Review of the four-star finale of the Night Gallery pilot episode’s trilogy of stories is here.
“The Escape Route” ****
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Barry Shear
Richard Kiley as Joseph Strobe
Sam Jaffe as Bleum
Norma Crane as Gretchen
The pilot episode’s trilogy of stories concludes with its strongest entry, “The Escape Route.” Richard Kiley is outstanding as a former Nazi concentration camp commander living in Argentina, on the run from Israeli agents and from his own inner demons.
Walking on a Buenos Aries sidewalk, Strobe notices that he is being followed a car. He hops on a bus to evade pursuit and gets off outside an art museum, which he ducks into. He comes up behind an old man, Bleum, who is very moved by a painting of a crucifixion which features a horrible, painful look on the victim’s face. Bleum tells Strobe it reminds him of a friend’s grueling two-day order on a cross at a concentration camp during the war. Regarding Strobe’s face, Bleum detects a familiarity and asks Strobe if they’ve met. Strobe lies that he’s not German, he’s Hungarian.
In another of the gallery’s rooms, Strobe comes upon a painting of a peaceful, tranquil scene of a man in a rowboat, fishing on a river in the mountains. He is clearly intrigued by this image. He looks away, looks back again and what we then see is his face on the fisherman, which understandably surprises him.
Strobe returns to the gallery the next morning and again sees his face in the painting. He seems to be visualizing himself there, to escape his reality, his guilt, his running away, his looking over his shoulder.
Later, back at his squalid apartment, he confides this to his next door neighbor, Gretchen, a prostitute who knows his true identity. She tells him that he is “number two on the list after Eichmann.” (Adolph Eichmann, one of the main organizers of Nazi Germany’s deportation of European Jews to German concentration camps, was captured by Israeli Mossad agents in Argentina in 1960. This would seem to take place later than that, so in essence, she is saying that Strobe is number one on the list of those they wish to bring to find.)
Strobe tells her he wants God’s compassion. He thinks that if he concentrates hard enough, he could have willed himself to become that fisherman in the painting. Gretchen laughs at this. Strobe explodes and tells her to go to hell. To which she replies, “after you, Herr Strobe” and cackles.
It should be noted here that while the thought of a high-Nazi deserving God’s compassion is laughable to her, and likely to you reading this, to see Richard Kiley’s performance as Strobe, he does to a degree elicit our sympathy. This is no small task, and that is why, to my mind, his acting job here is at or near the top of all the performances in the entire series. The degree of his sins may make true sympathy impossible, but we can all identify with the desire to put the past behind us, to be absolved of our sins, to have a fresh start.
The next day, Strobe is back again at the gallery looking at the painting and still sees himself in it. Bleum appears. From Bleum’s point of view, the painting is as we originally saw it (without Strobe’s face). Bleum calls Strobe by his real name (Arndt) and says he remembers him from Auschwitz, says he recalls Strobe (Arndt) with a riding crop and that his job was to indicate “which of the incoming Jews would die and which would temporarily stay alive.” Sam Jaffe’s performance as Bleum is also a strong one. Strobe denies this was he and when he looks at the painting again, he how sees images of himself in the boat, content (these scenes from Strobe’s imagination are filmed scenes, not a painting).
That night, at a bar, a band is playing. Strobe, drunk, likely in part due to his frustrating inability to will himself into that bucolic scene in the painting, begins to loudly sign a German anthem, then approaches the band, takes the guitar player’s instrument and smashes it, causing a scene.
Bleum is also in the bar, and follows Strobe as he staggers drunkenly outside. Bleum speaks to Strobe from behind in German, and in his inebriated state, defenses down, Strobe replies to him in his native tongue. Realizing it’s futile to continue denying, he admits that he is who Bleum thinks he is. Bleum picks at Strobe’s guilt, unleashing Strobe’s fury which results in his hands around Bleum’s throat, strangling him to death.
Attempting to leave town by bus, the Israeli agents who were following Strobe in the car at the beginning of the episode, catch up with him. He manages to escape and a chase ensues, leading to the art museum. Inside the darkened gallery, Strobe finds the spot where his idyllic painting hung, wills/prays himself into it.
We find out that the painting of the fisherman had been moved and in its place now hangs the painting of the crucifixion scene, this time, as the camera zooms in on it, with the terrified face of strobe on the man on the cross.