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Monday, February 10, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Bellero Shield" (2/10/1964)




“The Bellero Shield”
Season 1, Episode 20
Originally aired 2/10/1964

Fifty years ago tonight, The Outer Limits presented another extraterrestrial nice guy who has no choice but to deal with humanity's passionate insistence on screwing everything up.


Inventor/scientist Richard Bellero Jr. has toiled in his larger-than-life father’s shadow for his entire adult life, but has never managed to impress him. His latest invention is a “laser light” cannon of sorts that Bellero Sr. interprets as a weapon and promptly dismisses (his Bellero Corporation’s mission statement is explicitly anti-war). To add insult to injury, Bellero Sr. is due to step down and isn’t planning to pass the torch to his son, much to the chagrin of Judith, Bellero Jr.’s power-hungry wife.


Alone in Bellero Jr.’s observatory/lab, Judith watches in shock as the laser cannon intercepts a humanoid life form, which slides down the laser beam and into the observatory. The Alien immediately throws up an impenetrable shield, which he controls with small handheld mechanism. Judith immediately seizes on the idea of presenting the shield to Bellero Sr. as one of Jr.’s inventions, which she hopes will change his mind about making Jr. his successor. To that end, she murders the Alien and wrenches the control pod out of his hand, severing a tubule that connects to his wrist. Mrs. Dame, Judith’s housekeeper and confidant, hides the body in the basement while Judith summons Bellero Sr. back to demonstrate the shield. 


Bellero Sr. is predictably blown away by the “Bellero Shield” (which Judith activates around herself) and promptly begs for his son’s forgiveness. However, things turn sour fast when Judith is unable to deactivate the shield and is trapped inside. All attempts to free her are fruitless and, with her oxygen supply running out, she relents and confesses her crime.



Mrs. Dame, determined to protect her, rushes to the basement to dispose of the Alien’s body, followed by Bellero Sr. They exchange some words on the stairs and, incensed, she clocks him across the head and sends him tumbling to his death… at the bottom of the stairs, where the Alien’s body lies. Jostled, the Alien opens its eyes, apparently not quite dead from its mortal gunshot wound.


Mrs. Dame rushes him upstairs, where he explains the biological aspect of his shield: his own blood is the “prime ingredient” (hence the tubule between his wrist and the control pod), without which the shield doesn't work (Judith was able to activate it initially because a few drops remained inside the control pod). He uses a dab of blood from his wounded wrist to reach through the shield and retrieve the pod, then deactivates the shield right before he succumbs to his injury.


Unfortunately, Judith still believes she is trapped inside the shield, having been rendered insane by the events of the night. Bellero Jr. and Mrs. Dame look on in sorrowed shock as she whispers: “It will always be here. Nothing can ever remove it. It will always be here.”


RANDOMONIUM


For “The Bellero Shield,” Joseph Stefano and Lou Morheim mapped out the story, and Stefano wrote the teleplay. Like Stefano’s previous “Nightmare,” the episode has a strong theatrical vibe; it would translate easily (and quite effectively) to the stage… as well it should, since it’s essentially a variation on Shakespeare’s Macbeth (which is most evident in the final shot, in which the cuckoo Judith has the Alien’s glowing blood on the palm of her hand à la Lady Macbeth).



After the somewhat bland “ZZZZZ” two weeks ago, the team of director John Brahm and D.O.P. Conrad Hall more than acquit themselves this time around. “The Bellero Shield” is beautifully staged and overall quite impressive visually; Hall’s trademark shadowy, high-contrast photography is gorgeous to behold. The opening shot of Bellero Jr.’s mansion, with the laser beam shooting upward out of it, is a simple but effective introduction to the proceedings: these are some awfully rich folks, and there’s some mighty nifty science stuff happenin'. *

With its small cast, limited sets and relatively low-key alien design (as opposed to, say, the Chromoite or the Thetan), “The Bellero Shield” could have been one of executive producer Leslie Stevens’ quick-and-inexpensive “bottle shows”… until you factor in Bellero Jr.’s impressive high-powered laser weapon platform, which couldn't have been cheap to build. Just look at it! I want one in my house.



