Exploring The Twilight Zone #136: The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross

With the entire original run of The Twilight Zone available to watch instantly, we’re partnering with Twitch Film to cover all of the show’s 156 episodes. Are you brave enough to watch them all with us?

The Twilight Zone (Episode #136): “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” (airdate 1/17/64)

The Plot: A no-good putz wishes the universe would give him a break just once. And it does… Twilight Zone style.

The Goods: Salvadore Ross (Don Gordon) is what the French call “a douche.” He pulls up one morning in a fancy new car and accosts a woman on the street who he used to date (and who briefly looks like Rene Russo). Leah (Gail Kobe) is surprised to see him riding around in style, but she’s less impressed when she learns he simply “borrowed” the car from an old man he’s currently working for. She rebuffs his aggressive advances, but he works his way into her home where he gets an equally chilly reception from Leah’s otherwise kindly father. Sal wishes aloud that something would go his way just one time and punches a wall for emphasis… which immediately results in a broken hand.

“I’ve got a Christmas morning surprise for you baby!”

Sal arrives at the hospital and finds himself rooming with an old man suffering from a cold and whining about it. True to form, Sal gives the old guy grief and jokingly offers to swap his busted hand for the old guy’s sniffles. The man accepts, and when they awaken the next morning the exchange has come true. His eyes immediately filled with the possibilities, Sal ignores the old man’s pleas that his hand can’t heal at his age and sets out to make his fortune.

First he trades his youth for a million dollars and a fancy apartment, and then he brilliantly parlays his age back down again, one year at a time, for $1000 a pop. The end result sees him back to his mid-twenties but hundreds of thousands of dollars richer. He’s a dick, but he’s a no fool.

But when his new bank balance isn’t enough to win back Leah he appeals to her father with one last trade. Quick cut to the next day and the couple arrives all happy and in love, but when Sal asks the old man for his daughter’s hand in marriage the guy reminds him that Sal took his compassion. And then shoots Sal dead.

This is not a good ending.

The revelation that Sal traded for the father’s compassion implies that’s the element that was missing from Sal’s personality. He’s nicer now, so Leah loves him. Fine. But what did he give the old man in return? He’s still in a wheel chair and doesn’t appear to be any wealthier. But also, why would the old man have given away his compassion like that anyway? He seemed like a smart and wise father and man, so a deal like this seems out of character. But even if you accept that decision, why would he shoot Sal? Lack of compassion doesn’t drive a person to murder, especially one they can’t cover up at all. Sal was without compassion apparently for 26 years, but he never killed anyone.

Ending aside, this is a pretty good episode of the show. The actors give solid performances, and even Gordon, who is a complete tool for most of the episode, manages to come across as sincere in his final minutes. Wish fulfillment is a common theme on the series, but the script here from Jerry McNeely (from Henry Slesar’s short story) puts an interesting spin on it with the concept of trading up and down. It’s like a white elephant party with a Twilight Zone twist.

On an unrelated note, is anyone else creeped out by Sal’s turn as an old man? Not his physical appearance, that looks fine, but by his behaviors and words with the young man. He invites the 19-year-old in saying “let me take a look at you” before touching his arm and asking his age. It’s interesting how a scene that was so innocent in the sixties now seems like an after school special on pedophiles.

What do you think?

The Trivia: Seymour Cassel plays the elevator man, Jerry. Thirty seven years later he starred in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums where he once again played an elevator man.

On the Next Episode: “In a futuristic society, a young woman resists undergoing a medical procedure that makes people young and immune to disease.”

Catch-Up: Episodes covered by Twitch / Episodes covered by FSR

We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.

Rob is the Chief Film Critic of Film School Rejects. He doesn't eat cheese on weekdays.

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