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!
Posted on 01/29/2013, in Twilight Zone and tagged Agnes Moorehead, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, The Invaders, Twilight Zone. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.
Great post! Agnes Moorehead was wonderful in this episode. Her expressions and gestures are just perfect. Exaggerated but not too much. This was one of my favourite episodes when I was younger. Such a beautiful twist at the end. The story itself is really very clever. A little creepy, a little scary, and a little surprise. Love it and this post!
And I was just thinking how Agnes could have played bandaged Janet Tyler in “Eye of the Beholder”. She’d have nailed it!
Thanks! I rewatched this episode recently and thought a short post paying tribute to Moorehead’s performance seemed appropriate.
A lot of actors and actresses think that a great performance lies solely in delivering great lines. But think how much more talent it takes to convey emotion and tell a story WITHOUT words.
And Moorehead in “Eye of the Beholder”? Of course! It hadn’t even occurred to me, but the minute I read that I thought how ideal she’d have been in the role. File it under “W” for “what if” … :)
Great post, Paul. Don’t know if I ever noticed that…but, yeah, the perfect amount of “animal” and “human” to throw you off! I also love that early far-off shot at the beginning of the episode, if I recall correctly, the one that looks like somewhere off in the Ozarks or Walton Mountain or something. Trickeeeeee…. ;-]
Thanks, Frank! Yes, that opening shot was cleverly designed to look vaguely earth-bound while not QUITE ruling out the possibility that we were on the far side of the galaxy. Tricky, indeed!
Evidently Heyes did not let Moorehead in on the reason for her casting when she was first shown the script. As Matheson later recounted in the collected volume of his TWILIGHT ZONE scripts, “I remember Doug…telling me that Agnes Moorehead wondered where her part was, because there was no dialogue.”
An interesting piece of trivia: Matheson originally pitched an idea then called “Devil Doll,” and when that was rejected, he gave it a science-fiction spin and reworked it as “The Invaders.” Several years later, he revived the “Devil Doll” idea and turned it into his famous PLAYBOY short story “Prey,” which in turn became the famous Zuni doll episode of TRILOGY OF TERROR, with Karen Black. So, if his original pitch had been accepted, we would not have had “The Invaders” as we know it!
For further information on Matheson’s seminal contribution to THE TWILIGHT ZONE, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4).
Yes, I’ve heard she said that. But I’m sure that reaction preceded any serious reading of the script. And it may well be that she accepted the part after Heyes let her in on his rationale. Whatever the reason, I’m glad it worked out. Not every actress could have carried it as well as she did!
Thanks for stopping by and leaving a link to your book. Sounds fascinating. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that I collect just about everything TZ-related that I can find, so I expect to add it to my library before long!
My pleasure. The book contains one section of almost 30 pages that is devoted solely to the original TWILIGHT ZONE, with other references scattered throughout. I also cover his involvement in TWILIGHT ZONE–THE MOVIE, the 1980s revival, and the TV-movie TWILIGHT ZONE: ROD SERLING’S LOST CLASSICS. I hope you will find some information there that is of interest to you.
I’m sure I will, Matthew. I might even send you my copy for an autograph at some point! Sounds like a terrific reference.
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