Before we get too far into this, I should probably briefly discuss the Alien's name. He, um, doesn't have one: we're never told what planet he hails from, what intergalactic species he belongs to, or what his name might be. Judith likens the Alien's shield to their "Bifröst," which in Norse mythology is a rainbow of sorts connecting Midgard to Asgard (that's earth to heaven for readers who don't speak Thor). The Alien is commonly referred to as the "Bifrost Alien" only as a point of reference for us after-the-fact-commentators. I thought about calling him "Frosty" but, after a few days of being snowbound, I'm done with anything remotely related to ice or snow. Therefore, I'll be referring to him as "Bif" from this point on.


The Vaseline-on-the-lens trick used in the fourth act of “The Man Who Was Never Born” is re-employed here to give Bif a shimmering, otherworldly look. The downside to this approach is that anyone who gets too close to him is unavoidably obscured by the blur; however, it does create a nice bit of unintentional visual continuity, as Martin Landau has now been smeared in this fashion twice on the series.


If I have a complaint (and you know I do), it pertains to the quick sequence depicting Bif’s arrival. And no, it’s not the first shot of him writhing as he slides down the laser beam (it’s a charmingly strange sight, and I actually like it a lot)…. it’s the collection of weird, disjointed shots that follow it. It starts with a rather abrupt medium close shot of Bif standing perfectly still as Judith cowers behind a chair. In the next shot, Bif suddenly drops (presumably from the platform) and does a goofy chicken dance as he catches its balance. We then get an extreme close shot of his face, followed by a shot of Judith firing the laser pistol at him The pacing is just... I dunno, off somehow. It feels awkward. 


In all fairness, this may have been intentional. Perhaps it was an effort to present a heightened encapsulation of the surreal shock experienced by both Judith and the Alien upon meeting. If that's the case, then... well, bravo. Y'all nailed it.

Bif’s shield is an ingenious contrivance, made all the more impressive by its relative simplicity: it’s controlled by a handheld pod (plush ball?) with a button, connected to the user by what amounts to a basic IV port… and that’s it. The concept of such a device linked to the wearer on such an intimate biological level is fascinating; it’s also decades ahead of its time (as a society, we’re only beginning to explore the vast potential of organic and synthetic hybrid technology). Science fiction is of course filled with all manner of cybernetic beings, but I’m reminded most of the Borg species from Star Trek (multiple series, mostly The Next Generation and Voyager) which, in addition to its bio-mechanical physiology, possesses a form of personal shielding.





By smearing a drop of his blood (which looks suspiciously like Elmer’s glue) directly onto the shield’s surface, Bif is able to reach through it to retrieve its control pod. I appreciate the tangibility aspect of the shot: we see Bif’s hand pass through a physical slit of sorts in the shield’s membrane, reinforcing its organic (or semi-organic) nature. The shield, which has been represented by panes of glass up to this point, now looks like some kind of flexible clear vinyl-like material.

I love the opening shot of act four, in which we pan across multiple tools and assorted other implements that Bellero Jr. has tried against Bif’s shield, obviously to no avail. It’s an immediate and quite effective way to convey the mounting desperation of the situation (and to indicate that some time has passed since Judith first found herself stuck inside the shield). And hey, speaking of Thor, is that his mythical hammer there next to that ax....?

After the homoerotic undertones present in last week’s “The Invisibles,” it’s nice to see the ladies getting equal time this week. It’s nothing as painfully obvious as Oliver Fair’s attempt to get into Luis Spain’s “little room,” or alien parasites mounting humans in a fairly evident metaphor for sexual penetration, but there’s definitely something sapphic swirling around beneath the surface here. It appears that Judith is having an extramarital affair with Mrs. Dame (Schow calls it a “faint whiff” in his Outer Limits Companion, but it seems pretty apparent to me; I dunno, maybe I'm more attuned to these things for some reason...!). They engage in a kind of Master and Servant game between them in the early scenes and, later, Mrs. Dame relays the following to Bellero Jr.: “Sometimes, when she is dreaming, I am there.” Mrs. Dame is clearly prepared to go above and beyond to protect Judith, much more so than your average live-in housekeeper would, and she’s clearly devastated as Judith’s ultimate fate becomes apparent. It’s pretty apparent that she’s in love with Judith; sadly, it seems Judith views her as little more than a sexual playmate. In this light, Judith’s end feels a bit less tragic, and Mrs. Dame emerges the true victim.



TEASE ME!


