Ray Bradbury Theater: The Crowd
Episode 3 (Series 1, Episode 3)
First aired 2 July 1985
The short story first appeared in Weird Tales in May 1943.
Its first book appearance was in Dark Carnival (1947).
It can also be found in The Small Assassin (1976).
Directed by Ralph L. Thomas
Joe Spallner - Nick Mancuso
With David Hughes, Victor Eartmantis
A town, night. People begin leaving a party and piling into their cars. One man, Spallner, gets into his car alone, and drives rapidly through the nearly empty streets. He swerves to avoid a dog. His car flips over. The wheels still spinning, a clock chimes two, and a crowd begins to gather. Voices from the crowd variously call out "don't move him", "let's do it now", "give him air", "the ambulance is coming. An ambulance arrives, and the crowd parts. As Spallner is put on board the ambulance, he watches the members of the crowd wander away.
Spallner awakes in the hospital. He voices his puzzlement at how the crowd could have gathered within the thirty seconds it would take for his wheels to to spinning. The doctor tells him that it may have seemed like thirty seconds, but it was probably three or four minutes.
After leaving hospital, Spallner is straight back at work, apparently making neon lamps. His friend Morgan drops by with a bottle. They drink. Spallner spills his drink, and their is the sound of a traffic accdent outside. Morgan runs to a window. Spallner looks at his watch and begins timing. He looks at the accident scene through the window, and sees a crow being to gather. Within twenty-one seconds, the crowd is large and fully formed.
While Morgan phones for an ambulance, Spallner goes out to look at the crowd. He stands among them as the voice a similar refrain of "give her air", "we should make her comfortable", etc.
Spallner claims to recognise several faces in the crowd, from his accident, but Morgan doesn't know what he's talking about. Spallner tries to stop the crowd moving the woman, but is unsuccessful. He is convinced they have killed the woman. Spallner talks to a crowd member who has been taking photos.
Spallner lays out photos of crowd members, and identified several of them as being at his accident. He tells Morgan that he can help him: "you shoot the news, you can get me tapes of accident crowds."
Spallner wanders the streets, looking for more accidents. He stands on a bridge over a freeway. He takes a video camera onto the streets. He is becoming obsessive.
Morgan brings him a huge pile of news tapes. Spallner looks through them. He shows Morgan the pattern he has spotted. Eleven accidents, eleven tapes. Accident scenes two-three miles apart. The same faces appearing again and again. "There - the kid...the red-haired woman...the old man...there he is again...Remember? You shot this, three months ago." Morgan is becoming intrigued.
Spallner then points out a sixth figure who is always present. It is a shadowy figure, always in the same clothers, but he can never make out the face.
"So who are these people, and why are they doing this?" asks Morgan. In reply, Spallner pulls out a series of morgue photos. Each one shows the face of a crowd member. "They're dead. They're all dead. Car accidents in the past year...I'm convinced they come back to haunt the places where accidents happen." Morgan believes there has got to be "some sane explanation", but he can't think of one.
Spallner and Morgan discuss what should be done. Go to the police? Spallner says no. He wants to meet them. Morgan urges him to burn the tapes and forget all about it. He asks, "what happens ehen they find out you know who they are?" "I don't care," Spallner replies.
Night. Morgan and Spallner are out driving, looking for an accident scene. As they drive along the snowy, empty city streets, they hear faint whispered voices. Spaller says to stop the car. He and Morgan get out.
Spallner spits the old man. He crosses the street and asks Spallner, "What are you doing here?" Spallner follows after him. Another crow member appears in silhouette, and chases after Spallner. He runs to the car and drives off. The road is lined with crowd member, whom he swerves to avoid. He hits someone, and his car flips over, just as at the beginning of the story. He crawls out, and runs to the small crowd which has gathered around the person he has hit.
The dead figure is Morgan. The crowd voices begin again, as Spallner rises up and turns, sensing someone or something behind him. Morgan is there, a member of the crowd, moving forward to look at his own death scene. The crowd disperses, leaving Spallner alone to look at the body of his friend.
Publicity still: Nick Mancuso.
This episode is exquisitely shot, and great care has been taken to make Spallner's documentary evidence as convincing to the viewer as it is to him. Nick Mancuso plays Spallner with conviction, and successfully navigates his character through moments when his character is likely to be seen as a crackpot.
Bradbury has again made some substantial changes to his story in this dramatisation. Unusually, however, the changes do not fill out the back story, but instead take the story further than it originally went. The ending is also substantially different.
Although the original short story features two characters, Spallner and Morgan, it is Spallner who is clearly the hero. It is he who has a near-death experience, works out the pattern of the crowd, and who fatally meets up with the crowd once again at the end. Morgan is important to the reader only in as much as he is the character who Spallner explains events to.
In the adaptation, however, Spallner and Morgan are almost inseparable, as if they are two parts of a single character. In a sense, Spallner sets out to meet up with the crowd in order to convince Morgan; and Morgan accompanies Spallner as if to protect him.
On the reasons for this change, Bradbury says "It's just one of those things that, for whatever reasons, happens when you're writing. I didn't think about it. I just did it."
In the original story, there always remains the possible interpretation that it is all in Spallner's mind. No one is thoroughly convinced of his belief; no one (other than the crod) is there to witness his final moments. Elevating the role of Morgan effectively renders Spallner's view as objective reality.
George Edgar Slusser once characterised Bradbury's early fiction as portraying tales of "the elect", characters who are admitted to some higher state, usually in some kind of bizarre blend of reward and punishment. With this late-in-life adaptation of one of his earliest stories, Bradbury has almost consciously steered away from this by making Spallner not become a member of the crowd. Instead, that strange "honour" is bestowed on the secondary character of Morgan.
In strictly dramatic terms, it works to have Morgan die, as much a victim of Spallner's carelessness and obsessiveness as of the crowd. But how odd that the key resonance of the original story should be removed.
This is the second such instance in Ray Bradbury Theater, "The Playground" being the first - where Underhill in the adaptation is no longer the focus of the magical transformation.