March 6, 2011

Outer Noir

The Outer Limits - "O.B.I.T."
Episode #7 (air date 11/04/1963)
Directed by Gerd Oswald
Cinematographer: Conrad Hall
Peter Breck - as Senator Orville
Jeff Corey - as Byron Lomax
Harry Townes - as Dr. Clifford Scott
Joanne Gilbert - as Barbara Scott

Twilight Zone had the hipsters.

With Rod Serling's overt, chain-smoking intellectualism and cool patter; Zone was definitely the talk of the young Turks around office water coolers on Monday morning. First airing in 1959, it quickly became the show to watch for the in-crowd.

Yet there was another sci-fi anthology show, The Outer Limits, that premiered a few years later (1963) that was regularly shades darker and somber as a judge on Sunday. Where Zone fired the synapses, Outer Limits seemed more oblique and dense. It had the shadows of noir, the angles of Dr. Caligari; and could send a shiver of chilled, existential anxiety over the skin. Where Zone crackled with space age electricity and a feast of words, Outer Limits felt more like a bleak, ancient shadow play - perhaps a ritual of corrupted hypnosis where good meanings were drained from normal things; leaving the world a half-familiar façade.

In the hotel room. "O.B.I.T."

Zone was sometimes lyrical, with the occasional episode going rather spritely (See "Once Upon a Time" featuring Buster Keaton). Such was the nature of the show's edgy, scattershot brilliance. The Outer Limits was never so. No, no. The Outer Limits had a more underground soul that could never trade in sunshine and space. It was instead a world of small rooms seen in fisheye; greasy, sweating faces and long shadows that crawled the walls and floors. Even the outdoors looked like a world shrouded in a dimension of isolation, as lonely as Poe's House of Usher. The best moments of Outer Limits could never be quoted, because those moments were pictures, not words - perfect images of doom, of paranoia - of fear and panic. They were inky reflections that fell upon the eye and moved the spirit to dark places, speaking in a language without sound.

Outer limits was more often than not the equal of Twilight Zone in the crucial areas of writing and directing. What set Limits apart, however, was the visual look of the show as defined by the regular man behind the camera, cinematographer Conrad Hall.

Brief career overview: Conrad Hall was voted in 2003 one of the most influential cinematographers in history by International Cinematographer's Guild (ICG). Over the span of his career, he won three Oscars for Cinematography (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), American Beauty (1999); and Road to Perdition (2002). Conrad Hall passed away in 2003.

Despite being remembered best for bringing a painterly look to his color films (Sam Mendes, director of Road to Perdition, called Hall the "Rembrandt" of cinematographers) Hall began his career in television working moody wonders in black and white as a principal cinematographer on The Outer Limits. Hall's B&W work on Limits is so fine, one sometimes wishes he had been born a generation earlier, thus having a lifetime to work in shades of gray. Had it been so, his memory might today be aligned with other B&W masters of the 1930s and 40s like Joseph August , William Daniels or John Alton (stylistically, Hall's work on Limits easily reminds one of Alton, who shot noir classics like T-Men, Raw Deal, Border Incident). For a sneak peak at what a Hall B&W career might have been, one need look no further than Richard Brooke's brutal In Cold Blood (1969). Hall cinematography provided the film's harsh beauty and earned Hall an Oscar nomination.

For a sampling of Hall's magnificent work on Outer Limits, let's look at an episode from the first season: "O.B.I.T.", which aired November 4, 1963:

The opening teaser (the short scene that began every Limits episode, establishing a central theme), presents a middle aged man, well dressed and wearing glasses, sitting in a bleak hotel room in the dead of night. The room is dark save for street light coming through a window. This pale light is swathed across the drab wallpaper behind the man, who is sitting at what might be a large radar machine, or perhaps an atomic age computer console. It makes a soft high-pitched whirring - an elliptical, looping sound. The man turns a knob, looks up at a monitor, works a switch. His face reflects the light of the monitor like a wane moon floating in space. His glasses occasionally frost over as he looks up, then down, then up again. As the man works the dials, we notice his hand. The camera gives us a close-up as the hand pauses a moment on the edge of the machine - the back of it is thatched in long, black hair.

