Every so often someone will raise the question on Twilight Zone fan sites and Facebook: “What are the Top 5 Performances by an Actor in a Twilight Zone Episode?” Fans write in with the usual handful of what by now have become predictable responses. Burgess Meredith in “Time Enough At Last”, Art Carney in “Night of the Meek”, Jack Klugman in his various appearances, Donald Pleasance in “Changing of the Guard.” Rarely, if ever however, have I seen mention of what I consider one of the very best lead actor performances in a TZ episode: Robert Cummings in “King Nine Will Not Return.” For one thing, he wins points for difficulty of task and for holding the screen all by himself for 90% of the running time. But more importantly, what impresses me so much every time I watch it, is the extremely charismatic essence he brings to the role, and the naturalness, lending believability even though he’s operating on a high performance level. And then there are those quiet introspective moments. He’s brilliant at them. His eyes, his voice, you can even watch his fingers and see these little movements that inform the character’s thoughts. He brings a tremendously lithe and chaotic physicality to the performance, giving in alternately to subdued sorrow or desperate contemplation as he plays detective at figuring out what the Hell is going on.
One very effective technique used in the production was to prerecord his many voiceover narrations, and then play them back on the set as they filmed him. It allowed for some very organic reactions from Cummings as he hears the inner thoughts, giving him some interesting choices to make as an actor. Now, I work in the television business, and even today in these types of situations, more often then not, a script supervisor will read the narration off screen for the actor to hear. The performance of that narration is…less than stellar. I don’t know why the technique that this episode used isn’t done more often. The reason is most likely that producers feel it would slow the shooting down due to the need to set up a playback speaker system and then taking the time to re-cue each particular narration piece, especially if there are as many as this episode had. But boy oh boy, you can tell that it paid off, just by looking at his face and seeing the thoughts in his mind. I also love how Cummings reacts to the hot desert air—they indeed shot in the desert of Arizona, substituting for the Sahara Desert where the story takes place. Cummings plays Captain James Embry who awakens in the wreckage of his downed B-25 Bomber, but he can’t find the other five members of his crew.
As he meditates on where they could possibly be, going over the possibilities, I like how they hold his face in close-up as we listen to his thoughts and he keeps his mouth open for the entire duration of the shot sometimes. It’s like a constant “Wow” that he wears, as he tries to swallow what has happened and take in any information he can see or remember. Cummings makes some very distinct acting choices throughout the episode but they never come off as too showy or odd. He’s very easy to watch. Heck, the writing even calls for him to make some crazy performance choices like laughing almost maniacally out loud at his predicament, and in a few moments submitting and crying desperately. Not many actors could have pulled it off. I’m not even sure the aforementioned actors would have been as effective but perhaps it’s not a fair comparison in this case, as the role calls for a more leading man sort of actor, a captain, a leader of men. The show was lucky to have cast someone who fit that image but who also had the acting chops to perform the emotional gamut the character goes through.
Again, just watch his face at the two and a half minute mark as he leans against the propeller trying to remember. “Did I order them to bail out?” as his hand massages his face almost randomly, searching to remember. And it’s great how throughout the shooting of scenes like this one, he will abruptly dart glances in a direction seemingly without provocation, looking and hoping to see a clue anywhere in the sandy landscape. Or his head swivels unpredictably, shaking cobwebs out, but also maybe in the hopes of catching a glimpse of something.
Embry gets inside the plane and hunts around. The parachutes are still there so they didn’t bail. He tries the radio but it’s broken, and dismisses the idea that they all walked off without taking him. His mind goes into a sort of purely analytical phase as he reasons with military discipline, “Think about it some. Don’t go off half-cocked. There are reasons, there are explanations….everything looks tilt, but there’s logic behind it.” Cummings contorts his mouth interestingly as he ponders the puzzle. He then arrives at what becomes his primary fixation and it’s a noble one—yes, he has to figure things out, but also he fixes on “I’m responsible for this crew.” Without even knowing where they are, his goal is to “keep them alive” to “get them out of this.” If ever there was a good way for the screenwriters to garner sympathy for this character, it was in bestowing him with this sense of duty.
He calls out after his co-pilot Blake after finding a few items inside the plane, but to no avail. Outside the plane he finds a canteen belonging to the Upper Tailgunner William F. Kline. This precipitates his first jag of laughing as he jokingly chides him, wherever he is. “You incredibly stupid jerk you! You dropped your canteen! You stupid Bronx cowboy you! You’re in the desert now you idiot, you’re gonna need water!” punctuated by one of his sudden quick turns, as if to perhaps catch an apparition. A wonderfully subtle moment then comes when he continues with the teasing tactic, “I still have to nursemaid you guys, huh? Some crew I got here, run around the…” and suddenly he drops his head in that mid-sentence, giving up on the teasing with an almost alarming suddenness. You start to worry about him now.
He drops to his knees saying sadly “It’s not funny boys” and then he takes a swig from the canteen. And it is here at the 9:28 mark that one of the queerest, most unnerving shots I’ve ever seen in an episode occurs. He looks up and is so shocked to see Co-Pilot Blake sitting in the cockpit, that he spills precious water from his mouth. But it’s something about the shot technically that feels so weird, and as many times as I’ve replayed it, it’s still hard to put my finger on it. It’s probably a combination of elements, one being the somewhat odd physicality that the actor Richard Lupino is giving to the action of laughing. His head is cocked oddly and is his laughing derisive or is like a pal, laughing along with Embry’s jibes? The other factor is that it looks sometimes when I play it back, like maybe the speed is a little jacked up? Just slightly, to give it an unrealness? Embry yells out explosively, “Blake!” and he stumbles toward him, but as he approaches, Blake vanishes. A truly Twilight Zoney sequence.
