big performance it’s Halloween. It’s a twist that is perfect for a ghost story, leaving enough wriggle room for the rational explanation to still make sense (wind can gust in different directions, after all), but still leaving us with fairly compelling evidence that Pinto found a way to get his revenge from beyond the grave, or at least under it. I’m not sure what we are supposed to take from this. Maybe that pride comes before a fall, or perhaps more pertinently to respect the dead, even if you didn’t respect them in life.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: It’s a Good Life

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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8 Responses to The Twilight Zone: The Grave

  1. scifimike70 says:

    It was Unforgiven that gave me the best appreciation for how the dark tone may work best for the serious western genre. So finally seeing The Grave sometime afterwards and the very methodical way for how it ended was a good impact. Stories that give us more to think about rather than just some comforting answers, especially for anthologies, have most significantly stood out in our film and TV entertainment and in this case, it can make an excellent ghost story. Certainly one about a ghost seeking justice or vengeance and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart won my best respect for that ghost story genre when I was kid.

    Like Clemente’s perceptions in The Mirror, the notion that the supernatural experience may be in the main character’s mind, yet still powerful enough to lead to tragedy, may be worth considering and perhaps the most haunting element. If it’s our own guilt that somehow leads to an inevitable comeuppance, knowing how powerful the subconscious can be as dramatized in most thrillers, it might make stories like The Grave even more credible. As anthologies and ghost stories can often teach us, there are always consequences either from beyond or from within.

    Thank you both very much for your reviews on The Grave.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Mike Doran says:

    I don’t know what I’m doing here right now; this is a new laptop, and my 72-year-old self is having the devil’s own time trying to work it.
    Anyway, I’m shopping around your site here, concentrating mainly on stuff I saw as a kid, in ’50s and’60s first run; I was a schoolkid then, and I’m an Old Man now, but what I learned back then is coming in handier than I thought …

    “The Grave” is a textbook example of Typecasting: almost every actor here, from Lee Marvin on down, is playing exactly the character he’d be playing if this were a straight Western.

    I had some more here, but this machine is being wonky, so I’ll stand down for now and see whether it gets through.

    Later …

    Liked by 2 people

    • Roger Pocock says:

      Thanks for joining us in the Junkyard! Great to have you here and I hope you enjoy some more of our writing. Thanks also for providing the context for the actors in The Grave.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mike Doran says:

        If I may, I’d like to clarify my comment:
        I was going to specifically mention Lee Van Cleef, James Best, and particularly Strother Martin as actors who would have played these roles if “The Grave had been a standard issue Western on Zane Grey Theater or the like.
        Hollywood Prime Time TV was the home of typecasting: as a kid I always checked out TV Guide to see which actors were appearing on which shows that week (my movie-buff Dad was a major aide in this) – that was our fun in watching.
        As I check out more of your inventory, I’ll be pointing out more and more examples of this practice.
        Consider yourself warned …

        Liked by 2 people

      • Roger Pocock says:

        Very happy to accept the warning 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • scifimike70 says:

        Typecasting issues, particularly if an actor or actress is seemingly typecast in a role for an anthology episode, are certainly noteworthy. Having first seen Lee Van Cliff when I was a kid in the Midas commercials, and Lee Marvin as the villainous Jack Osborne for Gorky Park, there was an obvious distinction between them for me when finally seeing them in any kind of western. James Best was most interesting, having first seen him as Rosco for all his comedy relief in The Dukes Of Hazzard, before seeing him in a serious kind of western role.

        Those TV Guides when I when I was a kid were always interesting when you somehow remembered the actors from elsewhere. How such actors may be attractions today for all that’s greatly changed can encourage our nostalgia of reflecting on their early work and, most considerably, because of how so many Hollywood actors and actresses were clearly happy to be in the classic Twilight Zone.

        Liked by 1 person

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      You’re the second time you’ve warned us about you, but so far, I’ve been enjoying your comments. Keep them coming! ML

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mike Doran says:

        This is a test, to determine whether I can communicate on this site is spite of impossible Technoslavian demands that my 72-year-old mind has no way of understanding.
        This is only a test.

        Liked by 1 person

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