Sunday, May 10, 2009

Celebrating Lucifer After His Fall: Betty Andrews' Marvelous "The Ben Engel Story"

Clu Gulager in the performance of his career, a striking "diable au corps," in Betty Andrews' most unusual celebration of a Mephistopheles, an episode of the very long-running (1957-1965) "Wagon Train," first airing March 16, 1964, via ABC.
written by Betty Andrews; directed by Joseph Pevney; photographed under the direction of Lionel Lindon; sets designed by Howard Johnson
Principal Players: John McIntire as Scoutmaster Christopher Hale; Robert Fuller as Scout Cooper Smith; John Doucette as Ben Engel; Clu Gulager as Harry Diel; Katherine Crawford as Evie (Mrs. Harry) Diel; Darby Hinton as Benjy Diel
Whatever influenced Betty Andrews to write "The Ben Engel Story" must have rivaled the "tears and blood" of Eugene O'Neill's plays of pure hellfire and thunder.
As a new passenger aboard Christopher Hale's (John McIntire) wagon train west, the darkly handsome but somewhat debilitated Civil War veteran, believed to have been a hero, Harry Diel (Clu Gulager) immediately impresses most all the ladies on board, drawn to his exotic glimpses, but who leaves much of the male population with thoroughly differing perceptions. Stories begin circulating concerning what the menfolk find to be Diel's general wantonness and unholy aptitude with poker, and when such a game culminates with Diel's shooting a rival with what an onlooker is fully prepared to testify was an act of deliberate cold-blood, there are those who advocate a quick lynching. In steps the taciturn, middle-aged Ben Engel (John Doucette) who in gentlemanly fashion begins to plead on behalf of Harry who, reports Ben, is a man to whom he cannot owe enough. But scout Cooper Smith (Robert Fuller) imparts to Mr. Hale that during the war Diel was notorious, and was said to have "thought about killing the way that some men think about women." Hale then comments that in Scotland, from whence Harry came, "Diel" is the word for Devil. A passerby comments on the Diel gait: "Did he always limp? Lucifer was said to have had a limp after his Fall."
In a flashback, Ben Engel then relates the story of how he came to know Harry Diel. An incorrigible youth who had once attempted to stab and rob Ben of his money, Ben nevertheless took pity on the youth, for if sentenced to a penitentiary what, then, would become of Diel's expectant wife Evie (Katherine Crawford)? The judge is unconvinced by Engel's Samaritan plea, but because the over-aged Engel had received an induction notice for service in the Union Army, the judge arranges for Diel to serve in place of Engel. The judge warns, "He looks like an angel, but not all angels stayed in heaven, Ben."
Diel returns from the war, his bloody notoriety preceding him, to Engel's home, where he finds his wife Evie and their four year-old son (Darby Hinton) whom his wife has named Benjy after their benefactor, doing well indeed under Ben's guidance. Yet Diel toys with the affections of his wife and needlessly, ostentatiously, gambols with his son, so as to impress upon Ben, if only by implication, that his heretofore surrogate fatherhood lacks the physical agility of a man in the springtime of his youth. Ben cannot help noting the fact that Harry seems not to have aged at all; that, just the opposite of the lot of war-scarred downtrodden veterans, Harry seems to have come from the war more robust than ever. When Harry learns that Ben now intends to return to him his family for his youthful keeping, as Ben intends to travel West, Harry crudely remarks that if the war has been debilitating to him at all (his limp remains, but from a small child Harry is believed never to have been without it), then surely Ben's mental anguish on the home front means that he too must be looked after by Harry. Accordingly, Engel, Diel, Evie and Benjy all board Hale's wagon train and the flashback concludes.
Evie, beautiful, patient, steadfast in her loyalty both to her husband and to Ben, fits well the image of her archetype, the pristine (that is to say, before given to the temptation) Eve. She bears up to her husband's acerbic commentaries on her freedom from him for four years, tucked away in the status of Ben's middle-class morality. Looking into their reflection in a mirror, he lasciviously eyes both his wife's and then narcissistically his own image. Evie says to her husband, "You just use people until there's nothing left"; then, "When will I ever look into a mirror and not see you?"
Diel then limps back to the camp, where before a much interested audience, but in the absence of his wife and Ben, he calumniates that he did not know of his wife's pregnancy when he left her for the war; that Benjy was born "about a year" after Evie had been safely in Ben's keeping and himself far from home. He further suggests that he was made to substitute for Ben for precisely that implied purpose--Ben making Evie his own and that Ben (what if not a coward after all?)--had also found a way out of his army conscription. The women gasp; the men listening hang down their heads in disgust and suddenly the completely unaware Engel finds himself proscribed from company with the wagon train.
Feeling himself triumphant in the ruin of the heretofore esteemed Engel, he seeks him and Evie out in seclusion and delivers, in a Satanic, simpering confidence, during which perhaps he has reverted at last into an earthly manifestation of Satan himself, his ultimatum: that Evie will remain in Ben's keeping, but that they must surrender his son to him to be brought up in the very moral depravity which his wife and former benefactor know him to be capable of. Then Diel will have conquered, both by achieving turpitude in his son and thereby having control over Ben. "What makes you think I'll do all these things?," inquires Ben. And Diel answers: "Because you've begun to doubt your motives, Ben, because I have you off-balance and now you're ready for The Fall." Ben asks: "Why do you want Benjy?" And Diel responds: "With him in my hands I can maneuver you from any distance. Because you'll be thinking if you do everything I ask, maybe someday you can get the boy back before I've begun to--sully his soul. My lever. Give me a lever and I can lift the world!"
Alone before Ben he adds: "If I weren't in such a hurry I'd like you to fight a little. You almost take the enjoyment out of it." But Ben produces a pistol. And Diel, shocked for perhaps the first time, in wild disbelief, objects "But you can't kill me That's my way. That won't be an answer for you, Ben. You're on the side of life." But Ben pulls the trigger, point blank into Diel's heart, and a consternated Diel falls genuflect, then prostrate, lifeless on the ground.
In itself, Betty Andrews' teleplay would have been thought-provoking but not exceptional. What gives "The Ben Engel Story" its power is its collective energy, a major source being the performance of Gulager himself, displaying the best acting of his career. For the most part attired in an elegant corduroy chaqueta, his dark hair groomed backward, he poses a striking "diable au corps"; his simpering stare, hoarse Scottish accent, protracted limp additionally augmenting his grand malevolence. It is an actor's field day and Gulager soars.
Under Joseph Pevney's meticulous direction, every Satanic eccentricity is magnified, from Diel's sibilant laugh to his inverted glances in and out of Evie's mirror. The drama is so bizarre that we are forced to suspend our disbelief, so wildly out of the mold of any of the 226 one-hour storylines preceding it in the "Wagon Train" series, or indeed any of the other thirty-one ninety-minute "Wagon Train" storylines following, that it stands as a sort of compelling sigil.
Bathed in the blues of Lionel Lindon's sharp photography and framed in the spare but decorous Howard Johnson sets, "The Ben Engel Story" actually celebrates its Mephistopheles, who even in death is triumphant because it is the yet calumniated Ben who must bear the responsibility of Diel's killing. "The Ben Engel Story" is not a masterpiece, but is a particularly glittering small gem in the vast wasteland of situational television, and fully merits its inclusion here.

No comments: