Late Night Television

I found a brittle newspaper clipping tucked away in the pages of an old book.  It was a news article about a tragedy that had occurred on set during the filming of an episode of a popular black and white science fiction show from the 1950’s.  The episode was called “The Last Race.”  The exact details of the tragedy were extremely vague and enigmatic.  The article just mentioned that something had happened in the background of a shot.  It didn’t say how or when or what.  But I was quite familiar with the show, and I watched reruns of it nearly every night before I went to bed.

One night as I was brushing my teeth, the episode in question aired.  I sat down on the corner of the bed and leaned towards the TV to better scrutinize the screen.  “The Last Race” was one of the later episodes in the show’s run, and the show’s failing budget was apparent in the episode’s extremely simple composition.  The episode consisted almost entirely of a wide shot of a small winding race track lit up with flood lights at night as race cars zipped around the tight turns.  The story was supposed to be set some time in the future, involving a final race for the fate of humanity.

At one point in the story one of the drivers wrecked his car.  The episode cut to shots of him leaning against a rail at the side of the track where he had crawled away from the wreckage.  These shots were the only other shots in the episode besides those of the race track.  At one point, near the end of the episode, the driver delivered a climatic monologue grasping at all the potentials of mankind lost to trivial and barbaric spectacles, establishing the rather labored twist that the last race was actually the human race.  And that’s when I saw it.

In the background of the monologue shot, just beyond the floodlights that shone on the injured driver, there was a crowd of extras gathered behind the track’s railing.  These people were there to represent the audience watching the race.  In the middle of the driver’s monologue, just at the very edge of the frame, I saw a distraught woman who seemed to stand out from the crowd.  Rather than cheering on the racers, as the extras were presumably instructed to do, she looked about frantically, clutching at a handkerchief.  Then she looked directly at the camera with tormented eyes.  It was the way that she stared at the camera that really caught my attention and made her stand out.  I could see that something was horribly wrong.

Then, driven by who knows what inner turmoil, the woman unexpectedly climbed the rail and ran out onto the track.  All of this transpired in soft focus at the corner of the screen.  I might never have noticed it if I hadn’t been looking.  As the woman ran out of the shot, I could see the flicker of the headlights of the cars zipping by out of frame.  Then an arm from the crowd reached out frantically after the woman and the fingers of the hand curled into a claw as though something had slipped beyond their reach.  I could only see the arm and the hand, but it wasn’t difficult to piece together what had happened.

The episode continued with no acknowledgement of what had transpired in the background.  After the driver had delivered his speech, he slumped limply against the railing, having apparently expired.  Just at the moment that he died, just at the exact moment, the woman appeared again in the background behind the rail, standing still and staring towards the camera with those same tormented eyes.  And then in a blink she was gone.  It was as though her image had been inserted into a single frame, just as the driver was dying.  Maybe an editor had grabbed a shot of the woman from the earlier footage in a clumsy attempt to try to smooth over what had happened and to maintain continuity.  Maybe it was from a different take, one where she contemplated running out onto the track but never did.  Maybe the camera had captured some lingering regret, after the fact.  I had no idea.  I turned off the TV and the lamp and climbed under the blankets, trying to put the whole thing out of my head.

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