Film Review: Night Gallery (dir by Boris Sagal, Barry Shear, and Steven Spielberg)


Night Gallery was a horror anthology series that aired on NBC in the early 70s.  Each episode featured Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, serving as the curator of a museum where all of the paintings have a somewhat macabre theme.  (One could even say that the museum was a …. wait for it …. night gallery!)  Serling would give each painting a properly pithy introduction and then the audience would see the story behind the artwork.  It was a bit like the Twilight Zone, except the Night Gallery episodes were in color, they were all horror-themed, and, for the most part, they steered away from social commentary.  The series ran from 1970 and 1973 and it still airs in syndication and on some of the retro stations.  (I believe it currently airs on Comet TV.)  Even if it wasn’t as consistently good as Twilight Zone, it’s still a pretty fun little series.

Two Christmases ago, I was gifted  Night Gallery: The Complete Series on DVD.  Though I’ve watched several episodes from the DVD, I recently realized that I have never actually sat down and watched every episode in order.  With the world currently shut down due to the pandemic (a development that, if we’re going to be honest, sounds like something Rod Serling would have used on the Twilight Zone), I figured what better time to watch the entire series then now?

I started out by watching the Night Gallery pilot film.  This originally aired on November 8th, 1969, a full year before Night Gallery became a weekly series.  It features three different stories (all written by Rod Serling) of the macabre.  As with every episode of the subsequent series, each story is introduced by Serling standing in front of a painting.  In the pilot, though, the museum is rather bare and the painting’s are a bit minimalist.  I have to admit that, as a lover of the baroque, I was a bit disappointed in that aspect of the pilot.

But what about the stories themselves?  Read on!

The Cemetery (dir by Boris Sagal)

The first story was The Cemetery, a cheerfully gruesome little tale that featured Roddy McDowall and Ossie Davis.  McDowall plays Jeremy, a spoiled young man who murders his uncle so that he might inherit the dead man’s estate.  At first, it looks like McDowall’s plot is a complete success but then McDowall notices a painting of the family graveyard hanging above a staircase.  (To be honest, it seems odd to hang a painting of a graveyard in the foyer but I guess that’s something old rich people do.)  The painting keeps changing.  One minute, the painting looks normal.  The next minute, it features a newly dug grave.  And then something emerging grave.  And then something heading towards the house….

Is Jeremy losing his mind or is the painting warning him that his uncle has risen from the dead and is seeking revenge!?  You’ll probably be able to guess the answer long before poor Jeremy but no matter.  This is a fun little horror story and it benefits from two enjoyably arch performances, from McDowall and, in the role of a butler who may have an agenda of his own, Ossie Davis.

Eyes (dir by Steven Spielberg)

Of the three stories presented in the pilot, Eyes probably gets the most attention from critics because it not only stars Joan Crawford in one of her final performances but it was the professional directorial debut (if you don’t count Amblin’) of 22 year-old Steven Spielberg.  Spielberg apparently had some issues dealing with the veteran crew members, many of whom didn’t like the idea of taking orders from a 22 year-old.  (It probably didn’t help that pictures from that era suggest that Spielberg looked several years younger than his age.  Let’s just say that it’s easy to understand why he eventually grew that beard.)  I’d like to think that Joan Crawford yelled at everyone and defended Spielberg and maybe even Rod Serling came down with Luca Brasi and said, “You’re going to the give this kid the respect he deserves or your brains are going to be all over that union contract.”  I don’t know if that’s true but it’s a nice thought.

That said, Eyes is pretty good.  Even if the crew doubted him, Spielberg proved himself as a director with this story.  It’s about a hateful and selfish woman (Joan Crawford) who happens to be both rich and blind.  She has manipulated a doctor into performing an experimental operation that will allow her to see.  The only catch is that the operation will only be good for 22 hours and a donor (Tom Bosley, as a bookie who is in trouble with the mob) will be required to give up his eyes so that Crawford can have those 22 hours.

