From The Naked City To The Outer Limits Via Route 66
We’re gonna back into this one,
so have some patience.
We’ll get there.
I’m watching a lot of old TV shows on Amazon Prime.
Much to my delight, many (such as That Girl or The Prisoner,) are as fresh and as fun as when they first aired.
Others (looking at you, Andy Griffith Show) are better enjoyed as artifacts of their era.
A few (Perry Mason being the best example) actually take on a new resonance when seen with knowledge not available to audiences of that time.
I’m a huge fan of the original Outer Limits anthology series, with various episodes written by a wide variety of writers, including Harlan Ellison.
I’m also a huge fan of the Route 66 series, written primarily by Stirling Silliphant.
And while I remember the old Naked City show, I very rarely watched it when it originally aired, and don’t think I ever saw it in re-runs.
But when I learned Route 66 started out as a backdoor pilot (i.e., a TV pilot filmed as an episode of an existing show) Silliphant wrote for Naked City, naturally I needed to track down that episode.
“Four Sweet Corners” turned out as less of a pilot than a proof of concept: Two young men, drifters in modern America, travel from town to town in search of…something (even they don’t know what it is they’re really looking for, only that whatever they already found wasn’t it).
Inspired =koff!= by Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road, the show was supposed to be called The Searchers and star George Maharis and Bob Morris.
(Despite being well done and well received, “Four Sweet Corners” didn’t sell The Searchers and Morris’ tragic death from a cerebral hemorrhage a year later seemed to permanently put the kibosh on the idea…until Chevrolet told CBS they’d be interested in sponsoring a TV show so long as it prominently featured their redesigned Corvette and CBS asked Silliphant “Have you got anything like that?” and Silliphant said “Suuuure…there are these two guys traveling around America, driving from town to town in a brand new Chevy Corvette…” and the next thing you know Route 66 is on the air with Martin Milner sharing driving duties with Maharis [when health issues forced Maharis to drop out of the series, Glenn Corbett joined Milner as his new traveling companion].)
“Four Sweet Corners” and “Merdian”, Naked City’s own pilot episode, impressed me enough to want to watch more episodes of the show, and when I learned TV Guide once ranked "Sweet Prince of Delancey Street" as one of the 100 best TV episodes of all time, that one came next.
…and when I watched it,
I was immediately struck
with a sense of déjà vu.
The story is simple but effective:
To protect the other, a father (James Dunn) and son (Robert Morse, in a characteristically theatrical yet also very dramatic and gripping performance) independently confess to murdering a night watchman (the real perp is Dustin Hoffman [!] in a proto-Ratso Rizzo role).
The episode opens with a nightmare sequence in which Morse suffers through a surreal re-creation of the crime, skulking about boxes and tables and machinery in a warehouse, climbing through windows, killing a watchman who -- when turned over -- is revealed as faceless, shooting cardboard cutouts of police by using his pointed finger as a literal gun that fires actual bullets…
…and I went, “Holy shamolley, this is
Harlan Ellison’s ‘Demon With A Glass Hand’
from The Outer Limits!”
Now, I am most emphatically not saying Ellison lifted plot or characters or dialog for his script, but sunuvagun, the same visuals are there even if “Demon With A Glass Hand” uses them in an entirely different context.
"Sweet Prince of Delancey Street" first aired June 7, 1961.
Ellison at that time edited Rogue magazine in Chicago. Desperate to get out of a bad marriage and a bad career choice., he called in favors from friends in Hollywood and came to California in 1963 (his then wife, also wanting out of Chicago, came along and agreed to divorce him once they arrived).
In 1963 Ellison quickly sold a script to Ripcord, the rights to one of his short stories to Route 66, landed a staff writer gig on Burke’s Law, and saw his Hollywood career off and running.
Always a great respecter of writing in any format or media, Ellison doubtlessly knew who Silliphant was and doubtlessly saw many shows he wrote. He tried cracking Route 66 with original ideas and, when those didn’t sell, adapted at least two of them into short stories that he placed elsewhere.
Never shy about reworking older material, Ellison derived his core concept for “Demon With A Glass Hand” from an unfinished novel he stalled out on. The novel called for a much broader canvas than the one Ellison pitched to The Outer Limits for “Demon With A Glass Hand”. He also melded into the episode references to his Earth vs. Kyba war cycle, four loosely related short stories he published in the 1950s (he later expanded on the series with collaborators).
“Demon With A Glass Hand” takes place almost entirely inside the legendary Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles. Directed by Byron Haskin, the special effects artist turned director most famous for the original War Of The Worlds, it’s an uncharacteristically moody and stylized piece, matching the nightmare sequence of "Sweet Prince of Delancey Street".
In fairness, Alex March, the director of "Sweet Prince of Delancey Street", isn’t a noted stylist either. A good journeyman TV director with a huge list of credits, his Naked City episodes are otherwise entirely consistent with his career.
"Sweet Prince of Delancey Street" was written by another capable journeyman, Sy Salkowitz. Like March, Salkowitz enjoyed a long and honorable career, albeit without anything that indicates a particular taste for the fantastic.
As noted above, the parallels between "Sweet Prince of Delancey Street" and “Demon With A Glass Hand” are striking. Much of The Outler Limits episode takes place in the upper storage area of the Bradbury Building, a space almost indistinguishable from the warehouse featured in Naked City’s episode. One of the Kyba aliens, slain while hunting Robert Culp’s character, has no distinguishable features, same as the murdered watchman in "Sweet Prince of Delancey Street". Robert Morse uses his hand as a weapon, literally firing it as a gun, and Culp’s eponymous glass hand is a super-computer that guides him in his battle against his Kyba pursuers. The warehouse sequences in "Sweet Prince of Delancey Street" are both literally and figuratively nightmarish whether they reflect Morse’s dream or replay the actual crime; the entirety of “Demon With A Glass hand” is filled with stark black an white photography, ominous shadows, bizarre angles and stagings.
Ellison is no longer with us to ask, but he was never the type to borrow / lift / reference / steal the work of another unless he obtained permission first.
I’m guessing he saw "Sweet Prince of Delancey Street" in 1961 and liked it, but in chaos of the three years between seeing it and pitching to The Outer Limits the vivid details that originally attracted him slipped from his conscious mind.
When he pitched to The Outer Limits he sought to maximize his chances by crafting a dramatic story filled with “awe and mystery” that could be filmed economically on a small budget.
Once he literally locked his characters into a single location, he began pulling ideas in from all directions: His abandoned novel, his Earth vs. Kyba stories, even a few visual prompts from The Naked City that he probably no longer recalled watching.
Just as two composers using the same notes come up with wildly different melodies, so Ellison and the creators working on Naked City came up with two wholly different reasons for the same imagery.
They’re fascinating to watch in tandem, and thanks to the modern marvels of technology, now we can.
© Buzz Dixon