We finally see what he is looking at on the screen: a large monster with an enormous, knobby head - ghostlike in its whiteness - shambling toward us. The man has shown no alarm at its sight. The creature has no mouth, no eyes - only deep depressions where these things might be, hidden within shadows.

Fade to black and cue music, and the wonderful, familiar introduction by announcer Vic Perrin begins: "There is nothing wrong with your television set . . ." (For those not familiar with this classic TV intro, please refer to video at end of post)

The story proper begins with a lonely, overhead shot. We are looking down upon another man working a machine - a man - an officer in uniform. He is working the console of a machine like the one seen in the teaser, this one set on a circular dais. The man and machine are alone in a large room, working in a pool of light in the center of the empty space. His surroundings are cavernous and full of cold, black shadows. The vast space is needless - useless. He hear the machine bleeping and whirring softly. The man looks terribly alone - isolated (one of the re-occurring themes of Limits is the profound isolation of man. Men and women are always isolated in times of danger or fear).

The voice over narration (again, Vic Perrin) tells us: "In this room, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, security personal at the Defense Department Cyprus Hill's Research Center keep constant watch on its scientists through O.B.I.T., a mysterious electronic device whose very existence was carefully kept from the public at large. And so it would have remained but for the facts you are about to witness . . ."

" . . . something on the machine he was not supposed to see."

We watch the security officer bring a figure into focus on the circular screen of the mysterious device, O.B.I.T.; a scientist in a lab coat. The scientist, imagining he is talking in private, criticizes a college harshly. The technician begins a tape machine, records the incident: "Subject - Doctor Anderson. Derogatory remarks against superior. Twelfth occurrence." He snaps the tape recorder off, swivels in his seat, adjust some more dials on a console. We see the rows of dials are marked to indicate several monitors throughout the facility.

Suddenly the technician sees something - some kind of monstrous shape walking - with huge claws and taloned feet. It shimmers in and out of focus on the screen (it's the same creature we have seen in the opening teaser). The officer quickly adjusts some dials, assuming the machine has malfunctioned in some way. While following the shambling creature, the security officer realizes that it has entered the room where he is. He turns quickly, smiles as if recognizing someone, then is brutally strangled. We watch him now on the round monitor in close up - two mammoth claws, or perhaps paws, strangling the man to death.

This concurrent murder investigation leaves some troubling questions about the behavior and morale of the Cypress Hill Research Center personnel; and Senator Orville (Peter Breck) arrives at the center to head up a senate investigation. He meets Mr. Byran Lomax (Jeff Corey) who heads up the O.B.I.T. personnel surveillance project (we know very quickly that Lomax is the culprit, or monster, or something sinister, as the camera soon shows us a close up of his abnormally hairy hand.)

The senator's investigation, conducted in the same room where the technician was killed (and with the O.B.I.T. machine at the very center of the room), quickly reveals that morale is indeed very, very low at the military facility: Friendships and marriages have broken down, parties at the Center are never attended, personnel pass in hallways without talking - or even looking at one another and, most significantly, the doctor in charge of the facility has even suffered a nervous breakdown.

The senator is quickly able to establish that the O.B.I.T. machine is at the root of the ruined morale and the overall sense of crippling oppression. "They know everything," says one scientist giving testimony. "They know what you say in your sleep." The tension deepens as the investigation is unable to determine the origins of the O.B.I.T. project.

As witness after witness testifies, the tension builds layer upon layer. Every witness seems terrified, their faces sweating - and Hall's camera makes us feel their paranoia, moving around the room like a graceful serpent; searching for a more revealing perspective. Hall builds to his close-ups so that, jarringly, there is not personal space left - for anyone. Hall makes us understand the story's principal theme - paranoia and oppression - by allowing us to experiencing it ourselves.

Jeff Corey
"They know what you say in your sleep."

