Did you know that Joan Crawford once acted in something directed by Steven Spielberg? It’s true.
Review of the second segment of the pilot episode of Night Gallery is below.
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Joan Crawford as Claudia Menlo
Barry Sullivan as Dr. Frank Heatherton
Tom Bosley as Sidney Resnick
Just as a piece of cinematic history, this segment is noteworthy. It was the first directorial assignment for 22-year old Steven Spielberg and it was one of the last roles for 63-year old screen icon Joan Crawford. The crossing of their paths could end up leading to over a century of work combined. Crawford began her film career during the late silent era in the mid-1920s. And Spielberg is still going strong today at 67, with no reason to believe he won’t still be active a decade from now. Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood are still active at 77 and 83 respectively.
As far as the results of this collaboration of once and future legends went, it’s somewhat of a mixed bag.
“Eyes” tells the story of Claudia Menlo, a rich, isolated, selfish, ruthless, domineering tyrant who has an entire floor of a New York City penthouse to herself. Blind from birth, she has summoned her doctor, Frank Heatherton (Barry Sullivan), to discuss an experimental new surgical procedure where a functioning optic nerve can be transplanted into sightless eyes. Heatherton scoffs at this due to the fact that the procedure has only been tested on animals, never humans, that the prospect of finding a living donor would be extremely remote and that even if one was found, he wouldn’t perform the operation on moral grounds. The operation would only give the donor 11 hours of sight and it would leave the donor permanently blind.
The moral grounds are not an issue for Menlo, of course, and she surprises Heatherton by informing him she has found a donor willing to give up his eyes for $9,000. She then uses blackmail to force him to perform the operation by threatening to expose some long-ago medical transgression that could ruin his career.
The reluctant donor is Sidney Resnick (Tom Bosley), a down-on-his-luck gambler who owes $9,000 to the kind of guy or guys who don’t take credit cards or have an installment plan. He figures that it’s better to live blind than to face the repercussions of not paying his debt. The future Mr. Cunningham on Happy Days pulls out all the stops as far as milking the pathos of his predicament goes and if he overplays his role, it’s as much the fault of Serling’s script as it is Bosley’s.
The episode really slows to a near halt in the overly long sequence with Resnick meeting with Heatherton and a surgical colleague to sign his consent to the surgery and receive his payment. The scene tugs, yanks and gloms on to the heartstrings and would have been more effective had it been substantially trimmed.
Spielberg’s direction, which up to this point had been fairly straightforward, although there had been a number of interesting shot compositions, becomes especially creative in the next two scenes, showing us glimpses of what would come in the very visually interesting films he would soon direct, such as Duel, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Leading up to the operation, Crawford’s and Bosley’s characters are shot from above being wheeled down a corridor on gurneys when quick cutting between their eyes dissolves into one shot of both sets of eyes. An inspired way to film this scene, indeed.
Later that night, back in her apartment after the operation, she dismisses Dr. Heatherton to experience the moment of removing the bandages from her eyes without anyone else present. When she does, we see a blurry image of a chandelier and just as it begins to come into focus, the screen turns black. Enraged, she goes into a fury blaming Heatherton for botching the job as she was expecting to have sight for 11 hours. Spielberg created a highly memorable shot during this sequence where Crawford stumbles around against a completely black background, with only her figure lit. It’s an excellent and frightening visualization of the frustration and terror she is feeling as she has been plunged back into blindness again.
She leaves her apartment, manages to navigate her way down the stairwell and emerges outside her building. As car horns are honking amidst stalled traffic and a mounted policeman approaches a man in a car, we get the moment of grand irony of the episode as he informs the motorist that the blackout that’s hit the city may last awhile.
Once the “wow factor” of this reveal fades, one begins to wonder why she can’t see outside? It’s by no means pitch black out there with all the vehicle headlights on. Also, why schedule her eleven hours of sight for nighttime? Not that one would anticipate a blackout, but there are a lot more interesting things to see during daylight hours than at night. These are major problems of the episode.
A minor problem occurs next when we see Menlo back in her apartment the next morning asleep in a chair. How did she get back there? She couldn’t have done it herself. If she was helped, it would have been an interesting scene to see how she would have had to admit to another human being her helplessness. Perhaps such a scene was cut due to the episode’s length.
As she blinks her eyes open, Spielberg gives us her point of view as we see the rising sun coming into focus. Excitedly, she begins to stand, but the sun then dims and fades from her view, which has again gone black as the 11 hours have concluded. Desperate and in denial, she moves closer to the window in hopes of restoring her vision of the sun, but she moves too close, breaking the window and falling through to her death in another highly imaginative shot where the camera zooms downward with the glass shattering on the pavement below, making us feel that we, too are falling.
For Joan Crawford, this was undoubtedly one of her finest later efforts. She is completely believable as the chilling, heartless Claudia Menlo, a characterization that would later seem to many to be less an acting job than a glimpse of the real-life Crawford, as portrayed by her step-daughter Cristina in the tell-all memoir, “Mommie Dearest.”
In his directorial debut, Steven Spielberg acquitted himself well with a difficult-to-film script. Suffice it to say, he would go on to bigger and better things.