On the one hand, this is very-much a Rod Serling-type tale.  It’s easy to imagine Eyes, with its belief in karma and its final macabre twist, as a Twilight Zone episode.  At the same time, Spielberg very much brings his own signature style to the film, livening up dialogue-heavy scenes with interesting camera angles and getting good performances from Crawford, Barry Sullivan, and Tom Bosley.  Eyes is a clever story but, for modern viewers, the most interesting thing about it will be discovering that, even at the age of 22, Spielberg already had a clear directorial style.

The Escape Route (dir by Barry Shear)

The Escape Route is about an Nazi war criminal named Joseph Strobe (played by Richard Kiley) who is hiding out in South America and spending all of his time nervously looking over his shoulder.  One day, he enters a museum where he finds himself drawn to two paintings.  One painting features a man who has been crucified in a concentration camp, which we learn was Strobe’s trademark back when he, himself, was a camp commandant.  The other painting features a fisherman in a peaceful setting.  Even though Strobe imagines himself as the peaceful fisherman, his attention keeps getting redirected to the painting of the concentration camp.  Soon, Strobe realizes that a survivor of the camp (played by Sam Jaffe) is also in the museum and that he is studying the painting as well.

Compared to Eyes and especially The Cemetery, The Escape Route may seem like a rather low-key story but it has a power that sneaks up on you.  Hiding out (as many real-life Nazi war criminals did) in South America, Strobe is full of excuses for his past and he may indeed be sincere in his wish that he had just become a fisherman as opposed to a brutal Nazi.  But, in the end, Strobe can neither escape his past nor his final punishment.  Justice cannot be escaped, no matter how hard Strobe tries to outrun it.  In the end, there is no escape for the wicked.  Richard Kiley and Sam Jaffe both give excellent performances.  The Escape Route will stick with you.

As a series, Night Gallery was a bit uneven but the pilot stands as a classic of its type, featuring three short films that all deserve to be remembered.

As for me, I’m going to try to watch an episode or two a day.  I may review a few more Night Gallery episodes here on the Shattered Lens.  As I said, the series itself was a bit uneven and not every episode is as good as the pilot.  Still, there’s definitely some gems to be found in the Night Gallery and I’ll share them as I come across them.

Framed (1975, directed by Phil Karlson)


Revenge can be brutal, especially when you’ve been framed.

Joe Don Baker plays Ron Lewis, a surly nightclub owner and gambler who wins a small fortune, witnesses a crime, and nearly gets shot all in the same night.  When he reaches his house, he’s planning on calling the police but he’s confronted in his own garage by a sheriff’s deputy who tries to kill him!  In a lengthy and brutal scene, Ron beats the deputy to death and gouges out his eyes.  Even though Ron was only acting in self-defense, he’s charged with murder.  Told that there is no way that he’ll be able to win an acquittal, Ron pleads guilty to a lesser charge and is sent to prison for four years.

While he’s in prison, Ron befriends a mob boss (John Marley, who famously woke up with a horse’s head in his bed in The Godfather) and the boss’s number one hitman, Vince (Gabriel Dell).  While Ron is in prison, a group of men assault his girlfriend (country singer Conny Van Dyke) and tell her not to ask any questions about the events that led to Ron being framed.

After serving his sentence and getting into numerous fights with the guards, Ron is finally released.  When Vince shows up and tells Ron that he’s been hired to kill him, the two of them team up with an honest deputy (Brock Peters) and set out to find out why Ron was set up and to get revenge.

Framed is a brutal movie, Ron and his friends hold nothing back in their quest to get revenge.  Whether he’s shooting a man in cold blood or hooking someone up to a car battery in order to get information out of him, there’s little that Ron won’t do and the movie lingers over every act of violence.  Several pounds overweight and snarling out of his lines, Joe Don Baker may not be a conventional action hero but he’s believable in his rage.  He’s the ultimate country boy who has been pushed too far and now he doesn’t care how much blood he has to get on his hands.  However, because Baker does seem more like an ordinary person than a Clint Eastwood or a Charles Bronson-type, he retains the audience’s sympathy even as he splashes blood all over the screen.  As violent as his action may be, they always feel justified.

