Friday, December 2, 2016

"The Odds"

Original Airdate: October 21, 1984

Directed by James Sadwith.

Written by James Sadwith.

Starring Danny Aiello (Tommy Vale), Tom Noonan (Bill Lacey), Robert Weil (Horace Chadway), Anthony Bishop (Phil the Bartender), Mario Todisco (Mafioso), and Michael Quill (Lacey's Man).

SYNOPSIS: Bookie Tommy Vale has earned a reputation of never turning down a bet, no matter what the odds are like. Vale finds his mettle challenged when a strange figure from the past comes calling, placing big bets that keep winning big bucks. It doesn't take long for the sharp Vale to gather that the man is the long-dead Bill Lacey, a former customer who committed suicide after taking a huge loss. But the stakes become considerably higher when Lacey proposes that Vale bet against the time of his own death...

CRITIQUE: This episode marks the first occasion in the series when the same person has directed from their own script, creating a real unity of vision here compared to the last few good-to-okay (but muddled) stories. Right from the get-go Sadwith establishes his hardboiled world of tough bookies and wise guys and keeps it running smoothly all the way to the finish line. Sadwith is comfortable in this type of atmosphere and it shows, much to our enjoyment.

"The Odds" also has the benefit of playing like a one-act play, confined as it is to a single location peopled with just a few characters. This may spell "boring" for some, but as Aristotle would be quick to remind us, the most effective dramas take place in the span of twenty-four hours. I myself have a strong affinity for this type of story, both for its succinctness and its noir qualities, and the marriage of the two works incredibly well under Sadwith's assured hand.

These are traits that, like many from other TFTD episodes, harken back to The Twilight Zone. The sweaty bar full of meat-heads was a prominent fixture in "Mr. Dingle, the Strong" and the central notion of the impossible bet is familiar to anyone who has seen another second season entry, "The Silence." Remaining quiet for one year is comparatively easy next to defying one's own death, but the two episodes both use the concept of the bet to reveal the deceptive natures of their characters. In order to uphold his part of the bargain, the chatterbox from "The Silence" has his vocal chords removed prior to being stuck in his observational glass cage. In "The Odds," Tommy performs "the oldest trick in the book" by turning a clock back one hour in order to live past his expiration date. Our imperfections have a tendency of bubbling to the surface during our most desperate hours.

The dramatic thrust of the story deals with revenge, but Sadwith is less concerned with the bad guy's just-desserts comeuppance as he is with the chemistry between Vale and Lacey. Though the two men appear to be ciphers for the forces of good and evil at first, the truth isn't quite so clear by the end of the episode. Vale may be considered ruthless and hard-edged, but he is nowhere near the morally deranged old codgers we saw in "Trick or Treat" and "I'll Give You a Million." When we find out how he managed to beat the Angel of Death, it's clear that Vale doesn't think much of dishonesty so long as it means coming out the victor in the end either.

Lacey arrives on the scene like an angelic man from the south, toying with Vale by placing wagers that he knows through his divine knowledge will come through. His sharing of hot leads with Vale's other customers appears to be cosmic justice in action, bleeding the stuck pig of all his dough so that he may start to sweat like his other victims. It seems like heavenly powers are righting the scales of justice and everybody's getting what's theirs, as they should be.

The Aiello in its natural habitat

But in spite all of this, it's hard to peg Vale as truly evil. Even when he's tearing Lacey down after winning the bet--a moment that seems to be heartless and malicious on the surface--the exchange could just as easily be interpreted as the more stout-hearted, worldly man confronting Lacey with his own transgressions. Vale tells Lacey that the man dug his own grave, both by betting more than he could afford and killing himself afterward when he lost everything. Lacey's spirit has determined to make Vale feel this same torture, but after this confrontation we can't help but consider how much responsibility Lacey is passing off from himself and onto the Big Bad Bookie.

Aiello and Noonan are great, with Weil providing a nice grounding to their clash. But it's really Aiello that this episode hinges on, and he delivers a performance that manages to highlight his character's nastiness and pomposity while still eliciting a quiet respect from the audience before his number is finally rung in. It seems only fitting that he should die in the only world he has known for all his life, waiting for the cool reprieve of a frosty mug of beer on the way to whatever waits for him on the other side.

"You're not broken yet, are you Tommy?"

RATING: 3 1/2 Lizzies

COMING UP: Justine Bateman cannot compute the strange happenings in "Mookie and Pookie."

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