Black is Black, a Sheriff and his town want the sunshine back…
Re-entering the Twilight Zone with Michael Constantine in an episode with a powerful message.
5|26 – 28| – The Twilight Zone – Rod Serling Special Edition – Fifth Season – 1964, L Botteghelli
I was sad to hear about the passing of the actor, Michael Constantine, an actor that I’ve reviewed here on a couple of occasions. I’ve reviewed him both in films as part of two all-star casts including Lee Grant, Orson Welles, Lynne Frederick and Faye Dunaway in Voyage of the Damned (1976). On TV he joined a starry cast in an episode of Murder Takes the Bus from Murder She Wrote (1985) S1 Ep 18 and this cast included Angela Lansbury, David Wayne and Linda Blair.
In looking through his filmography, I discovered more than a few familiar movies and TV. Constantine seemed to be a dream guest star and he took roles in everything from The Streets of San Francisco (1973) to McMillan and Wife (1976) in the 1970s. In the 1980s, he took roles in a double bill of The Love Boat (1983), Magnum PI (1986) and Fantasy Island (1980). He also starred in a movie that I watched as a teen, in the coming of age TV Movie, Summer of My German Soldier (1978) with Kristy McNichol.
But today, I am looking back at his appearance in The Twilight Zone (1964), I Am the Night – Color Me Black, Se5 Ep26. This episode was written by the show’s presenter, Rod Serling. Serling wrote this episode as his personal response to the assassination of John F Kennedy in November 1963. This episode was shown on television just a few months after this shocking event in Dealey Plaza in Dallas. It’s a pretty powerful episode, with many themes that still resound today, with Constantine appearing to play one of the few redeeming characters in it.
Constantine is Sheriff Charlie Koch who lives in a small mid-Western American village. He’s dressed for work, early in the morning and it’s dark outside. His watch has stopped, his wife Ella (Eve McVeagh) wakens, and she’s quite blunt and flippant about the execution by hanging that her husband has to oversee in the coming day. Her husband seems more troubled about this event and he hopes for some support from her.
It’s still surprisingly dark outside at 7.30am, and there seems to be no apparent reason for the sun not rising. Koch is now at work with his Deputy Pierce (George Lindsey), and neither of them can explain why it’s continuing to stay dark this late in the morning. These two lawmen are like chalk and cheese. Unlike the apparently more kindly, soft-spoken Sheriff, Pierce is more vocal about his hatred for this prisoner. He’s more concerned about the unusual ongoing darkness outside.
An editor of the local newspaper, Colbey (Paul Fix) arrives to report on the event and to talk to the prisoner, known as Jagger. Colbey has discovered through a contact that their village is the only place in America with this ongoing darkness. It seems no one can explain this phenomenon, as the sun should have risen two hours ago.
The newspaper editor asks Koch about his thoughts on Jagger’s innocence, and Koch does not offer his opinion. He appears resigned to the situation and tells him that Jagger was found guilty by God, public opinion and the jury. However, he appears to be flustered. Pierce – in contrast – is more disparaging and contemptuous about the prisoner and he seems to relish in Jagger’s coming death.
Colbey is concerned about the legalities of this execution sentence. The prisoner in question, Jagger (Terry Becker) was sentenced to death as he shot a “cross burning psychopathic bully” in self-defence. This was after Jagger was attacked by the murder victim. Pierce perjured himself in court and said he saw this murder happen from “across a room”, but his statement appears to be untrue.
It seems that Koch has every right to feel troubled. This man was found guilty by a jury, yet he and the Press had covered up strong evidence that the man had powder burns found on his body. If the presence of these had been presented in court they could have supported Jagger’s self-defence case. But these burns were not disclosed to the jury in Koch’s testimony in Court or in the report in the local newspaper.
It’s still dark outside at 8.45am, as Colbey visits Jagger. The prisoner himself appears to have no remorse and wants “no priest, no friends, no comment”. Jagger has “the blues” about his coming death, and he says he is guilty of killing this man. Jagger also seems angry with himself for being more outspoken about social injustices.
