Spielberg: Night Gallery: “Eyes”

Steven Spielberg directed this segment of the pilot episode of Night Gallery. His direction is smooth and adequate to the task.

On the other hand, this is one of the most seriously bad scripts I’ve ever seen, and for that reason it merits further scrutiny. Gather ’round, students of screenwriting, and witness a virtual compendium of What Not To Do In A Screenplay.

Rod Serling has been celebrated for his writing, and he has definitely had his moments, but in “Eyes” he reveals himself as a smug, cruel, ungenerous, self-righteous moralist, a poor dramatist, and a hack screenwriter.

Who is the protagonist of “Eyes”? That would be Miss Claudia Menlo. Serling doesn’t like Miss Menlo, and he wants to make sure we don’t like her too. So, before the segment even starts, he describes her to us, in moralistic terms — she’s clearly a horrible, horrible woman.

Once the story begins, we find that Serling still isn’t sure we’re clear on how high is his disregard for the abominable protagonist of his story. So this doctor walks into an apartment building and runs into a portraitist in the elevator, and the portraitist tells the doctor that he, too, finds Miss Menlo to be a horrible, horrible woman. Serling, unable or unwilling to dramatize Miss Menlo’s nature, instead has a character announce her horribleness.

The doctor meets up with the horrible, horrible Miss Menlo, who is revealed rather in the manner of a Bond villain, missing only a white cat in her lap. And here comes the number-one Must To Avoid Dialogue Exchange in the book of bad dialogue exchanges:

DOCTOR: Now then, what are we to talk about?
MENLO: What we’ve already talked about on the telephone.
DOCTOR: Well as I’ve already told you Miss Menlo…

This is bad screenwriting at its peak. Any time you have a character say “Well, as I’ve already told you” or “As you know” or “as we’ve discussed,” you’ve lost the game. It’s good to “come in late” to the story, but if you have to resort to exchanges like this to bring the audience up to speed, it’s time to give up.

Now then: what is the central dramatic situation of “Eyes”? Miss Menlo is a rich woman born blind, and she has discovered that it’s possible to gain eyesight for a few hours if she can find a donor for an eye transplant. That is a strong premise and a solid goal for a protagonist, no matter if she’s Glinda the Good Witch or Leona Helmsley. Why doesn’t the story begin on the day Menlo discovers such an operation exists? Why does the story begin with the doctor showing up and exchanging Menlo opinions with the portraitist? We could see her take the steps she needs to take to find a doctor sufficiently compromised to perform the operation for her, and that would be drama.

Serling has committed a cardinal screenwriting sin: he doesn’t like his protagonist. Worse, he has no interest in her. There are plenty of stories with unlikeable protagonists. There Will Be Blood leaps immediately to mind, Taxi Driver is another, The Godfather another, Doctor Faustus another. The protagonists of these narratives are called anti-heroes, and their stories are compelling in so far as we get wrapped up them in spite of the fact that we’re watching bad people do terrible things. We’re compelled because there is part of us that is evil too and revels in their badness. A good screenwriter cannot help but love his antihero — if he holds his protagonist at arm’s length, the character will be a strawman, unworthy of the audience’s attention. Serling feels the protagonist of “Eyes” is an evil bitch and his lack of generosity shows –not only has he made her a passive protagonist, he’s decided she’s unworthy of screentime. Instead, he squanders most of the screenplay on tedious exposition regarding the doctor’s conscience, the life and sadness of the man forced to give up his eyes, the signing of contracts and delivery of payments. He’s got a protagonist who’s facing the most exciting, most frightening moment of her life and he spends at least a third of the story sitting around in a lawyer’s office, carping once again about how horrible the protagonist is.

For a moment in the first act, it looks like maybe the doctor is going to be the protagonist of “Eyes.” Hey, maybe that would be cool, a story about a compromised man who is forced to perform an immoral operation against his will and the toll that takes on his soul. But no, the doctor disappears half-way through the story, after delivering one more vicious, self-pitying monologue about how evil the protagonist is.

There are a lot of monologues in “Eyes” — here comes one now, as the doctor patiently describes the eye-transplant deal to the protagonist. There is, apparently, no cinematic way to show what will happen to Miss Menlo, it can only be described in a painfully expository monologue. This monologue is then followed by a monologue about how the doctor would never, ever do such a horrible, immoral thing, which is then followed by a monologue from Miss Menlo that puts the doctor in a corner. So now we’re a third of the way through the story and there hasn’t been a moment of action — it’s all been people standing in a room, catching each other up on who they are and what they mean to each other.

Imagine this scene: you go over to your significant other’s house. You want sex. You ring the doorbell. The significant other answers. You go into the house. What happens next? If you are a human being, what happens next is not:

YOU: Well. Hello. What are we to do now?
SO: We are to do that thing we discussed doing on the telephone.
YOU: Do you think that’s the right thing to do?
SO: Well, as you know, we’ve been together as a couple for a long time now —
YOU: Yes, it’s been many months.
SO: And it is, I suppose, normal for people of our age and inclination to engage in some sort of physical closeness.
YOU: I have heard that, yes.
SO: Well, let me tell you who I am. I am your lover, that’s who I am. I love you. I’ve been your lover for some time now. I’ve spent a good deal of time with you and in that time I’ve formed certain emotional attachments, and that has led to us being in this room together.

And yet, that’s exactly what the first third of “Eyes” is. There’s a protagonist who desperately wants something, and is doing everything she can to get it, and the writer doesn’t think that’s a very dramatic premise.

