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Old 10-10-2021, 11:04 AM   #80 (permalink)
Born to be mild
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“Anyone ever tell you what you look like? You look like a man trying to catch the subway at five o’clock: you always look like someone’s trying to squeeze you through a door.”

Title: “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room”
Original transmission date: October 14 1960
Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Douglas Heyes
Starring: Joe Mantell as Jackie "John" Rhoades
William D. Gordon as George

Setting: Earth
Timeframe: Present (at the time)
Theme(s): desperation, second chances, violence, crime, redemption
Parodied? Not to my knowledge, no
Rating: A

Serling's opening monologue

This is Mr. Jackie Rhoades, age thirty-four, and where some men leave a mark of their lives as a record of their fragmentary existence on Earth, this man leaves a blot, a dirty, discolored blemish to document a cheap and undistinguished sojourn amongst his betters. What you're about to watch in this room is a strange mortal combat between a man and himself, for in just a moment, Mr. Jackie Rhoades, whose life has been given over to fighting adversaries, will find his most formidable opponent in a cheap hotel room that is in reality the outskirts of The Twilight Zone.

Nervous is right. When we first meet him, Jackie Rhoades is biting his fingernails, waiting for a phone call which then comes. It appears to be someone above him, a boss or something, and when Jackie asks what the caller, whose name is George, wants, what his plan is, Jackie falls over himself trying to reassure this George that he is not trying to “cop out”. I’m going to take a wild stab in the dark and say this is a criminal who’s been told to wait in a hotel room for instructions on where and when to pull a job. Jackie is very concerned about the heat outside, and the length of time he’s been left waiting, but his impatience and frustration has been interpreted by “George” as a reluctance to carry out the plan, whatever it is. Jackie tries to assure him this is not so.

George hangs up, and the nervous man gets even more nervous; the appearance in person of George does not calm him down, in fact if anything it makes him more ill-at-ease. He talks about how he’s one job short of being put away, and asks George if there is something easier he can do? Not this time though. George assures him it will be no shakedown, no delivery to a fence, no: this time he wants him to step up to the big leagues. He’s going to kill a troublesome old bar owner who won’t pay up the protection money. He hands Jackie a gun, but the smalltime crook recoils from it, saying he has beaten people up before (but always, he says, from behind - “I ain’t got no guts!”) but has never killed anyone. Doesn’t know if he can do it.

But George is not interested. He’s using Jackie as his hitman precisely because he has never done this before. He’s on the cops’ radar for nickel and dime stuff, but nothing big, so he won’t be suspected when it goes down. When George leaves, warning Jackie that if he doesn’t do the job he’ll be killed himself, Jackie has a conversation with himself in the mirror.

Until the mirror reflection of him comes to life.


There it is, another, harder, tougher, less compromising and certainly less nervous version of himself, berating him from beyond the glass. The reflection tells him it is part of him, an older, long-forgotten part, an aspect of his being that could have made it big, but when the time came to take a fork in the road, Jackie went the way of the smalltime hoodlum, and now he has a chance to finally correct that. Thinking - unsurprisingly - that he is going mad, Jackie tries to first talk to and then avoid his reflection, but it’s in every mirror he looks in.

As he can’t avoid it, he starts talking to his reflection (well, continues talking to it, but properly now) as it tells him about all the bad choices he has made in his life, how he could have been a good man, a good husband, stayed out of jail, made something of himself. His reflection it seems is that, for want of another word, good part of him that Jackie suppressed and never let out, that he ignored and resisted, and now he’s going to get killed, and with his death the reflection will die too. He wants to take over, live Jackie’s life properly, the way it should have been lived - a good life, a happy life, a successful life free of crime and guns and the Georges of this world.

Thinking he has worked out the trick, Jackie pushes the dresser on which the mirror is standing away, but there’s nothing behind it. Desperately, he spins the mirror on its hinge and suddenly….

When George returns to berate Jackie for not killing the old man, it’s a new Jackie he finds. He’s beaten up, kicked out and the new Jackie tells the old - now imprisoned in the mirror and wondering what will become of him - that a whole new chapter of his life has been opened. He leaves the four dollar room, never to return.

Serling's closing monologue

Exit Mr. John Rhoades, formerly a reflection in a mirror, a fragment of someone else's conscience, a wishful thinker made out of glass, but now made out of flesh, and on his way to join the company of men. Mr. John Rhoades, with one foot through the door and one foot out of the Twilight Zone.

The Resolution

Very predictable, and clumsily handled, I feel. The story has been leading up to the mirror Jackie taking over, and that’s exactly what happens. Bah.

The Moral

Make a change with the man in the mirror?

Serling's Appearance

It’s interesting to see that while, in the last two episodes, Serling's entrance was rather mundane - walking in the desert or into the pawn shop - the kind of thing where if you didn’t know who he was you might just assume he was an extra, in this one the perspective skews. We see a top-down view of the room with Jackie lying on the bed, and Serling superimposed over it, standing, so that it seems like he floats above the room. Maybe it’s meant to convey his godlike presence as the agent of fate or whatever, but it’s odd. Later we also see Jackie in top-down mode, but this time without the narrator.


Madness, as Jackie thinks he’s gone insane, talking to his own reflection. Also desperation; he knows he has nothing to look forward to, and fears what will happen both if he kills the old man on George’s instructions and if he does not. Second chances as he is given the opportunity to live a life he could have had, had he made better choices. Crime, a recurrent motif in the show, is here too, and I guess you could also add in magic or even doppelgangers, with redemption finally taking centre stage.

And isn't that...?

Joe Mantell (1915 - 2010)

Best known for being the speaker of the final line in the classic 1974 Jack Nicholson movie Chinatown - “Forget it, Jake: it’s Chinatown!” Mantell also had a role in Hitchcock’s The Birds, albeit a small one, and, well, that’s kind of it really. Again I thought I knew him but I don’t.

Questions, and sometimes, Answers

Is it not a little silly how easily George - whom we’re led to understand is a big time crime boss, a kingpin, allows George to defy him and doesn’t even retaliate? Sure, the biggest bullies are usually the biggest cowards, but why doesn’t he shoot him, or get some of his guys to do so later on? But he just folds, and runs off. As if.


Not at all.

Those clever little touches

There’s a good line in dialogue, kind of stolen later by Police Squad! When he’s talking to his reflection Jackie says “nobody tells me what to do!” A moment later the phone rings and it’s George, and with all his pent-up anger suddenly deflated out of him, he mumbles “sure George, I’m doing what you told me to do.”


No, not really. I was thinking along other lines. When Jackie’s mirror image started berating him I thought this might be where he found the guts he said he hadn’t got to do the job, and that it might in fact have given him confidence and made him a tougher criminal. Guess that would have been a poor message to put out though.

The WTF Factor

Another low one, maybe a 4 again.

Personal Notes

This and the first episode have been masterclasses in one-person acting. It’s got to be hard, acting a scene in which there is nobody else, so much more so when it’s a whole episode, but both actors pull it off very well.

Great. Now I read that the whole reason for there being only two actors in total was to save costs! That’s my bubble burst then. Oh well, it doesn’t invalidate the powerful solo performance of Joe Mantell.
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