LINKS TO WATCH THE EPISODE IN 3 PARTS:
American screenwriter and TV producer Rod Serling was a household name in the 1960’s, due to the massive popularity of his show “THE TWILIGHT ZONE”. This was not only due to the strength and quality of his work, but also due to the fact that he introduced each segment on-screen in his now-signature enigmatic showman’s demeanor. In 1969, Serling created a second series titled NIGHT GALLERY that would serve as another outlet for his exploration of the weird, the strange, and the macabre.
It was also around this time that Side Sheinberg, Universal’s VP of Television, signed the young, twenty-three year-old director Steven Spielberg to a television contract after being impressed by his short film, AMBLIN’ (1968). To his credit, he was wise enough to see both Spielberg and Serling’s new series as complementary to each other, and thus Spielberg found himself with his first paid directing assignment: one of the three segments that would make up a televised anthology movie/pilot.
Spielberg’s segment is entitled “EYES”, and tells the story of a rich, elderly, and vainglorious blind woman who contracts her (very reluctant) doctor to perform an eye transplant surgery that will restore her vision, albeit for only twelve hours. The eye comes from some sad sack who is desperate to pay off his own debts, unaware that he’s losing his eyesight forever in exchange for a paltry sum that will be gone just as soon as he’s paid. The surgery goes off seemingly without a hitch, only for the woman’s new eyes to fail her shortly after exposing them to light. Subsequently, she is plunged into a dark nightmare of a night that will take away her very sanity.
As Spielberg’s first big directing job, “EYES” naturally marks the first occasion that Spielberg works with big Hollywood talent. And during that time, it didn’t get much bigger for him than working with Oscar-winning screen legend Joan Crawford, star of such seminal Hollywood classics as MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962). In one of her last high-profile performances, Crawford looms large on NIGHT GALLERY’s small screen as the blind Mrs. Menlo, who lives on the top floor of her large Park Avenue apartment complex like a Queen lording over her castle. Being as such that she is the sole tenant in the entire building, however, she has no subjects to rule over besides her trusted doctor. Crawford’s performance is “old-school Hollywood” big, much like Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950).
By this point in time, the old guard of Hollywood’s Golden Age starlets were just that: old. A lifetime of excess and indulgence had made them grand old dames, stubborn in their ways and their collaborator choices. Upon learning that the young hotshot Spielberg would be directing her on his first time at bat, Crawford reportedly called up Sid Sheinberg to demand he be replaced by someone more experienced. It could’ve ended Spielberg’s career before it even begun. Fortunately for him (and us), Sheinberg talked Crawford down from the ledge and backed his man. Despite this early hiccup, Crawford and Spielberg got along famously, even so far as keeping in touch for the remainder of her lifetime.
Television isn’t the most director-friendly medium, in that directors are subject to an aesthetic and tone predetermined by the producer or show runner. Since Spielberg was helping to launch a new show, he enjoyed much more freedom in shooting his segment. While he most likely didn’t have a hand in creating NIGHT GALLERY’s recurring moments (the spooky opening titles or Serling’s on-screen segment introduction), Spielberg gives his segment a bold, colorful, and bright look that sets it apart from the other stories. Working with cinematographers Robert Batcheller and William Margulies, Spielberg opts for a classical approach to match the elegant production design by Howard E. Johnson. A neutral color palette accentuates bold punches of color, and high-key lighting adds a lurid quality to the 35mm film image. Camera-work is fairly reserved, employing both dolly shots and locked-off static shots. Spielberg covers most of the action in well-composed, evocative wide shots, which gives a greater heft to his strategic close-ups.
Despite the sober “establishment” approach, Spielberg was able to incorporate elements from the transgressive, burgeoning French New Wave movement into his coverage. He uses a well-placed series of jump cuts to add intensity to an already-intense outburst by Crawford, and creates an expressionistic climax by swapping out a traditional set for an inspired blend of sound design and well-placed pools of light that cut through a harsh blackness. In doing so, Spielberg shows a remarkable aptitude for turning the ordinary into anything but.
The eye-swapping conceits of the story are highly reminiscent of the same conceits that would shape the plot of Spielberg’s sci-fi masterpiece MINORITY REPORT over thirty years later. The imagery of gauze bandages wrapped around the eyes is consistent between both works, and the imagery of eyes in a larger sense recurs throughout Spielberg’s filmography, like the iconic T-Rex pupil dilation shot in JURASSIC PARK (1993).
For his first real directing gig, Spielberg’s contribution to NIGHT GALLERY is a curious rarity in the pop cultural wasteland. The series is highly-regarded amongst cult fans, but even then, it’s difficult to find the TV movie that launched prior to Season 1. To view it, I had to venture into the dark corners of the internet to salvage an old VHS rip with Spanish subtitles. Hardly the sort of preservation and reverence you expect would be given to the first professional work of the biggest director in mainstream American cinema, but these are the times we live in.
EYES is a humble beginning for Spielberg, a project overshadowed by Serling’s then-celebrity and influence. His natural talent is immediately apparent; one could be forgiven for thinking that he had already been a working television director for several years. Due to the quality of his segment, Spielberg would be called to work on several other shows (including another episode of NIGHT GALLERY), and his status as a “director to watch” was affirmed.
ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY: “EYES” is currently available on the standard-definition Season 1 DVD, but if you can handle Spanish subtitles, the whole thing is available via the embed at the top of the page.
Producer: William Sackheim
Writer: Rod Serling
Director of Photography: Robert Batcheller, William Margulies
Production Designer: Howard E. Johnson
Editor: Edward Abroms
Composer: Billy Goldenberg