The Twilight Zone: Season 1, Episode Twelve “What You Need”

Original Air Date: December 25, 1959
Writer: Lewis Padgett/Rod Serling
Director: Alvin Ganzer

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Serenity, peace of mind, humor -the things you need most, I can’t supply.”

“What You Need” was based on the 1945 short story of the same name by spouses Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore under their joint nome de plume “Lewis Padget.” The Twilight Zone episode was actually not the first on-screen depiction of the story, in fact there was an earlier show called Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953) with an episode that was perhaps more true to the original story (in which an old man possesses a unique scientific machine rather than a vague fantastical power) but few things can unseat the greatness of The Twilight Zone. The earlier show Tales of Tomorrow was a live program that ran on ABC featuring many big name actors during its run including Lon Chaney Jr., Paul Newman, James Dean, Boris Karloff, Leslie Nielsen, and others.

“You’re looking at Mr. Fred Renard, who carries on his shoulder a chip the size of the national debt. This is a sour man, a friendless man, a lonely man, a grasping, compulsive, nervous man. This is a man who has lived 36 undistinguished, meaningless, pointless, failure-laden years and who at this moment looks for an escape- any escape, any way, anything, anybody- to get out of the rut. And this little old man is just what Mr. Renard has been waiting for.”
-Rod Serling

A curious old man named “Pedott” (played by Ernest Truex) has the uncanny ability to offer people exactly what they need (not necessarily what they desire). The implication is that Pedott possesses clairvoyance. He demonstrates his ability in a cafe by offering a vial of cleaner to a woman, and he delivers a former Chicago Cub’s pitcher a bus ticket to Scranton, Pennsylvania. The phone rings and a minor league coaching job is offered to the pitcher in Pennsylvania, but he suddenly realizes he has a stain on his suit coat. The woman with the vial of cleaner helps him and they depart together. Their needs have been met thanks to Pedott.

Meanwhile a shady man at the bar has been watching the situation unfold. His name is Fred Renard (played by Steve Cochran), and he follows Pedott outside demanding to be given what he needs. Pedott hands him a pair of scissors which he later finds useful when his scarf is caught in an elevator, very nearly killing him by strangulation.

After surviving the event in the elevator, ever the exploiter Fred once again tracks down the gentle Pedott and threatens him unless he plays into Fred’s schemes. Fred is a down-on-his luck guy who has been struggling all his life and he wants some security for the future. As he grows increasingly belligerent, Pedott hands him a pair of shoes while cautiously backing away. The shoes cause Fred to slip in front of an oncoming car and he dies upon collision. In a world where Pedott may be killed, perhaps death what is truly needed.

“Street scene. Night. Traffic accident. Victim named Fred Renard. Gentleman with a sour face to whom contentment came with difficulty. Fred Renard, who took all that was needed, in the Twilight Zone.”
-Rod Serling

Once again the cinematography of George T. Clemens is brilliant in this episode as we find a uniquely rainy, dark, and hazy MGM backlot made to look something like the streets of Chicago. The brilliance of The Twilight Zone often lies in its simplicity and subtly as well as its remarkable world-building atmosphere. Nothing is ever truly out of place, but the show retains a level of mystery and intrigue along with a coherent conclusion that often leaves its audience in a state of wonder. “What You Need” operates under the assumption that every person has a deprivation, whether they know it yet or not.

The Twilight Zone Trivia:

  • The original story featured a machine that could foretell an individual’s future. Serling replaced this science-fiction element with a fantasy story about a street peddler who could perform a similar act without the machine. In the original story the man owns a shop where he has a machine, and gives people what they need for the best possible outcomes. Also, the Renard character is killed not by a car, but by falling off a subway platform while a train is coming in to the station.
  • Writer Henry Kuttner was a literary influence on early Twilight Zone writers Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson. Bradbury compiled a compendium of Kuttner’s short works in 1975, and Matheson dedicated his most famous novel I Am Legend to Kuttner.
  • During the scene in Mr. Renard’s hotel room a bellhop brings him a newspaper. Renard then opens it and spreads it out on the floor. The movement is quick, but the front page of the newspaper is visible, indicating that it is the same front page used in another Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough at Last”. The headline reads “H-Bomb Capable of Total Destruction.” Once Renard opens the paper and looks at the racing page, several in-jokes are apparent in the names of the listed jockeys, which include “Serling”, “Clemens” (referencing director of photography George Clemens), “Houghton” (referencing producer Buck Houghton), “Butler” (referencing set decorator Rudy Butler) and “Denault” (referencing assistant director Edward Denault).
  • Many of the actors in this episode in later series episodes, most notably Ernest Truex appears in the Season 3 episode “Kick The Can.”

Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.

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