Rod Serling had acquired John Collier’s wicked short story The Chaser and made a memorable Twilight Zone episode from it, so I guess they felt entitled to “borrow” another of his yarns, Evening Primrose, and turn it into The After Hours, which isn’t quite as beautiful and complete as its unofficial source, but is still pretty incredible. Chalk it up as a NOSFERATU or FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, one of those examples of plagiarism you can’t help but feel grateful for.
We start with an intriguing mystery — Anne Francis arrives at a department store with the intention of buying a gold thimble. A slightly odd elevator operator — you know, just slightly odd — takes her to the ninth floor, which is deserted save for one woman and one thimble. The woman sells Anne the thimble. It’s only after this transaction has occurred that Anne questions how strange it all is. Then, on the way back, she notices that the thimble is dented. She tries to return it —
Cut to an entirely different KIND of episode, one of the Zone‘s frequent and seldom wholly comfortable comedies, with a camp floorwalker and hammy manager discussing the strangeness of Miss Francis’ tale. You see, there IS no ninth floor.
The discussion spills out on to the shop floor, where Anne sees the woman who sold her the dented thimble — just as a shop assistant lifts the woman up — she’s a mannequin. Excellent close-up of the figure bobbing along as if walking herself, though we know she’s being carried. Anne faints, is forgotten about, and wakes when the store is closed.
(The director here is Douglas Heyes, who did KITTEN WITH A WHIP but also several very strong TZ episodes, including the celebrated Eye of the Beholder.)
Now there’s another gear shift, as we learn the truth — the ninth floor is populated by department store dummies, who come to life when no one is looking, Toy Story style. Worse, Anne is one of them, but she’d forgotten this fact while on her annual holiday. She ends up accepting her new, limited half-life, but it’s haunting, melancholic.
This episode is simultaneously completely overwhelming, which means it MUST be good — and totally unsatisfactory in story terms. Where Collier’s yarn (also televised in musical form by Stephen Sondheim with Anthony Perkins) is beautifully self-contained and logical within its own nutty terms, Serling’s is a big plate full of loose ends. Why does Anne Francis think she wants to buy a gold thimble for her mother? How does the other mannequin know this? Why are the uncomfortable comedy characters unaware of the ninth floor? I’m in a troubling place here because I hate plot holes but I love unsolvable mysteries. Serling gets away with this uncharacteristically shambolic construction because the eerie, tragic place he parks us in at the story’s end — “in the Twilight Zone” is so touching, and because the superb Anne Francis expresses the yearning to be alive so well. Somehow the longing to be truly human is a universally recognized emotion, as if we all feel deep down that we haven’t made it yet.