Eventually the Center's chief scientist, Dr. Clifford Scott (Harry Townes), who has been sequestered to the "rest home" of a military hospital, agrees to give testimony (in private conversation with Senator Orville, he admits that he has been afraid to ever leave the rest home for fear of his life. Someone, he tells Orville, would rather see him dead that have him tell what he knows). Under questioning, Scott explains that he had been a strong opponent of O.B.I.T. from the beginning, had daily arguments with project director, Byron Lomax, who insisted the machine was essential in eliminating "undesirable elements."

(Beyond this point be Spoilers!) Lomax, under the guise of demonstrating the machine's effectiveness, has shown Scott images of his young wife (Joanne Gilbert) flirting innocently with a young officer. Once this germ of suspicion has sent its black roots into Scott's mind, the doctor forgot about his opposition to O.B.I.T., even began using the machine to spy on his wife. As a result of Dr. Scott's obsessive scrutiny and suspicion, his wife actually was driven to begin an affair. Scott describes under testimony his hours of sitting in front of O.B.I.T., tuning in his wife's image, but being unable to see the image of the man with her (It is left to the power of our imaginations - this image of a Dr. Scott, sitting in a dark room, watching his wife on a monitor making love to some invisible phantom).

"His was the one image I couldn't pick up on O.B.I.T.," says Scott.

"You never found out who this person was?" asks Senator Orville.

"I found out," says Scott grimly.

Dr. Scott eventually reasoned that there was one person at the Center who never appeared on any O.B.I.T. reports. Who, in fact, had configured the machine so that his particular wave lengths could not be seen by O.B.I.T. By violating the machine's operating procedures, Scott was finally able to see his wife's lover - and what he saw broke his mind and spirit.

"Do you know why Captain Harrison (the operator from the opening scene) was murdered?" asks Orville.

"Because he saw something on the machine he was not supposed to see," says Scott.

"And what was that?"

Scott blinks. His eyes lose focus for a moment, then come back. He raises his face. "What I saw," he says.

Scott then walks over to the machine and turns it on. The ominous whir begins. Scott deftly works some dials and we see the creature, the massive, white monster; appear on the screen, sitting behind one of the witness tables. It shimmies in and out of resolution.

Scott can barely speak, and he is clearly in the grip of horrible memory. He looks at the screen with a mixture of fear and hatred. "Mr. Lomax -" he begins.

Lomax stands- spreads his arms wide in a gesture encompassing space far behind the small room. "The machines are everywhere!" he declares.

In a ranting monologue, Lomax explains that the O.B.I.T. machines have been introduced by alien invaders as a means of conquering the Earth (while the human Lomax rants, the monster Lomax rants on the O.B.I.T. screen). Once exposed as an alien himself, Lomax goes on a tear; telling the senate committee that the machines have been installed all across America and the world, and that the intense paranoia they produce will soon break down all societal structure, making Earth ripe for alien conquest.

Jeff Corey
"The machines are everywhere!"

"When we come here to live," says Lomax, "you friendless, demoralized flotsam will fall without a even a single shot being fired."

As guards move in to arrest him, Lomax kills himself via some alien suicide device and vanishes. The episode ends, as nearly all Limits episodes do, with the timeless, perfectly modulated voice of Vic Perrin, speaking over the scene's stunned last moments: "Agents from the Justice Department are rounding up the machines now . . . In the final analysis, dear friends, whether O.B.I.T. lives up to its name will depend on you."

When announcer Perrin tells us as we fade to black, "We now return control of your television set to you," one feels as though released from the muscular windings of a Boa Constrictor. Many elements contribute to this episode's ratcheting tension: The script, by Mayer Dolinsky, is taut as a drum with moments of chilling brilliance ("People with nothing to hide have nothing to fear from O.B.I.T.," says Lomax. "Cypress Hill is like a ghost town," says a testifying scientist. "People whisper in their own houses." In addition, the reoccurring hairy hand, used by Dolinsky as a way of identifying aliens masquerading as human, has a kind of primal power - like suddenly seeing the hidden mark of the Beast.

