Night Gallery is a great example of psychotronic film. But it’s format is all over the place. Unlike Kolchak: The Night Stalker, you can’t really talk about it as a whole. As a result, it is particularly good for this format where we add articles to the page. The approach is scattershot, which is perfect for such a scattershot show. But I doubt we will ever do justice to this wonderfully varied, and generally underrated, series.
At the end of the ninth episode of the second season of Night Gallery was a fun little short called “Hell’s Bells.” It stars John Astin, the original Gomez Addams. And it is written and directed by Theodore J Flicker — best known as the co-creator of Barney Miller. He got his start co-writing The Troublemaker with Buck Henry. So it shouldn’t be surprising that this is one of Night Gallery’s funny stories.
Hell’s Bells starts with drugged-out hippy Randy Miller (Astin) driving down the road before crashing and dying. For a brief period we see his body flying past demonic faces shouting out what are apparently his sins, like idolatry. But then he falls into the waiting room of the afterlife. The room looks rather like the living room of a 1970’s suburban home. A woman pops in briefly to explain what’s going on and to admonish Randy for being a slob.
As he waits, Randy wonders just how bad hell can be. Then he has Gustave Doré’s images of Dante’s Inferno flash through his mind. After that, a sign begins flashing, alerting him, “NEXT.” A “FIRE DOOR” opens and so he walks into yet another room that looks like it is in a suburban house.
To his delight, he finds that it is filled with vinyl music records. But he can’t can’t separate any of them, so he plays the record that is on the turntable. It is a fiercely inoffensive Lawrence Welk like song (so inoffensive, it doesn’t even have any accordion). Suddenly, he finds that an old man (Hank Worden) is in the room with him. He looks like the father in American Gothic. The man doesn’t really converse so much as drone on.
By the time Randy figures out what’s going on with the old man, a couple of people dressed in matching Hawaii tourist clothes appear. They are all set up to show the “eight thousand five hundred slides” they took on their trip down to Tijuana, Mexico. Totally freaked out, Randy demands to see the Devil (played by director Flicker himself). The Devil explains that this is hell for Randy. He also notes the irony that the exact same room is in heaven too, because it is wonderful for some people.
And so the story ends with Randy curled up in a fetal position, pounding the floor.
“Hell’s Bells Analysis
The story is based on a short story by Harry Turner. But it hardly needs to be. It is simply the 1970s version of The Twilight Zone episode “A Nice Place to Visit.” In that case, a thief (Larry Blyden) goes to what he thinks is heaven. Pip, a character played by Sebastian Cabot, caters to his every wish. But after a while, the thief finds that he hates his new life. He always wins; there is never any challenge; he’s bored out of his mind. He finally tells Pip that he wants to go to hell — that he doesn’t belong in heaven. This leads to the payoff where Pip turns stern for the first time and says, “Heaven? Whatever gave you the idea you were in Heaven, Mr. Valentine?” Then he laughs delightedly at the thief’s desperation.
Just the same, “Hell’s Bells” is distinct. For one thing, it’s played for comedy. John Astin as a hippy alone makes it worth watching. But also, there’s no pretense of the ending being surprising. Plus, it’s only eight minutes long, so we get to enjoy poor Randy’s slow realization of his predicament with the briskness it deserves. Also, after seeing the Inferno images, it’s hard to feel too bad for him.
There’s one element that was pretty much a constant of Night Gallery: the set design. That late 60s, early 70s look is so charming when seen on the screen. That may say something of my age, since I grew up with that look. So it is, like The Twilight Zone episode title reminds us, nice to visit, but not something we’d like to live in.
Also on That Episode
This episode of Night Gallery featured three other stories. The first is,”House — With Ghost” starring Bob Crane, a husband who wants to kill off his wife (Jo Anne Worley) so he can run off with his mistress. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, unfortunately. I think it needed about half its length more to make it all fit together. As it is, the only reasonable reading of it is that the ghost is a figment of Bob Crane’s imagination. But real or not, the ghost is played by Bernard Fox, who I always enjoy seeing.