What happens next? Next, we find Sidney Resnick, a Runyonesque New York loser, being tortured by a gangster in the park. How ruthless is this cold-hearted bastard gangster? Here’s how cold-hearted he is: he tortures Sidney by putting him on a merry-go-round. He doesn’t even chain him to the merry-go-round, he just puts him on it and makes it spin around. He even gets on the merry-go-round with him. This has got to be the lamest gangster in the history of filmed drama, yet we’re to believe that Sidney fears for his life from this lame-o. More to the point, this scene, and the scene that follows, is apparently of more interest to the writer than what’s happening to his protagonist.

Sidney meets the lawyer and the doctor, and guess what happens? Everybody tells each other what’s going on all over again. Dramatically speaking, we didn’t even need the first scene with Miss Menlo! We could have started the story here in the lawyer’s office! Serling’s got twenty minutes to tell a story and, incredibly, he pads it out! And then Sidney, yes, delivers a long, self-pitying monologue about his life and his misery. In fact, everyone in “Eyes” has a whining monologue about miserable their lives are — it’s almost as though the writer is trying to tell us something.

We then get a brief montage that is somehow meant to describe the operation. Yes, the central event of the narrative, the thing that the protagonist has been working toward all this time never gets shown.

Now comes Act III. The operation is complete, the doctor leaves Menlo in her apartment (after they’ve exchanged more monologues) and she unwraps the bandages. And, in a “cruel twist of fate,” at precisely that moment there’s a blackout.

Ha Ha! snorts the writer. I have triumphed over my evil protagonist! And we can see that Serling, master of leaden irony, has been building up to this moment the whole time. This was the “point” of the story — “Hey, you know what would be cool? A mean, blind rich woman pays off a loser to get his eyes, and then there’s a blackout!” You can tell that Serling felt so great about this “twist” that he didn’t bother to think of anything to follow it. “Yes! And she’s Plunged Into Darkness! That’ll show her!”  Serling is so tickled by his clever twist that he hasn’t stopped to think about whether it makes a lick of sense.

Because Miss Menlo goes down to the street, where we see there’s plenty of light, from all the cars stopped. Why is she staggering around acting as though there’s no light? Why is she so upset? If there was a blackout in New York, she’d be able to see the stars, which is more than any New Yorker has ever seen. She could see the moon, she could see people in the streets with flashlights and candles, she could see the lines of cars with their headlights. The more I think about it, if you only had twelve hours to see, New York City at night during a blackout would be a totally awesome way to spend it.

But Serling hates his protagonist, so he has her stagger around as though in total darkness, and when it gets too close to stupid he simply cuts away from her to have, yes, another tedious bit of exposition from a couple of characters we’ve never met before about what a blackout is.

Where is the doctor? Where is Sidney? Where is the lawyer? Weren’t we supposed to care about those characters? If we were, why aren’t they part of the third act? If we weren’t, why the ever-living fuck did we spend half the running time with them?

Anyway, Miss Menlo gets back to her apartment and sits in the dark, the better to pity herself, then sees the sun as it comes up (in the west, I might add — her Fifth Avenue apartment looks out on Central Park). She has a moment of wonder (always a Spielberg specialty) and momentarily becomes an interesting protagonist. We feel that, in this moment, she’s learned something about the limits of her power and found some measure of humility. So, of course, Serling abruptly kills her.



7 Responses to “Spielberg: Night Gallery: “Eyes””
  1. teamwak says:

    I daren’t watch it now after reading this lol

    Some serious things to bear in mind for when I finish my opus.

  2. Ah yes, “Eyes”, the one third of the three episode pilot for “Night Gallery”. (it was part of a 90 minute pilot movie that they did a lot of in the late 60’s early 70’s) The other two, one featured a wealthy southern “horrible” person (played by Roddy McDowell and the other featured a man living in a “horrible” third world country, longing for the world depicted in a painting of a fisherman at a gallery. (I’m doing this from memory, so forgive any mistakes)

    I was the perfect age for “Night Gallery”. Too young to have seen “The Twilight Zone” (first run) and not too old to see just how poorly many of these episodes were.

    Years later I read the Rod Serling biography (before becoming a writer, Serling tested parachutes for the military!) and discovered just how much he hated working on “Night Gallery”.

    And I guess it shows.

    Though I do remember a particularly moving episode starring William Windom (the actor who starred in “My World and Welcome To It” the Thurber inspired sit-com) about a man at the end of his life and his favorite tavern that was getting torn down. I believe Serling wrote this one as well.

    • Todd says:

      I loved Night Gallery when I was a kid. I was kind of shocked to learn how poor the writing was.

      • craigjclark says:

        I was that way with Knight Rider. When I was 10 it was the greatest show on the face of the earth. When I was 20 and happened to catch an episode one afternoon, however, I was appalled at how juvenile it really was.

        The episode in question was one where Geena Davis played a jewel thief. Actually, you’re not supposed to know she’s the jewel thief, but it’s so damned obvious right from the get-go that it made me want to smack Michael Knight upside the head and say, “It’s her, moron!”

      • Anonymous says:

        I always disliked Night Gallery and loved Twilight Zone, even as PopeBuck says (see below), Serling tended to be prim and moralistic. But I’d stay up (and often sneak downstairs) for that midnight rerun on Channel 11 just the same. Even as a kid, I could tell that Night Gallery was written in a spirit of sheer hackery. Thanks for digging up this idiotic Spielberg episode, though.

  3. This is really comical to tell you the truth! For this to pass as a show on TV and then directed by Steven…really, was this actually Sterling that wrote this episode? I can’t believe it! His stuff on Twilight Zone was top notch writing to me.

  4. popebuck1 says:

    Serling was brilliant when he was on his game, but yeah, he did have a tendency to be very moralistic and prim – there were episodes of “Twilight Zone” where people were given horrible, life-destroying punishments merely for being mildly annoying.

    And the other thing was, Serling suffered from terrible bouts of writer’s block, and there are a number of TZ and NG episodes where you can feel him there at his desk, just struggling to write anything at all.