A medical bag from the future is found in an alleyway trashcan by a down-on-his luck former-doctor, changing his life forever. A powerful performance by Burgess Meredith in “The Little Black Bag,” reviewed here.
“The Little Black Bag” ****
Teleplay by Rod Serling, Story by C. M. Kornbluth
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
Burgess Meredith as Dr. William Fall
Chill Wills as Hepplewhite
George Furth as Gillings
E. J. Andre as Charlie Peterson
Arthur Malet as Mr. Ennis
Eunice Suarez as the Mother
Marion Val as the Sick Girl
Johnny Silver as the Pawnbroker
A bag with futuristic medical supplies is mistakenly sent back in time from the future. The first scene takes place in this future, which we later learn is 2098, in a sort of time travel room, where a worker, Gillings (George Furth), discovers this error and lets his supervisor know the bag can’t be returned.
In 1971, two hobos find the little black bag in a dumpster while they’re searching for something they can pawn for liquor. William Fall (Burgess Meredith) is a former M.D., his time as a practicing physician twenty years in the past as he now spends his days in the streets and alleys with his pal Hepplewhite (Chill Wills) trying to score booze before heading off to a men’s shelter at night.
Fall is fascinated by what he sees inside the bag, he realizes it contains some great medical advances since he last practiced but can’t imagine how the field could have leaped so far ahead in the years since he’s been out of the game.
Hepplewhite is a strong advocate for taking the bag to a pawn shop and getting a few bucks for it immediately. Fall agrees.
At the pawn shop, they are approached by a highly distressed woman who sees them with the bag and asks for their help as her daughter is very ill. The pawnshop owner is willing to pay $8 for the bag, but Fall declines, saying with the kind of pride he has not likely honestly felt in years, “I have need of my instruments. I have a patient who requires my services.”
The men follow the woman to her tenement apartment where they find her daughter has strep throat. Fall follows instructions in the bag, there is a matching card and needle labeled “lymphatic infections”; he gives her a shot and within seconds she has recovered completely. Meredith excels in this scene expressing the wonder he feels at these tools and realizing this can serve as his re-entry into the medical profession. Hepplewhite still just wants to pawn the bag and get the $8. The mother says “God bless you, doctor” which gratifies Fall immensely.
Fall again is amazed how medicine could have advanced this far in just twenty years. Then he notices the bag has a date on it—2098.
He goes to a flophouse where a friend has terminal cancer and is able to use a scalpel to remove his tumors, without blood or pain, and without even knowing how to do it—the scalpel guides his hand. A man there with arthritis then asks Fall to cure him and he does.
In their room that night, Hepplewhite is becoming impatient and angry—he wants to make money off this bag, and now he can see there may be much, much more than $8 to be made. Fall practices a speech he plans to give to the medical community introducing the bag and its supplies and instruments. He’ll start with this attention-getter:
“Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, before I begin this demonstration, I’d like to pose to you an academic question. If I were to take this scalpel and I were to imbed it in my throat and then cut to a depth of, perhaps, three centimeters, what would your professional estimation be of my chances of surviving?”
He realizes with delight that “they’ll be aghast!”
Before he is able to make that speech and discover all the far-reaching implications for improving global human health, Hepplewhite’s turn to the sinister will end that dream. Chill Wills was a very large man and often played the “gentle giant” but his size and grizzled looks made it completely believable for him to play a heavy, and Chill is quite chilling in this scene as he takes a blade from the bag and murders Fall.
The next scene is that presentation before the medical community, made by Hepplewhite. But at the moment he is about to plunge the scalpel into his throat, when he says “”Then gentlemen, watch this!” we cut to the 2098 time travel room where Gillings says a murder has been committed by one of the instruments; he is ordered to deactivate the bag, which he does immediately.
Back in 1971 shaken doctors ponder why he would have chosen to commit suicide in such a manner. One is not so sure it was a suicide, asking “did you catch the look on his face just before he dropped? I’ve never seen anyone look quite so surprised.”
The bag, with its contents smoldering, is deemed junk and is tossed into the garbage chute.
All the way around, this Serling-written episode works beautifully, as it would have on Twilight Zone. Good pacing, excellent performances by Meredith and Wills (who does a lot simply with an open-mouthed stare) and fine direction for the first time from the man who would go on to direct the most Night Gallery episodes, 22, Jeannot Szwarc.