Baker’s performance and the believable violence are the film’s biggest strengths.  It’s biggest weakness is a plot that revolves around an elaborate conspiracy that doesn’t always make sense and some notably weak supporting performances.  Ron’s revenge may be brutal but it takes a while to get there and the first hour gets bogged down with Ron’s struggle to adjust to life in prison.  John Marley does a good job as Ron’s prison mentor but then he abruptly disappears from the movie.

Before making Framed, Baker and director Phil Karlson previously collaborated on Walking Tall.  Framed is far more violent than that film was but its plot doesn’t hold together as well.  However, if you’re just looking for a violent action film that features Joe Don Baker doing what he does best, Framed delivers.

The Rookie (2002, dir. by John Lee Hancock)


I miss baseball!

I know that the regular MLB season being delayed (or even — gasp! — cancelled) is hardly the worst thing that we have to deal with right now but I still really miss watching baseball!  I miss the swing of the bat, the sounds of the stadium, and I even miss getting upset over the Rangers having a disappointing season.  I’ve been dealing with my grief by watching old games and a lot of baseball movies.  It’s not the same as getting to watch a real game but I guess it’s as good as things are going to get right now.

When the quarantine stated, one of the first baseball movies that I watched was The Rookie.  Starring Dennis Quaid (who gives a really good performance), The Rookie is based on the true story of Jim Morris, a former minor league pitcher who retired from playing the game after injuring his arm and took a job coaching baseball for Reagan County High School in Big Lake, Texas.  In 1999, Morris promised his players that if they managed to win the district championship, he would try out for a major league baseball team.  When his team went on to win the championship, Morris honored his side of the bargain by trying out for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.  Even though no one expected Morris to make it onto the team, he was given a chance because it was felt that it would be good publicity.  The 35 year-old Morris shocked everyone by throwing a 98 mph fastball.  The team started Morris out in the minors and then, when the roster expanded in September, called him up to the majors.  At an age when many other players were calling it quits, Morris made his major league debut at the Ballpark in Arlington and struck out Royce Clayton.

Though I’m sure it probably takes a lot of liberties with Morris’s story, I really like The Rookie.  It’s a really sweet movie that was filmed on location in Texas.  It’s one of my favorite baseball movies because it captures everything that I love about the game.  It’s about more than just who wins or who struck who out.  It’s about teamwork and healthy competition and fairplay.  (Or, at least, that’s what baseball should be about.  That’s one reason why the Astros cheating scandal hurts so much.  For me, it’s not just that the first Texas team to win the World Series did so dishonestly.  It’s that what they did goes against the spirit of baseball.)  I liked that the movie is as much about Jim coaching his high school team as it was about him eventually getting to play a few games in the majors.  The whole reason that Jim even tried out for the Devil Rays was to keep a promise to his high school team and, in a perfect world, that’s what baseball would be all about.

The Rookie is not just a baseball movie.  It’s also a movie about never giving up on your dreams.  Jim Morris may be happy coaching high school baseball but he’s never stopped thinking about how he once dreamed of playing in the major leagues.  Even he’s surprised when he discovers that he’s still a good pitcher.  (My favorite scene is him throwing a baseball at one of those radars that tells how fast you’re driving.  He only thinks he’s throwing a 78 mph fastball and it’s only after he drives off that the full sign lights up and reveals that he was throwing 98 mph.)  When Jim makes his major league debut, it’s real stand up and cheer moment.

Here’s hoping that we’ll all be back at the ballpark soon!

A Quiet Memorial Day


(1946, photograph by the American Red Cross)

This morning, I saw a headline that read: “Amid Pandemic fears, America observes a quiet Memorial Day.”

How to observe Memorial Day has always been controversial.  Memorial Day is the day when we pay tribute to the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice.  To wish someone a “Happy Memorial Day” shows a lack of understanding of what the day is about.  Memorial Day is not a day for celebration.  Memorial Day is a day for reflection and gratitude and that is especially true this year.  Today is a day to honor sacrifice and those who lay down their lives to make both this country and this world a better place.

Postcard, 1917