He tries the radio again…nothing. Then an interesting thing in the screenplay occurs that you don’t often see. It’s almost like a practical joke; Embry starts another interior monologue about the hallucinations, thinking about an explanation. And as he lists the possible scenarios, one of them is, “All this is just what I’m making up in my mind…” More on that in a bit.
Hearing a clinking noise he runs over a dune to see what it is. There, posted into the sand, Kline’s helmet swaying in the wind, ticking against two wooden sticks forming a makeshift tombstone crucifix. Written on it: T/SGT. Wm. F. Kline – Died of injuries received in crash 5 Apr, 1943. Rest in peace buddy- The Crew.” Embry is deeply moved: “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Rest in peace buddy” and as he looks up at the sky, “Rest in peace, kid.” That date, April 5, 1943 was in fact the date that the actual B-24 Liberator four engine bomber “Lady Be Good” had disappeared during the war. The plane was discovered in March 1959, and when Serling read about it, he concocted this episode.
And then a sound swells overhead. As Embry looks up he spots…jets! We get the first hint of a split in his life’s time frames: at the same time he is puzzled at seeing the aircraft because the models don’t exist yet in 1943, he is also very well aware of what they are, including their specific models, F-106s. F-105s, and B-58s. How can this be?
Semi-deranged now he calls out to his crew again, trying to summon them to get out of here. His hand shakes tremulously as he barks, “Now, we’re not going to be able to walk out….We’re going to have to fly. Come on boys! Come on!” Oh boy, he really is losing it, because even a child could tell that the plane is no shape to go anywhere. It’s in moments like these and in a very touching ending that Embry reveals an almost boyish quality that endears him to us. He struggles with the propeller for a bit and gives up laughing hysterically again. At the 16:30 mark, watch how he laughs crazily and then snaps instantly into a morose zombie like state, uttering, “I’m dead.” He goes into another recitation of all the possibilities as he guffaws, “I’m knocked out or I’m off in limbo someplace…I’m unconscious, or I’m cracked up in some Army base, some teeny-weeny little ward.” So it’s a fascinating, somewhat ballsy screenwriting trick: Serling actually has the character reveal to us the twist ending. Yep, he has him go right on ahead and tell us the “surprise” to come. It’s a clever way to throw us off track, isn’t it!
Furthermore, in his zanily jocund hysteria, he tells them, “I got an idea! Hey, you can yell at me…” and, “Oh hey, why don’t you just—oh, this is funny—why don’t you just spring up out of the sand like a bunch of jumping jacks, and just stand there, and just laugh, see?” And what do you think happens next? Yep, a look of horror/amazement crosses over Embry’s face as he sees something happening behind the viewer. He runs toward it, and we cut to…the five missing crewmen. It is again a creepy event, and some of the creepiness factor I think is due to the sound design’s choice not to have any sound effects at all coming from the images. Not this one, nor the earlier one of Blake. We see the men laughing and chuckling, but completely soundlessly.
The men have vanished, and Embry feels around in the air for them, but they’re gone. His breakdown worsens as he now crumbles to the sand sobbing, begging God to let him know what’s happening—to let him “in on it.” That phrasing seems somehow apropos, as though life and existence are one big unknowable joke. Cummings’ vocal control is terrific, as his voice breaks. His hand kneading the sand dissolves into his hand gripping a bed linen, and as the camera pulls back we see that just as he predicted, he lies in a hospital bed with a pair of doctors looking after him. The physician relates to the psychiatrist that when Embry had walked by a newsstand that morning he saw the newspaper headline reading: WORLD WAR II BOMBER FOUND INTACT IN DESERT, and that precipitated Embry’s lapse into a catatonic state. As it turns out, Embry was supposed to Captain that final mission of the King 9, but when he fell ill, he was replaced. The guilt of not being on the plane followed him around for those 17 years, eating away at him, causing recurrent fevers and “some suggestion of psychological disturbance.” When he saw the headline, it rose up again and knocked him down.
Embry wakes up and the physician tells him “You’re all right Mr. Embry.” Embry mentions his “crazy dream” and the psychiatrist asks him to tell more about it. Embry tells them the whole story and seems cognizant that it was indeed a dream, an illusion, but the part that his making him unwell is the guilt over not being with his men. He cries out sobbing, “I chickened out!” But the psychiatrist sets him straight, comforting him as he explains Embry couldn’t know what would happen. Briefly mollified, we cover Embry in a close-up now as he describes his final feelings about the dream: he mentions seeing the jets while he was back there. “Isn’t that wild? 1943. African desert. And jet planes overhead. Just as if I had gone back there today.” And then he looks up at the two doctors and delivers these last lines with such vulnerability, your heart aches:
“Did I? Did I go back? Did I go back to my plane?”
“In your mind,” says the psychiatrist, “That’s how you went back. Only in your mind.”
Gently, wistfully, Embry repeats that. “Only in my mind.”
It’s a beautifully melancholic delivery of those final lines. Bravo Mr. Cummings.
The plot twist coda comes in the form of the doctors leaving the room and a nurse asking what to do with Embry’s clothes. As she places them on a table, what should fall out of the shoes…but sand.
The episode received 6 votes in my survey of fans and writers asking, ‘What is your favorite episode of the original Twilight Zone series?’ tying it with 11 other episodes for 106th thru 116th place of the 156 episodes.”
I rate this episode an 8.5.