Thursday, October 13, 2011

TZ Promo: "A Game of Pool" (10/13/1961)

Season 3, Episode 5 (#70 overall)
Cayuga Production #4815

50 years ago tonight, a little David took on a big Goliath. The weapon of choice wasn’t a slingshot, however. It was a pool cue.

“A Game of Pool,” written by George Clayton Johnson and directed by Buzz Kulik, tells the tale of a skilled but relatively unknown pool player named Jesse Cardiff, who longs to be the best at the game. He’s streetwise and cocky, a bit full of himself, hungry for fame and glory. Late one night, alone in a pool hall, he loudly challenges deceased pool great Fats Brown to a game. Jesse’s just shooting off his mouth, of course, and you can’t really challenge the dead… but this is The Twilight Zone. Fats Brown materializes before his eyes, and the game is on.

The game itself is a tense, well-staged roller coaster, infused with great character moments (Jesse describes all the life pleasures he’s eschewed in order to focus on the game; Fats, meanwhile, names off all the life pleasures he valued over the game; it’s a nice juxtaposition of priorities). When Jesse takes that final life-or-death shot, it’s one of those wonderful edge-of-your-seat moments. You like Jesse, and you want him to win despite his obvious hubris issue, but since it’s The Twilight Zone, a happy ending isn’t always guaranteed (I’m looking at you, “Time Enough at Last”) . Further, happy endings aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be (that’s you, “A Nice Place to Visit”). There, that’s as close to a spoiler as you’re gonna get outta me this week.

It’s no surprise that Klugman shines here; in his youth, he excelled in this type of “downtrodden-but-scrappy” role. What IS a surprise is the nice-guy-tinged-with-menace performance turned in by Jonathan Winters as Fats Brown (yes, THAT Jonathan Winters, the guy who played the giant baby on TV’s Mork & Mindy). You might expect some goofy cheese, but this Winters portrait is the real deal: terse and serious, not to mention downright scary when he first appears. The two actors play off one another beautifully. This is a perfect episode, perfectly executed, and it’s right at home in my top ten favorites list.


“A Game of Pool” was remade during the 80’s Twilight Zone revival series on CBS. This time, Johnson’s original ending was used, in which the outcome is reversed from what we see in the original episode. The remake features Esai Morales and Maury Chaykin in the Klugman and Winters roles, and is actually fairly effective (as far as remakes go).

Curiously, Johnson himself directed his own production a couple of years ago, also utilizing his original ending (I saw it here, but I'm not sure the link still works). I hate to say it, but it’s a wasted effort. Here are my thoughts, originally posted over at The Twilight Zone Café on 10/27/2009:

“I watched it today. Unfortunately, it doesn't touch the original (for that matter, the 80s remake is superior too) IMHO. I didn't care much for the actor playing Jesse (he seems a bit old for the part, and he tends to rush through critical sections of dialogue early on), but the actor playing Fats (well, Duke here) is suitably ominous. I can't decide if I like the underscore or not... it seems too modern for the material. And the pool sound effects don't mesh well with the soundtrack. I think my single biggest complaint, though, is the complete lack of actual pool footage! Film is a VISUAL medium. We need to see the damned balls, especially when a specific shot is referenced in the dialogue. All in all, it just seems unnecessary to me. Between the original and 80's versions, both endings are covered. What's the point?”

So... there ya go. Don't let my low opinion stop you from checking it out.

“A Game of Pool” was also performed live right here in Portland back in 1995 (retitled “The Pool Player” for some unknown reason) as part of Tales from The Twilight Zone, a stage adaption of three episodes. As I recall, the players simply described the shots as they took them, which I guess worked well enough (I don’t remember if they used sound effects or not). If I found myself mounting a stage production of this particular episode (hey, never say never), I’d have my actors fake the shots and employ a simple laptop/projector setup (we use ‘em here at work for training purposes) to display pre-filmed footage of each shot. I guess that would make it a multimedia show of sorts. Cool.

Next week: Columbo + Castro = Crappy episode. Ugh.

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