Making a “Grave” Mistake

“I dare you.”

Even after we become adults, the old school-yard taunt never quite loses its power.

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Oh, we find more sophisticated ways of expressing it, if only to reassure ourselves that we’ve grown up. We’re not kids anymore. But the sting of being thought a coward is still so abhorrent that shaking off a dare isn’t easy at any age.

Just ask Conny Miller. I wouldn’t expect a quick answer, though, now that he’s buried in the old cemetery near Pinto Sykes. Dead … because of a dare.

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If you’ve seen The Twilight Zone episode “The Grave”, you know why Conny is there. If you haven’t seen it, or it’s been a while, why not click this link to watch it on Hulu, then come back? Happy to wait.

Waiting, after all, is exactly what the people depicted in “The Grave” did, scratching out a simple existence in a small Old West town. In writer/director Montgomery Pittman’s entertaining reworking of a classic ghost story, they endure the behavior of the outlaw Pinto for as long as they can stand it.

Pinto, it seems, rides into his hometown to raise hell whenever he feels like it, leaving destruction in his wake, then disappearing. Fed up, they hire Conny, a bounty hunter, to hunt Pinto down and bring him to justice.

8

But when Conny doesn’t bring them the quick results they want, they decide to ambush Pinto themselves the next time he returns to town. That’s where the episode begins. Pinto rides in and finds himself surrounded by men so scared and nervous they almost botch the job.

“We’ll have to admit the whole town ain’t much of a marksman,” says Johnny Rob (played by three-time TZ vet James Best). “Out of eight shots fired, only one of them hit him.”

5 (2)

But one is all it takes, and now that Pinto is gone, who arrives? Conny, who insists he’s been tracking Pinto diligently, but always just missing him. It doesn’t take long, though, before he hears the whispers that have been sweeping the town: that the real reason Conny never caught Pinto … is that he was afraid.

And so the trap is set.

No, I don’t mean that the men gathered in the town saloon knew what was in store for Conny, or that they were trying to goad him into a fatal encounter with his old nemesis. But I do think they were getting back at him, in a passive-aggressive way, for failing to do the job, and for forcing them to do it for him. That’s why they were broadly hinting (but never outright saying) that he lacked the guts.

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This, after all, is what happened to them. They didn’t spontaneously decide one day to shoot Pinto. A new circuit judge named Ed Thackeray basically did to them what they’re doing to Conny: questioned their manhood. According to Mothershed:

6 (2)This Thackeray gets mad at us. Tells us to grow up and act like men, or else leave town and move to where men can protect us. He gets us kind of fired up. So we hold a meeting, and we all agree to work as one, so that the next time Pinto rode in, we all join in and we take him.

The casting in any TV show is key to making it all work, and TZ excelled in this department. Had they hired, say, someone who looked like Don Knotts to play Conny, you might conclude that he WAS cowardly. But they hired Lee Marvin, a classic tough guy. We never see Pinto, but it’s hard to imagine he could look or sound more imposing than Lee Marvin.

7

So it seems very unlikely that he was, in fact, afraid of Pinto. Yet he was as afraid as any man — and perhaps more so, considering his line of work — of losing his reputation. So when he hears that the mortally wounded Pinto talked about him before he died, his ears perk up:

Conny: “What did he say about me?”

Mothershed: “He got real riled when he mentioned you. He said the slower he ran away, the slower you chased him. He said he waited for you in Albuquerque. Even sent word where he was. You never showed up. He said you ought to be able to catch him now, but that if you ever come anyways close to his grave … he’ll reach up and grab you!”

Talk about “the walking dead.”

4

Although Conny immediately (and calmly) accuses Pinto of lying “even on his deathbed”, it’s plain that the departed bandit has gotten under his skin. He knows he’s been challenged. And he can’t afford to let questions about his bravery remain unanswered.

Yet still he needs a push. Which he immediately gets in the form of a wager. So now, in addition to honor, there’s money on the table. A substantial amount, too: Conny stands to win $60 in gold (a fortune in those days) … if he’ll go up alone to Pinto’s grave at midnight and plant a knife in the ground.

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Simple, right? Maybe outside of the fifth dimension, sure.

So Conny heads up to the graveyard … though not in much of a hurry. The staging here is perfect, with moody black-and-white photography tracking his reluctant progress, and nothing but the sounds of the wind and the mocking laughter of Pinto’s sister Ione, who taunts him near the cemetery gate, echoing in Conny’s ears.

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Pittman provides a clever twist to the classic ghost story by adding the detail about the direction of the wind. In the original ghost story, the protagonist pins his own coat and basically scares himself to death. Nothing supernatural has occurred — it was all in his mind. Steinhert (played by Lee Van Cleef years before his villainous turn in “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly”) voices that eminently logical theory, only to have Ione use her billowing cloak to suggest that Pinto made good on his vow after all … which pushes us firmly into Twilight Zone territory.

In a number of previous blog posts, I’ve shown how much of TZ’s “secret” boils down to storytelling par excellence. Even the “message” episodes that Rod Serling specialized in work, so to speak, because they tell a good story. They entertain us. “The Grave” does this in spades (no pun intended). The acting, the direction, the photography, the scoring — and most of all, the writing — are first-class all the way.

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In 1961, there were many western programs on the air. Leave it to The Twilight Zone to — with apologies to Pinto — breathe new life into an overused genre, and show us that sometimes nothing satisfies as much as a good ghost story.

***

Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on TwitterFacebook 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!

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About Paul

Hard-working, hard-playing fan of all pop culture, especially the Twilight Zone. Which led to a Twitter page. And then to a blog. And then to ... stay tuned. Yes, that's a picture of Rod Serling, not me. You can find the real me under the "Your Host" tab on my blog, along with biographical details that, while 100 percent accurate, sound kind of boastful and braggy. Sorry.