He angrily says that his victim had done “what others in the town wanted” but were afraid to do and “handled the whipping, of some poor scared coloured guy”. This suggests that his death is something the town will be happy with. Colbey puts this murder purely down to him being offended by the victim and he seems to be brushing over the true intent behind the crime. The prisoner is troubled by the lack of others’ insight behind his murderous reasons, from the law and the people in the village.
It’s 9am, as the villagers come to watch the execution. It’s still dark, Koch confesses to Colbey and Pierce that he feels guilty and remorse. He tells them that he went along with the villagers’ opinion, as he did not agree to an autopsy of the victim. He went along with the villages purely so that he would be re-elected as Sheriff. He adds that Colbey wants to sell newspapers and that Pierce likes to stay popular and on the “good side” of the villagers adding they are all “treading water in a sewer” as the whole truth has not been reported.
After Jagger arrives, he says has nothing to say to the black African American, Reverend Anderson (Ivan Dixon). The villagers all seem in agreement with his death. The Reverend thanks Jagger for standing up in this way for a man of his colour and killing for this reason, and he wants to offer him peace. Jagger tells the crowd he will not say sorry for this murder, and the crowd jeer at him. The Reverend encourages him not to hate them. The Reverend finds him guilty as Jagger had no regrets, that his victim was killed in hate and Jagger enjoyed killing him. Jagger believes this Holy man is going along with the crowd’s opinion.
After Jagger is executed, the Deputy believes Reverend “has seen the light”. But then the Reverend advocates the truth behind the ongoing darkness. He tells the crowd that the darkness represents both the villagers’ and the late prisoner’s hate and loathing and so they “had to vomit it out” as they had so much hate inside them.
The sky continues to get darker, the Deputy’s believes that the darkness is only fog and it will lift, and the sun will come out. But the Sheriff and the newspaper editor believe this might their new normal and only God knows what will happen. This episode ominously ends with a radio announcement that adds that this darkness has now be reported to be enveloping Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Northern Vietnam, on top of the Berlin Wall and other places…
And Serling adds to this chilling premise in his closing narration, with more on this theme;
“A sickness known as hate. Not a virus, not a microbe, not a germ—but a sickness nonetheless, highly contagious, deadly in its effects. Don’t look for it in the Twilight Zone – look for it in a mirror. Look for it before the light goes out altogether.”
This episode has many metaphorical themes which are transparent by the ending credits. Constantine seems on his first appearances, to be troubled about the hanging of this particular prisoner. He feels guilt and remorse for his previous actions, and these are seen through his sleepless night and later heard in his confession about his behaviour in relation to this man’s court sentence. He seems less hateful towards the prisoner but doesn’t try to stop the proceedings.
This seems to be how many people feel, that they feel powerless to stop ill-doing, but don’t speak up when it happens, only telling those they trust with the truth. As a character, Koch knows – and confesses – his selfish reasons for going along with public opinions. Interestingly he does this with those others who chose to stay quiet for their own self-motivated reasons. And he has insight into their reasons why they lied, yet he chose not to talk to the Reverend about this miscarriage of justice.
His behaviour suggests people are all too often swayed by public opinion for their own ends. His darkness continues, as he hates himself, and his role in this man’s death and fears that God will condemn him for his part in this. Constantine showed this man’s inner conflicts wonderfully and credibly in his performance in his scenes, both with his wife and the other characters. It is clear that his character has a conscience and feels remorse and guilt for his actions. But his ambitions are holding him back from stopping this man’s death.
The darkness and the reasons for the hanging of this man, suggests the villagers’ thoughts and beliefs are not fully understood. They believe that they hate the condemned man for his actions, and they are literally “in the dark.” It seems many of them are just going along with the thoughts of others – as seen here in this “small-town mentality” – and in their families over generations. It seems a brave statement from Serling, to highlight popular beliefs in this way, through this then-controversial episode.
This episode was filmed in black and white, and this lack of colour was perhaps on purpose to reflect the plotlines, feelings, attitudes, locations and ambience. As in those scenes with light, we do see the prisoner in a new way.. yet he’s condemned by others in those darker set shots. As the dark scenes become darker in appearance, as the story unfolds. And for the Sheriff and the villagers, their now lives could have been summed up by Star Wars, Yoda who said;
“Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”