This week’s teaser is the scene in act four in which Mrs. Dame dispatches Bellero Sr. in the basement. I realize that any teaser is unavoidably a spoiler on some level, since we're seeing a scene before the fact (albeit out of context). However, seeing Bellero Sr. take his fatal tumble, followed by the presumably-dead Bif’s eyes suddenly popping open, are what I would categorize as MAJOR SPOILERS, since foreknowledge of them dramatically undercuts the dramatic tension level throughout the second half. It doesn’t help that it’s probably the single best scene in the entire episode, so seeing it right out of the gate… well, kinda sucks. Anyway, It’s edited some for expediency’s sake (1:42 in length versus 2:00); however, the most notable difference is the use of “It’s Here” from “The Human Factor” as the underscore. 


AURAL PLEASURE

“The Bellero Shield” is scored with pre-existing cues by Dominic Frontiere from earlier Outer Limits scores, most notably “The Man Who Was Never Born” (“Andro Breaks Mirror”; “Enter Andro”; “Andro Revealed”); an interesting choice which, like the Vaseline lens trick, serves to connect both Martin Landau episodes. We also hear “Scarecrows” from “The Architects of Fear,” here underlining a romantic moment between Bellero Jr. and Judith in act one. 

Regular readers will recall that I’ve been obsessing over a mysterious music cue that we first heard in “O.B.I.T.,” then again a month later in “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork.” It was composed by Frontiere for Stoney Burke, Daystar Production’s pre-TOL series (1962-63).  I’m happy to report that the cue appears again this week, three or four different times, but most notably in act four (time stamp 42:19) where it can be heard in its full minute-and-a-half glory, with only a smattering of dialogue and sound effects on top of it. Have a listen:

video


DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Martin Landau heads up the cast as Richard Bellero Jr. and, as already mentioned, visited The Outer Limits before in “The Man Who Was Never Born.” Another interesting TOL connection: Landau also starred in “The Ghost of Sierra Cobre,” the pilot episode of Joseph Stefano’s next series attempt The Haunted (a series which never got off the ground, unfortunately). He crossed over into The Twilight Zone twice (“Mr. Denton on Doomsday” and “The Jeopardy Room,” the latter of which will turn 50 in April). Landau also starred as Captain John Koenig in TV’s Space: 1999 (1975-77), a series which also starred TOL alum Barry Morse (“Controlled Experiment”).


Sally Kellerman is marvelous as the power-hungry Judith Bellero in her second TOL role (she was quite good as Ingrid in “The Human Factor”; in fact, she was probably the best thing about that mediocre episode). She played Dr. Elizabeth Dehner in Star Trek’s “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and she briefly appeared in an uncredited role as an office worker in The Twilight Zone’s “Miniature.” Most remember her as the original “Hot Lips” Houlihan in 1970’s M*A*S*H, but 80’s kids like me recall her work in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School. I said it last time we saw her, and I’ll say it again: she’s a bona fide TOL babe.


John Hoyt is unrecognizable as Bif the Bifrost Alien; even his voice is manipulated to the point where his distinctive voice is almost impossible to discern. He has two other TOL credits on his resume (“Don’t Open Till Doomsday” and next season’s “I, Robot”), along with one appearance on Star Trek (“The Cage”) and two on The Twilight Zone (“The Lateness of the Hour" and "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”).


If Neil Hamilton (Richard Bellero Sr.) looks extremely familiar, it’s because we just enjoyed him last week in “The Invisibles.” He’s probably best remembered as Commissioner Gordon on TV’s Batman (1966-68), which guest-starred a number of TOL alums throughout its run, including Cliff Robertson (“The Galaxy Being”), Grace Lee Whitney (“Controlled Experiment”), and one of our beloved Ichthys, stuntman Paul Stader (“Tourist Attraction”).


And finally, Chita Rivera is quite good as the barefoot Mrs. Dame. This is the only genre work on her résumé, but she has a pretty major real-life TOL connection outside of “The Bellero Shield”: she was married to Tony Mordente (Genero Planetta in last week’s “The Invisibles”) for nine years!

The Mordente-Rivera wedding, 1957 (picture pilfered from Rivera's website).


HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“The Bellero Shield” has enjoyed three distinct releases on VHS. First and foremost, it was available at retail; I probably bought mine at Tower Video (R.I.P.), which is where I snagged most of the ones I owned back in the day. Interesting note about the cover on this one: it’s the only time in the entire 48-tape series that two actors’ names appear.