Likewise, the acting is fine, with Jeff Corey mesmerizing as the malevolent, terrifying Lomax. Also good is Harry Townes as Dr. Scott, the man who must summon the dregs of his strength and dignity in senate testimony. Finally, the direction of Gerd Oswald is brisk and flawless (All directors should learn their craft in television, where brisk efficiency is highly prized).

Yet the most potent victory belongs to the camera work of Conrad Hall.

The senate investigation takes place in the same room that houses the O.B.I.T. machine - the same room were the technical officer was murdered. Thus, Hall is given a confined, claustrophobic place to weld his anxious camera.

Hall makes us feel the rooms' hideous, tight paranoia through oblique angels and dense shadows. He creates tension in a tight place - an atmosphere of pulsing, increasing conflict where a simple thing, a glass breaking, might realistically set off a chain reaction of murder or insanity. The feeling is one of unresolved horror, of something lurking forever unseen, and the actors in the small room are scratching and digging and sweating, waiting for this anxiety to be released. Conrad Hall makes this episode sing with tension by closing in the walls, restricting the movement, casting faces and bodies just right against the dark spirits of shadow. He simply closes us into this box of fear, gives us no back-up room. His work in this episode is typical of his work throughout the series which, taken in whole, constitutes some of the finest camera work ever done for any television show.

In "O.B.I.T.", Conrad Hall distorts reality, turning a room of middle-class suits and uniforms into a fear-drenched pit of self-loathing; and he turns a computer into a squatting devil, a humming demon at the center of the pit, content to await mortal weakness.

Always, Hall knew exactly what we needed to see to make stories burn into memory.

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  1. Not counting the title credit shot, the 3rd screen cap down was filmed in PORE-CAM

  2. KW: They know what you say in your sleep.

  3. Mykal.

    Another thorough retrospective to enjoy.

    I love the images selected too and the new look on your site. Well done as always!


  4. Sci-Fi Fan: Thanks! I got you linked up in my blog list.

  5. Mykal, I appreciate your simple, yet spot on, delineation of the differences between Zone & Limits.

  6. Chuck: Thanks, amigo. I have to say, Limits was my favorite between the two very fine shows. And thanks for commenting!

  7. I think I prefer the Twilight Zone, but that's mainly because there are simply more of them. The Outer Limits was never on TV where I lived when I was a kid, so I didn't see it until I was an adult. This may be a result of the golden age of science fiction being twelve.

    That said, I do love The Outer Limits, and this is a typically fine retrospective, as usual.

  8. Oh, and I almost forgot. You can see Conrad Hall doing a creditable forgery of European art films as the DP of Incubus, also in black and white. Whatever else one can say about a movie in which William Shatner performs in Esperanto, it LOOKS gorgeous.

  9. Dr. Morbius: You had me at William Shatner speaking Esperanto.

  10. "... In the final analysis, dear friends, whether O.B.I.T. lives up to its name will depend on you."

    In other words, remove the periods from the word O.B.I.T.: OBIT = OBITUARY.

    Always loved it.

    Thanks Mykal!!

    California Carl

  11. Mykal! you picked one of favorite episodes! i'm gonna read the article now! later!

    oh and Incubus is a must!

  12. O.B.I.T. is an episode i choose to show people who are not familiar with the show(after The Galaxy Being, which is an essential primer, i think)to show it's use of dramatic tension could be quite intense and it's use of monsters subtle. Conrad Hall caused me to look for the cinematographer's credit for the first time- i just couldn't believe anything looked that good on film, much less a tv show. i didn't really catch TZ until later on, but OL was a childhood nightmare factory for me, for reasons like the devastating ending of The Man Who Was Never Born or indeed the end of O.B.I.T. when Star Trek wanted to be scary or uncanny, it borrowed from OL(thank Robert Justman for that). speaking of Incubus, it feels like a cross between Ingmar Bergman and a missing episode of OL, so please check it out. ok, i'm done for now!

  13. Carl: Thanks for stopping in. Yep, Limits was serious as a heart attack! An episode that made you think of death by its very title was very in keeping with the show's tone.

