Although “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” was the third episode of The Twilight Zone, it feels like the spiritual sequel to “Where Is Everybody”, the magisterial opening written by series creator Rod Serling. Once again, we’re in a fairly quotidian, familiar space within American cinema, although this time it’s not the small town but the western’s main street, where most of the action occurs. There, we’re introduced to Al Denton, played by Dan Duryea, a former gunslinger who turned to alcohol after a duel went wrong earlier in his career. With the help of a mysterious salesman named Henry J. Fate (Malcom Atterbery), Denton manages to get his talent back only to lose it again in a duel that provides him with the confidence he needs to give up drinking, but also the confidence he needs to give up gunslinging for good as well. In many ways, the episode plays as a cautionary tale about gun control, which is quite unusual for a western, and there’s something quite elegant about the way in which Rod Serling’s script plays to all our residual gun fetishes only to puncture them through the slightest of magical realist touches at the end.
The sense of cinematic heritage is all the more acute in that Martin Landua plays Dan Hotaling, Al Denton’s nemesis. Granted, Landau was at a fairly early stage in his career by this time, but in combination with Duryea he marks a moment in the series at which big-screen names started to play more and more of a role, a process enacted and allegorised in the next episode, “The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine,” in which an ageing actress, played by Ida Lupino, sequesters herself in a televisually confined space to gaze back upon her golden days on the silver screen. It feels right, then, that Serling’s voiceover, which played quite a major role in the second episode (“One For The Angels”), is largely pared back here, leaving us with a televisual western.
In some ways, the idea of a televisual western was a bit of a misnomer at the time, since the western – more than any other genre – was often used as an argument for cinema’s continued aesthetic supremacy over television, thanks in part to its amenability with widescreen, panoramic and cinemascopic technologies. Just as the opening episode effectively televised widescreen, however, “Mr. Denton on Doomday” draws upon a subsidiary branch of westerns in the 50s and 60s that seemed to consciously defy this panoramic, aspirational aesthetic. That’s not to say that this is exactly a chamber western, but that the twenty-five minute running time forces it into something like an accelerated western, producing a sense of accelerated real time not unlike that of High Noon, especially once Henry J. Fate provides Denton with the tools he needs to shoot faster than human speed. Given that the classical widescreen western depended on subordinating and subsuming time into a languorous, decelerated drift of space, there is something about this frenzied temporality that punctures the very widescreen criteria we might use to judge the episode, as well as the western “values” with which they were typically associated.
At the same time, however, this compressed western aesthetic also opens up the cosmic foundation of the western genre in ways that seem to widen time, if not space, even as it is constricted and condensed at key moments as well. Whereas the first episode expanded and contracted space, here Serling expands and contracts time, although the result in both cases is to introduce a genuine dialectic between claustrophobia and agoraphobia, and between cinema and television, as the aesthetic foundation and premise of the series itself. For that reason, “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” frequently reminded me of another great western released in 1959 – Howards’ Hawks Rio Bravo, whose “space for a cowboy to dream” often seemed to be operating here as well. Condensing the western so as to bring out something uncanny, cosmic and profoundly irrealistic around its fringes, “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” finally feels like a new kind of genre television, or a new kind of attention to genre on television, a beautiful reminder that the western horizon had itself become a form of science-fiction in the wake of the widescreen revolution.