If you’re looking for a great Night Gallery story that recalls the finest of The Twilight Zone, then this review of “The Waiting Room,” written by Rod Serling, is for you.

Season 2 Episode 18—aired 1/26/72

“The Waiting Room” ****

Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
Steve Forrest as Sam Dichter
Albert Salmi as Joe Bristol
Buddy Ebsen as Doc Soames
Gilbert Roland as the Bartender
Jim Davis as Abe Bennett
Lex Barker as Charlie McKinley
Larry Watson as Kid Max

A man rides on horseback and approaches a tall tree that has just hosted a lynching. The hangee is still swinging from a limb, its face shrouded. The face of the man on horseback shows a sense of satisfaction at the sight.

He continues on until he comes to a saloon and enters it. The sole occupants: four men at a table playing cards and a bartender. We’re in the American West, circa late 19th century. The card-playing men look up at the new arrival while he goes to the bar and orders a whiskey. The bartender (Gilbert Roland) gives him a generous glassful and the man asks him to leave the bottle. The man, sarcastically asks the bartender if he’s always “this busy,” to which he replies,”more or less.”

The man approaches the card players’ table and they stop their game. “Don’t let me cramp you,” he says. The eldest of the men, Doc Soames (Buddy Ebsen), assures him, “you’re not, Mr. Dichter.” “You know me?” the man (Steve Forrest, excellent), replies. “The eminent Samuel Dichter,” Soames states grandly. “You have the advantage on me,” Dichter says.

As the card players don’t seem to be keen on conversation, Dichter returns to the bar and asks the barkeep if he witnessed the hanging. The bartender demurs and says that sort of thing gives him no pleasure, but to Dichter, witnessing a hanging derives great pleasure, especially if the hangee twitches and struggles some before the end, admitting a true sadistic streak.

The clock on the wall strikes 9:00 p.m. and his fellow card players remind Charlie McKinley (Lex Barker) that it’s his time to depart. He says he, too, knows Dichter, but Dichter can’t immediately recall him. With a little prodding, Dichter recalls a McKinley who was supposedly shot dead, in the back of the head, outside a saloon some years ago.

McKinley exits the bar and we hear gunfire. Alarmed, Dichter rushes to the door, expecting the others will also want to check out the commotion outside but they are all strangely nonplussed, as if what happened was completely expected. Soames tells Dichter what happened: McKinley was shot in the back of the head, just as he had been years earlier.

Moving on like nothing unusual happened, the players ask Dichter to take McKinley’s seat at the table. The man to Dichter’s left, Joe Bresto (Albert Salmi), insults Dichter because Dichter can’t figure out what’s going on (I couldn’t either here, so I’d get Bresto’s wrath, too). With more prodding, Dichter is able to summon the memory of when he witnessed Bresto get gunned down previously.

Dichter thinks he must be suffering from a fever; how else to explain how he could know these men whose violent deaths have already occurred? He demands medicine from Soames, but the doctor tells him that the only cure for his is to retire his gunbelt.

Dichter and Bresto are about to let their animosity take the form of a duel when the clock chimes 10:00 p.m.  Time for Bresto to go outside and we again hear the sound of gunshots.

More and more panicked, Dichter can’t understand what is going on. Then the clock strikes 11:00 and Abe Bennett (Jim Davis) rises, but before he leaves he tells the story of how he robbed a bank, killing a man, for a measly haul of $20. Then he tried to hide out in a belfry when he was gunned down there, getting tangled in the bell’s rope on the way down. The bell was still ringing when his lifeless carcass was tossed upon a horse to take him away. He leaves to relive his fate.

Dichter asks Soames what the point of this is. “We all of us with a gun, a Colt 45 till death do us part,” Soames begins bitterly. He stayed on the good side of things, a medical man. But he patched up wounded gunslingers who would go on to kill again and one day he realized “for all the killers I’d saved, I’d spat in God’s eye.”

Midnight chimes as Soames continues to explain that he finally could no longer live with his conscience and turned a gun upon himself. “The elusive point is that we, all of us, were doomed from the moment we took up firearms. He steps outside to again accept his fate.

Dichter, nearly crazed, asks the bartender what this place is. The bartender replies that “it’s a waiting room. Some call it hell.”

The clock then chimes 1:00. “It’s closing time, Mr. Dichter. No doubt I’ll be seeing you again,” says the bartender. Dichter strongly rejects this as he has no memory of his death, at the end of a gun barrel or otherwise.

Outside there are sounds of a crowd gathering; the bartender says it’s the sound of Dichter’s jury. Dichter steps outside and we then see him on horseback as in the beginning, approaching the corpse hanging from the tree branch. This time he pulls down the mask on the victim’s face and sees that it’s his own, bloated and pale, on the end of that man hanging. He screams and runs and comes upon a bar. The same bar as before and when he enters, the clock strikes 9:00.

This is one of my favorite Night Gallery stories. The mood is tense throughout this longish tale (twenty-seven minutes). An excellent cast, script by Rod Serling and direction by Jeannot Szwarc all add up to a superior segment.