    Prof.: For me, the episode was "The Sixth Finger." That episode is the only show/movie/story in my life that ever gave me nightmares. I couldn't sleep. Nothing else has ever had that effect on me.

    I still think Limits was about the most beautiful looking show that has ever been on television -m a real noirfest; and you are so right about its influence, particularly on Star Trek.

    Now you’ve got me needed to see “Incubus” again!!!

  14. Oddly enough, the only episode of a television show that ever gave me nightmares wasn't from either The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone. It was an episode from Night Gallery called "The Caterpillar," in which Laurence Harvey tries to use a very nasty little insect to get his boss out of his way. Only it backfires. I don't think anyone who's ever seen it has forgotten it. It's like the last segment of Trilogy of Terror that way.

  15. Dr. Morbius: As you say, now one that ever saw "The Caterpillar" ever forgot it. I certainly haven't. You and others may already know this, but it's worth telling anyway:

    Lawrence Harvey was dying of stomach cancer when that episode was filmed (he would be dead within the year). He was in dreadful pain during the filming and was heavily medicated with pain killers at that point in his life.

    On the day they filmed the scene where he was writhing on the bed with the earwig in his head, he had refused to take his pain killers and had refused makeup. The pallor and the pain were real. The actor thought it would give the moment authenticity and wanted to give it everything he had.

    When people criticize television, or don't give the medium its props, that is one of the TV moments I think of.

  16. Thanks so much Mykal. I appreciate that.

    This is inspiration to check Outer limits someday more thoroughly. There were certainly some amazing stories, amazing guests like the late Barry Morse [Space:1999] and others. And it was just a real dark piece of science fiction as series go.

    Thanks again. Enjoying Radiation Cinema!

  17. Mykal, loved The Outer Limits O.B.I.T. review. I've gone to my DVD set of T.O.L. Season One and will watch the episode (it's been a few years since I saw it), then read the spoilers in your review.

    My brother and I were rabid fans (yes, we foamed at the mouth!) of T.O.L. and would only have missed an episode because of an apocalyptic event. The cinematography was something I was aware of, because I was 16 in 1964 and into movies. I also remember the show being the focus of some criticism at the time, which cited T.O.L.'s "mood" as being upsetting to some viewers. I remember one mother's letter in my local daily newspaper railing out against the show and its "dark tone," "frightening shadows," "eerie music," and "hideous monsters." Of course her kids loved the show! It scared the shit out of them! She had to stand guard over the television set, as any good parent should, to keep them from watching it.

    I thought the noir stuff was just great. I thought the monsters could sometimes look corny (low budget for SPFX, no doubt), but there was always such a feeling about the show that made it so compelling, weird and fascinating. Years later when they made the new series in color it just didn't have the same effect on me. I thought at the time I was just too jaded after too many years of watching movies, science fiction and horror, or it could possibly be that the overall noirish look of T.O.L., low budget or not, was really a big part of my pleasure in watching.

  18. Makes me want to go dust off my DVDs.

    Great job, Mykal!

  19. Yikes! Two posts behind now! Sorry Mykal, I'm currently locked in the Abbey grappling with that long-promised Zucco marathon report! What an epxerience watching all those amazing PRCs back to back - but I'm having a real job knocking it all into some sort of coherent shape...
    Soon as it's done this will be my first stop!

  20. Pappy: Love the new avatar! You know, after having nightmares about the episode "The Sixth Finger," Limits was the single show my parents ever considered not letting me watch. Ultimately, the let me watch it, but the fact that they thought about tells you how potent the show was. God, what a great show. And, as you say, it had (as a rule) way better monsters that Zone. (for you Zone fans, don't disparage - the show was great and I will get to it in time)

    Jeffie!! Thanks for stopping by, pal.

    Matthew: I have been waiting for that Zucco marathon! Enough chit-chat! Get to work!

  21. great post on a treat episode in a great series...still relevant today with overtones of surveillance, mide control, hidden agendas, secret government organization and cold war paranoia!!! GREAT CAST AND DIRECTION