Posted on 12/08/2013, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. “I know’d it! I know’d it!” That this post would be killer (also no pun intended). One of my favourite episodes, written by you? This couldn’t have failed to impress. Great job!

    I couldn’t agree with you more. “The Grave” is a good old-fashioned ghost story and a wonderful entry in the TZ canon. You’re right, what a clever twist on not only the standard ghost story, but on the über-prevalent western genre of the day. It’s one of the things that makes TZ so great — how they were always taking something simple and well known and updating it with a nice little twist. I’m sure that’s why the stories are still so relevant and relatable even 50 years later.

    A fitting tribute to a true classic. Your post has reminded me of why “The Grave” made my top 10 list — it’s just a damn good story. :)

    • Thanks! :) I’ve been wanting to tackle “The Grave” for a while (indeed, I had hoped to publish this for its anniversary in October), so it feels great to finally publish it. After delving recently into a number of the more serious TZs, I enjoyed covering one that’s message-free, yet one that bears the same stamp of TZ quality, from first frame to last.

      And yes, TZ was so good at providing that “little twist” you spoke of. Don’t churn out the same product the other guy’s making — turn it into something special! Not that that’s easy, of course. It takes enormous talent. Fortunately, TZ had that in spades. Yes, pun intended. ;) Glad you liked the post so much!

  2. Westerns are okay, in general, don’t really watch them, but, okay, westerns WITH the supernatural, now those get my attention (like Pale Rider…or…The Twilight Zone entries)! Good post!

    • Thanks, Frank! I’m fairly neutral when it comes to westerns. I don’t go out of my way to watch them, but I have no problem watching and enjoying the good ones. And let’s face it, “The Grave” is one of the good ones!

  3. It’s funny how our brains want to find meaning in stories. Twilight Zones always made me think about my own little world a little differently.
    Great post!

    • Thanks, Susie! You’re right, they definitely give us a fresh perspective on our world. Yet another reason they endure!

  4. The Grave is really great. One of the 20 best Zones ever. Paul, I really enjoyed reading your TZ blog posts. They are great and interesting.

  5. Excellent episode. One of my favorites

  6. Terry L. Kiser

    I noticed that you completely overlooked the pivotal character in the storyline of this episode, along with the actress who portrayed her.

    In regards to that omission the review of The Grave from The Twilight Zone Museum website I’m including below with this comment more than adequately says it all.

    The Grave

    ORIGINALLY BROADCAST AS EPISODE 072
    STARRING CAST: Lee Marvin, James Best, Strother Martin, Elen Willard, Lee Van Cleef
    WRITER: Montgomery Pittman
    DIRECTOR: Montgomery Pittman
    SUMMARY: An outlaw named Pinto Sykes gets gunned down before a man named Conny Miller, whom he owes a large sum, catches up with him. When Conny visits Pinto’s grave, he gets a most unexpected surprise.
    REVIEW: II

    Montgomery Pittman’s career came to a tragic end when he was only 43 years old. Pittman’s involvement with “The Twilight Zone” should have, by rights, been far more than it was. He insisted upon directing his three scripts – “The Grave”, “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank”, and “Two”, all of which remain popular today. He also directed Serling’s “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” and OCee Ritch’s “Dead Man’s Shoes”. His work on all was representation of an enormous – and unique – talent.

    “The Grave” is a marvelous tale of the old west, which Twilight Zone tackled on more than one occasion and usually didn’t fare as well as this. Like Earl Hamner, Pittman had an ear for how people of a certain place and time talked and acted. A better cast could not have been secured – Lee Marvin as Conny Miller, James Best as the village idiot Johnny Rob, Strother Martin as Mothershed, and Elen Willard as Ione Sykes, sister of the deceased. Her performance is particularly striking. During her mere five minutes of screen time, she displays a multifaceted personality. The level-headed, the inebriated, and ultimately, the most intelligent of the bunch as she delivers the story’s shocking punch-line. Her career in TV was also short, with only a few roles to her name (“Perry Mason” and Twilight Zone among them) Just three months later, Best would appear in Twilight Zone again in Pittman’s “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank” in the title role, opposite the idiot brother of his beloved. “”The Dukes of Hazzard” set me free financially,” Best recalls, “but I’d like to go to my grave being remembered for something other than the village idiot and Rosco P. Coltrane!”

    • Well, Terry, I agree that Elen Willard did an excellent job in this episode, so I don’t mind your pointing that out at all. But I have to admit your comment rankles me a bit.

      For one thing, I include a pic of Willard just below the paragraph where I note “the mocking laughter of Pinto’s sister Ione, who taunts him near the cemetery gate, echoing in Conny’s ears”. Now, one can argue that she deserves more attention, and that’s fine. But she clearly wasn’t “completely overlooked”.

      In addition, I never claimed that this or any other post I’ve done is meant to be an exhaustive treatment that should stand as the last word on an episode. It’s just me, a TZ fan, writing about what strikes my fancy at a given moment. In this case, I wanted to write about the mood of “The Grave”. Its look. Its story. So if Willard didn’t get her due, well, I can’t say I’m surprised. Who wouldn’t get semi-lost amid such a stellar cast, especially in an article that wasn’t even meant to take a thorough look at the acting per se? I’m sure other fans could come along and tell me I didn’t cover THIS aspect or THAT aspect — and they’d be right.

      I also hope that, despite your dry and disapproving tone, you found something in this post that you enjoyed. Then again, you didn’t offer any praise at all, so perhaps you didn’t. Either way, I’m glad you stopped by, and I hope you return some time soon — and maybe even find something you like.

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