A War Without Words
Think, for a moment, about your favorite episode of The Twilight Zone. Perhaps it’s “The Howling Man,” which offers a profound look at the art of temptation. It might be “Eye of the Beholder,” with its searing meditations on beauty and forced conformity. Or it could be the hair-raising descent into schizophrenic madness that marks “The Dummy.”
Whatever your favorite, it almost surely has one key ingredient: ear-catching dialogue. Rod Serling and the other writers who spun their unforgettable tales all specialized in the art of not only telling a good story, but of writing memorable words for their characters to speak.
Ask yourself: What’s one of the most pleasurable facets of watching George Clayton Johnson’s “A Game of Pool”? Listening to Jonathan Winters and Jack Klugman volley back and forth, trading great line after great line. It’s a clinic in well-honed dialogue that advances the story — and is a pleasure to hear.
So it’s all the more remarkable that one of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone features almost no spoken lines whatsoever: Richard Matheson’s “The Invaders,” which first aired on Jan. 27, 1961.
The story couldn’t be more straightforward: a woman living alone in a farmhouse has some unexpected visitors who are out of this world — literally. Two tiny “aliens” land a spaceship on her roof and immediately begin to stalk her with what appears to be hostile intent.
All three engage in a see-saw battle that ultimately (spoiler alert!) ends with the woman victorious. Only then do we see that the “aliens” were two human astronauts from Earth — and the woman smashing their ship into pieces is a giant alien.
We’ve been fooled throughout by their bulky space suits, her human appearance … and the fact that she never utters a word. We hear her cry in pain and yell in fear, but we never hear her say anything.
That’s right, not one line. Good luck getting a good actress for that role, right? Maybe on an ordinary series, sure. But TZ managed to land the services of Agnes Moorehead, post-Citizen Kane and pre-Bewitched. And she did a fantastic job.
But how did she wind up in the part? Director Douglas Heyes explains:
The reason we cast Aggie for that part in ‘The Invaders’ was because she had done a very famous radio show called ‘Sorry, Wrong Number’, in which she talks constantly. A tour de force of one woman talking — one voice, nobody else. When this part on ‘The Invaders’ came up, and the woman was not going to talk at all … I said, ‘This will be the opposite side of the coin. Let’s get Aggie Moorehead’.
It turned out that she had been a student of the mime Marcel Marceau. She chose to play the part like an animal under attack. Her performance built beautifully and got more and more animalistic as she was being attacked. She made sounds when angry and whimpered when hurt, but she never uttered a word.
Moorehead’s finely balanced performance is crucial to the episode’s success. Had she appeared too human, it wouldn’t hold up on a second viewing; had she appeared too NON-human, it would have given away the ending. Thanks to her talent, the audience is fooled, but not by cheating.
In his promotional spot for “The Invaders”, Serling said: “This one we recommend to science-fiction buffs, fantasy lovers, or to anyone who wants to grip the edge of his seat and take a 24-minute trip into the realm of terror.”
Thanks to Matheson, Moorehead and Serling, it’s a trip no Twilight Zone fan will ever forget.
Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. WordPress followers, just hit “follow” at the top of the page.
Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!