The episode could also be found in Columbia House’s exclusive mail-order VHS club. Each volume featured two episodes; “The Bellero Shield” was paired with “Keeper of the Purple Twilight” (one of the sillier offerings from the show’s second season), a damned awkward pairing to be sure. Meanwhile in the UK, a paltry 16 TOLs were released on VHS (two episodes per tape); the 8th and final volume paired “The Bellero Shield” with “Demon with a Glass Hand,” one of season two’s best and brightest offerings. 


TOL fans who collected LaserDiscs probably know that “The Bellero Shield” appeared on the second LD collection (out of a total four). I wasn’t one of them, but I always harbored a peripheral interest in the format. Was it really that much better than VHS? Anyone?


I dread writing this paragraph every week, since there are only so many unique ways I can impart the exact same information. Like I did a couple of weeks back, I’m going to crib from myself and raid a previous entry: “(‘The Bellero Shield’) has found its way onto three different DVD releases: the season one boxed set in 2002, the volume 1 set in 2007 (which comprised the first half of season 1), and the complete series boxed set in 2008. In all three incarnations, the discs are exactly the same, those unreliable DVD-18s (double-sided and dual-layered) that are the bane of the so many collectors’ existences.”


Children of the Information Age (of all ages) can bypass physical media entirely and stream the entire series via Hulu, which will give you near-DVD quality if your internet connection is halfway decent (however, if any of you are still using dial-up, you’re S.O.L.). The best part? It’s totally free!


TRADING CARD CORNER

Bif was rechristened “The Radio-Active Man” in Topps’ 1964 Monsters from Outer Limits trading card series. As is the case with the other monsters and aliens depicted in the set, the information on the back of the card has virtually nothing to do with the episode’s story: here he’s a human scientist mutated by exposure to radiation, which isn’t nearly as goofy as most of the stories concocted for these cards.



MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT

Bif would've made a great Sideshow Collectibles action figure (something of an opposite for their Ebonite Interrogator; an all-white angel to play off that black devil). Sadly, it wasn’t to be since the line ended so quickly and, aside from X-Toys’ excellent Thetan figure from last year, nobody seems interested in exploiting The Outer Limits’ vast collectible potential these days. Given the (severely) limited merchandising of the series over the years, many (okay, most) of the show’s aliens and monsters have been criminally under-rendered.


More often than not, the only game in town is Dimensional Designs, which has managed to create high-end model kits of almost every beast in the series’ run. Bif is happily represented here in a resin kit sculpted by Chris Choin (DD/OL/BA-01), which you can acquire for $49.95 plus shipping. Of course, he’ll arrive unassembled and unpainted, so you’ll need the proper skill set for this kind of thing (which, sadly, I lack). Mr. Enamel has impressive talents in this regard, however….













Speaking of skills, our friend Woody Welch is an artistic force to be reckoned with. Here are his pencil renderings of Martin Landau and John Hoyt which, like all of his sketches, are startlingly accurate.



THE WRAP-UP

"The Bellero Shield" is a beautiful and atmospheric tragedy, yet another top-notch Outer Limits episode. If it's not a top ten favorite of mine, it hovers damn close. I'm probably starting to sound like a broken record with my weekly gushing, but hey, you can't  blame me if the show is so great so much of the time.



Wanna program a great Macbeth-themed black and white mini-marathon? Start with Orson Welles' 1948 Macbeth (available on blu-ray from Olive Films), segue into Akira Kurosawa's 1957 Throne of Blood (recently released on blu-ray by The Criterion Collection), and finish up with 1964's "The Bellero Shield."  I'm gonna do this soon....










* These episode spotlights are never written in order; that is to say, I write each section in nonlinear spurts and chunks, not from start to finish. At this particular point in the process, I was pretty buzzed on 10 Barrel Brewing’s Pray for Snow Winter Ale while we were experiencing a fairly severe (by Pacific Northwest standards) snow storm, so forgive my lapse into trailer park vocabulary.




9 comments:

  1. More of my personal notes from years ago that were probably influenced heavily by Schow's Companion, but I'm too lazy to go back and check.

    "The Bellero Shield" is a respected but somewhat underrated Outer Limits episode to fans of the show. I happen to think it's one of the finest of them all.