“A Midnight Visit to the Neighborhood Blood Bank” is a one minute vampire joke with the great character actor Victor Buono. Interestingly, the “victim” was played by Journey Laird. I know nothing of her, but Jack Laird wrote the episode and was the producer of the series. If it was his wife, she was very young. It could be his daughter. But it is the only film she is listed as acting in and she isn’t listed in IBDb. I like to imagine that the actor scheduled for the part dropped out at the last minute and Laird’s wife/daughter happened to be on the set. But who knows?
The third segment is “Dr Stringfellow’s Rejuvenator.” It stars Forrest Tucker as a snake oil salesman in the old west. It is the only one of the segments that plays it serious. It raises some serious and interesting questions about the way we deal with the harsh realities of life. Of particular note is the superb supporting cast: Murray Hamilton, Lou Frizzell, and Lou Frizzell.
The Politics of “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar”
I’m always fascinated to go back and experience works of art that I know from my youth. And that is especially true when it is a work that I didn’t really understand as a child, but which nonetheless stayed with me. In these cases, I’ve been able to evolve my thinking without actually having the experience again. I have been able to do that for a long time with an old Night Gallery episode, “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar.”
The story is a fairly simple one. William Windom plays Randy Lane — the sales director for a firm that sells plastics. You might say that Randy is at the low point of his life and has been for about 18 years — when his wife died. The episode starts with him coming back from a three hour liquid lunch. It is his 25th anniversary on the job — a fact that he and his loyal and in love secretary, Lynn (Diane Baker), alone know. But taking long gin-soaked lunches are more the norm for him. A younger salesman (Bert Convy) is doing everything he can to destroy Randy, and it’s working. Randy’s boss (John Randolph) is about at the end of his rope with the old sales director.
The Good Ol’ Days
Randy begins to hallucinate that it is again 1945 and he is back from the war and just starting his life. And instead of Tim Riley’s Bar being demolished, it is filled with all his old friends and family members. And after he is almost arrested for breaking into the now boarded up bar, Randy gives the speech that summarizes the theme of the episode:
Later we find out about the night that Randy’s wife die:
It does sum up the world. It seems that a long time ago, we decided to trade in our souls for economic efficiency. We also apparently traded any notion of a social ecosystem for a world in which youth is all that matters. There is a big part of “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” that reminds me of D W Griffith’s What Shall We Do with Our Old? Because Randy Lane may be falling apart now, but he has done a good job for the company for 25 years. And in the end, one particularly bad patch completely offsets that.
The Happy Ending
Those who have seen the episode, know that it actually has a happy ending. Lynn blasts the boss for firing him and they set up a party for his 25 years of service and he is given his job back. As far as I can tell, this is meant to be real. It’s a very positive message: that simple human kindness can heal our wounds. But even if that’s the case, I don’t see much of that in the business world. In fact, I see rather the opposite where managers feel good about themselves for being able to make the “tough” decisions. (These “tough” decisions always involve others getting screwed, never themselves.)
But when I was a kid, I thought the ending was meant to indicate Randy’s final step into madness. And I think that makes more sense. But the ending that really would have worked would be simpler. Lynn (who had been fired) is leaving the office building, her arms filled with all her stuff. She watches as Randy leaves Tim Riley’s Bar for the last time. He makes his way across the street — randomly, not knowing where he’s going. She starts to cry. The wrecking ball slams into Tim Riley’s Bar. And we watch as Randy walks down the sidewalk away from the camera.
“Tim Riley’s Bar” Resonates More Than Ever
“They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” was made in 1971. That was a time when people could still have hope. Today, I think the episode would end more or less the way that I imagine it. But it isn’t a question of things always getting worse. In 1955, Cesare Zavattini wrote Umberto D, which ends much the same way as I’m suggesting here. But it does disturb me that the United States can be more wealthy than ever, and yet be creating ever more Randy Lanes. As Randy himself said, “That’s not the dream!