A moneylender with little compassion for his debtors receives justice Night Gallery-style in “Camera Obscura,” reviewed here.
“Camera Obscura” ***1/2
Teleplay by Rod Serling • Story by Basil Copper
Directed by John Badham
Ross Martin as Mr. Gingold
Rene Auberjonois as William Sharsted Jr.
Arthur Malet as Abel Joyce
Milton Parsons as the Old Lamplighter
Brendan Dillon as Amos Drucker
Phillip Kenneally as Sanderson
John Barclay as Sharsted Sr.
Rene Auberjonois has long been an outstanding actor, appearing in hundreds of roles, best known for his runs on the tv series Benson, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Boston Legal. He has created vastly different characters throughout his long career and one of his first onscreen performances was in this Night Gallery story (the previous year he played Father Mulcahy in Robert Altman’s film M*A*S*H*, which of course led to the long-running series (where the character was portrayed by William Christopher).
Here, Auberjonois plays William Sharsted Jr., a moneylender in an English town in the 1920s. He has come to the home of a Mr. Gingold (Ross Martin, who was the bigger star at the time, having completed his co-starring turn as Artemus Gordon on The Wild Wild West two years previously and who receives top billing despite having the secondary role. He, too, is quite good, under heavy old-guy grey wig and mustache makeup), to collect at debt of 300 pounds.
It seems odd that Gingold is unable (perhaps just unwilling) to pay Sharsted what he owes considering a collection of rare art adorns the walls of his home, although Gingold says he collects them for their beauty, not their monetary value.
Gingold gives Sharsted a sherry, shows him the paintings around his home then shows his something rare indeed: a camera obscura, which uses mirrors, prisms and lenses on the building’s roof to offer a series of panoramic views of the surrounding neighborhood inside his home.
While showing Sharsted around, Gingold presses him about his unfeeling, hardline attitude toward his debtors, particular those who are elderly or without means to repay him. Sharsted is unimpressed with Gingold’s more benevolent thoughts on such things and is impatient to leave when Gingold insists he show him just one more thing….a second camera obscura.
This one, however, shows scenes of the town’s past, a past which Sharsted recognizes as it is the time when his father was in full swing with his career as an unfeeling usurer. Like father, like son. He is stunned by images of several long-gone landmarks such as the Corn Exchange building and Victoria Greens, a park he used to play in. Concluding that Gingold has inserted some old slides into the projector, he is annoyed by what he thinks is a trick and this time really means to take his leave of Gingold, bidding him “a good evening.” Cryptically, Gingold replies, “And I, Mr. Sharsted, bid you goodbye.”
Sharsted exits Gingold’s house from a side or back door and this is when the story takes a turn for the weird and director John Badham (older brother of Mary Badham, who played Scout so memorably in To Kill A Mockingbird) really shines. First of all, everything is in greenish tint, giving the environs an otherworldly quality.
First, Sharsted encounters a man up on a ladder cleaning streetlights—gas streetlights—and asks him where he can find a taxi. The man replies that there may be a horse-drawn carriage coming through eventually.
Then, he meets a series of men, all of whose faces are in various stages of decomposition, whom he knows to have either gone to prison, committed suicide or suffered some otherwise ignoble end: Sanderson, a grave robber, whose cart can’t quite hide the feet of one such cadaver he is transporting; Drucker, a man who profited illegally off a war, who hanged himself; Joyce, another usurer long since dead, then his own late father.
Attempting to run away from these phantoms, Sharsted winds up on the plentiful steps of the Corn Exchange building where a gaggle of long-dead villains converge upon him, saying he is now amongst his own. Grasping at a last straw, Sharsted calls out to Gingold to stop this fantasy, that he has learned his lesson.
We cut back to Sharsted, watching the events unfold on his unique camera obscura and he says, “Too late for reprieve. Now you shall stumble, and weep, and swear along the alleys and squares and streets of your own private hell. And you shall do so for all eternity!”
As I said in the teaser, that is some serious justice, Night Gallery-style.