    Sally Kellerman (Judith Bellero) and John Hoyt (the alien) own this show. Kellerman's Judith is a manipulative, power-hungry beauty who turns lethal in her battle for ownership of the Bellero empire. John Hoyt is brilliant as the alien who is beamed inadvertently into the Bellero's power struggle by Judith's husband; smart-guy Richard Bellero (Martin Landeau). The conflict between Judith and "Father" Bellero (Neil Hamilton) is palpable and it's so much fun to see Father Bellero whimper and beg for his son Richard's acceptance after years of denying the same to him.

    The special effects are at times corny, but still quite creative. The Plexi-Glass alien shield generated by the alien is a neat prop and the way that the alien is shot through a vasoline-covered lens gives it a glow worthy of being a creature made of light. The moment at the beginning of the episode when the alien is pulled down by Richard's space-probing light beam is terrific and a bit freaky. However, I think my favorite effects touch is how the alien's voice kind of hums when he begins to speak, almost like he is trying to get his voice in tune. Its a small touch but I thought it was very different.

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  2. May I add a "Weird History" note on this OL? From 'life imitates art imitating life ...' (or is it the other way around?) perspective. Ref - Wikipedia entry, "Betty and Barney Hill Abduction."

    This rapt OL viewer (ever the unobservant) didn't realize, just watching: Bifrostie has 'wrap-around eyes.' A condition I never even heard of before (or since). "(A)n extreme rarity" (a quote WP cites to some Martin Kottmeyer, 1990). I don't recall anyone in the show, dialogue, remarking on it.

    Apparently, the phrase first came from Barney Hill, in a hypnosis session, describing aliens whose path crossed his one dark night in New Hampshire. Its part of how he described their look.

    Not sure, maybe the phrase then got promoted, somewhere along the way, to a regular ocular morphology - like a taxonomic feature or something. Then pressed into duty, to explain (if I got this right) the origin of the "Hill abduction" event. That facial detail, at least.

    Not sure what to make, or how, of the data. Kottmeyer sez, WP-quoted (see what you think):

    "Wraparound eyes are an extreme rarity in science fiction films. I know of only one instance ... THE BELLERO SHIELD... Barney first described and drew the wraparound eyes during the hypnosis session dated 22 February ... "Bellero Shield" was first broadcast on 10 February 1964. Only twelve days separate the two... If the identification is admitted, the commonness of wraparound eyes in the abduction literature falls to cultural forces."

    Wonder what the diagnostics of that 'wrap-around' eye morphology are, exactly. And what kina study Kottmeyer's made of scifi, to conclude how rare? Actually, I got no idea what to think. The peasants are revolting, but OL I like ...

    I wonder too if Stefano, or Stevens, or anyone other Persons of Interest ever got asked for their take on this 'Bellero Shield / Barney Hill' biz. And what they mighta said if so, holy cow ...

    Awe and mystery forever.

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  3. Always loved this one, and not just because I got autographs from both stars:

    http://i6.photobucket.com/albums/y231/billhuelbig/Chiller%20Theatre%20-%20October%202011/1f05392a.jpg

    Recently my landlord came over with a friend who requested to see an Outer Limits episode. This was the one I chose.

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  4. In re-watching it for its 50th birthday, I was struck by how amazing the episode is. It's remained in my thoughts throughout the week after it aired, as I've worked on "The Children of Spider County"... which is quite a step down.

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  5. The laser beam shooting out of the old victorian house and THAT music!!! I want that music. I have everything but that and a couple other Stoney Burke cues. I WANT this music!!! The Bifrost creature sliding down the laser beam was a pretty cool thing to see in 1964. I actually think it's still cool but I still see the show through the eyes of that kid.

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  6. I would like to use the image of the alien and Martin Landau (minus the "Dude, your fly's open" lettering) as an interior illustration for a book I'm co-authoring on UFOs. However, finding out who has the rights to the image has been frustrating. Can you tell me the source of the image?

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    Replies
    1. I screen-grabbed it from an MKV of the episode on my computer. Who owns it? MGM, I guess, since it's a direct capture.

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  7. I saw all episodes of the series as a kid. Many stayed with me for these 50 or so years. 6 months ago, I binge watched ALL the episodes again. Now I know what my favorites are. I've since re-watched about 7 or 8 of the episodes AGAIN, maybe 5 or 6 times each. This is one of those episodes. Really well done. Great special FX that still work for me. The alien sliding down the pole of light still gets me every time. And the music never gets old.

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