Making a “Grave” Mistake
“I dare you.”
Even after we become adults, the old school-yard taunt never quite loses its power.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!