23 October 2009

The Ghost-Grey Cat Presents: (3) The Chinaman Button

"Mr. van Haas, I'm making this as easy for you as... pushing a button." -- Phil Thurston

Someone presents you a box with a single button. Pressing the button triggers two chains of events. One chain leads to the legal deposit of a potentially life-changing sum of money into your bank account; the other, to the death of a random person, whose identity cannot be revealed.

Do you press the button?

This little device, and the dilemma it presents, is central to The Box, the Richard Kelly movie that opens in theaters in two weeks. Episode 15 of CBS Radio Mystery Theater, doesn't feature either a button, a box or even an Asian, but it centers on similar dilemma. That's why, when I first saw ads for The Box, I decided that I should post a review of this episode. The little button below doesn't kill anything, but it does play the teaser.

Teaser for The Chinaman Button

The title writer Henry Slesar gave Episode 15, "The Chinaman Button," was racist, and he surely knew it. He further knew that, when the episode first aired, that term had long since fallen out of favor. I can only imagine that he chose the title for its ability to attract audience attention. After all, as of 20 January 1974, RMT had been on the air for only two weeks.

Slesar gets away with this offense for only one reason: the only character who regularly uses the term "Chinaman" in the story is its villain, a crooked advertising executive. As "The Chinaman Button" opens, Phil Thurston (voiced by Paul Hecht) returns from vacation to discover that he has lost his most valuable account. Unfortunately, much of that value came from Thurston's overbilling his client -- a fraud exposed by Walter van Haas (Mason Adams), a humble accountant that the client had just hired.

Not content to have escaped jail time (or even firing), Thurston launches an elaborate retaliation. Rather than kill or injure van Haas, Thurston decides to try to expose him as a venal person.

To that end, Thurston creates a virtual "Afrikaner Button" for van Haas to push. Posing as a representative of a South African law firm, Thurston "informs" van Haas that he is the only heir to a wealthy cousin, many times removed, who lives in Johannesburg. Thurston refuses to identify this cousin, but does tell van Haas that his cousin will soon meet an untimely death. To receive millions of dollars, van Haas needs only to wait for his cousin to die. Unfortunately, van Haas can only receive the money if he keeps silent about his relative's impending death. In accepting this offer, as Thurston hopes, van Haas would expose his own base nature. The exposure would be doubly sweet for Thurston, since both the South African law firm and van Haas's "relative" are entirely fictional.

Initially, van Haas angrily rejects the deal, and tells Thurston to buzz off. Fate, however, has other plans, setting off a battle of wills between the ethical van Haas and the corrupt Thurston. If van Haas rejects the deal, he wins, but if he agrees to it, Thurston gets his revenge. But as one of RMT's most satisfying endings shows, both men have overestimated their positions. By the time "The Chinaman Button" ended, I almost forgot about its questionable title.

This episode may be entitled "The Chinaman Button," but the Internet has caused it to age prematurely. Before the Internet, creating fake stationery, an essential element of Thurston's scheme, required no small amount of money, along with influence like his. These days, anyone with a simple computer can create such stationery. And as Nigerian scammers and others have long since proven, even stationery isn't required to convince gullible users that they can get money from rich Africans who don't actually exist.

Score: 91/100. "The Johannesburg Button" would've bumped it up to 96.

Musical note: Here's the second-act curtain. Although this short, dizzying piece of music separated scenes in many episodes, it was never used as a curtain again.

Curtain 2 from The Chinaman Button

No comments: