Saturday, February 28, 2009

"A Game of Pool"

When we speak of “cinema” we usually refer to a theatrical film, but today I will be dealing with a television show that in my mind has the excellence of some of the finest feature films I’ve ever seen.

The Twilight Zone remains one of the best-loved television series of all time and much of that has to do with its subject matter. The “middle ground between light and shadow” was home to many intriguing ideas, dealing with subjects ranging from nostalgia (“Walking Distance”, “Kick the Can”, “A Stop at Willoughby”) to paranoia (“And the Sky Was Opened”, “The Hitchhiker”, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”) to simple everyday mysteries (“Long Live Walter Jameson”, “Nick of Time”). These were masterfully written and performed espisodes that jolted the viewer’s imagination. Other episodes were simpler treatments, often moving towards a peculiarly unique punch line (“To Serve Man”, “The Rip Van Winkle Caper”). Some people loved the show for its take on humanity in moments of crisis, while others merely appreciated the slightly bizarre science fiction moments. There was clearly something for almost everyone.

I’d like to discuss an episode that is among the best of the series, entitled “A Game of Pool.” Shown in 1961 in the third season, the storyline was delightfully straightforward – a lonely, intense everyday pool player named Jesse Cardiff (Jack Klugman) gets his chance to do battle with the legendary champ Fats Brown (Jonathan Winters). Cardiff practices all hours of the day to become the best and the only way he will be known as that is to beat Fats, whose name he is tired of hearing. Brown is deceased, but upon learning of Jesse’s request, comes back to the pool hall in Chicago for this match, which has a stakes of life and death – if Cardiff wins, he can live; if not, he dies. (The device of coming back from beyond in this episode is a lovely Twilight Zone moment.)

There are so many excellent things about this episode from the elegantly uncomplicated art direction of George W. Davis and Phil Barber to the precise editing of Jason H. Bernie to the high-key cinematography of Jack Swain. He wisely decided not to highlight shadows, as that might have been an overdone touch given the human drama of the story (this is after all, not film noir).

Buzz Kulik’s direction is confident and to the point, with beautiful closeups of the two actors’s faces to highlight the tension. The acting by both performers is admirable; Jonathan Winters fits the role of Fats Brown like a glove and offers a low-key, at times sardonic performance. Klugman on the other hand is superb – I believe he was one of the greatest actors ever to appear on television. Everyone recalls his great comic work on The Odd Couple, but watch his work in this episode as well as two others from The Twilight Zone (“A Passage for Trumpet” and “In Praise of Pip”). As Jesse Cardiff, he is at times forceful, then at times insecure, but always focused on the dream he carries. Klugman does wonderful things with the tone and volume of his voice; he knew how to deliver a line simply and with great passion without ever being a ham. This performance is heartbreaking, as Klugman makes us feel the weight of everyone who ever wanted just a little touch of respect from their peers.

It is the screenplay by George Clayton Johnson that is the greatest single contribution of this episode in my mind. Johnson, who also wrote the series’ “Kick The Can” episode, delivers a story here that is a classic tale of the little guy versus the champ. Yet, this is not one of those simple plots where we root for the underdog. Rather, here we are cast in the middle of these two lives, as we realize this is all about the costs of success. Cardiff may desperately want to be champion so he can exorcize the name of Fats Brown, but he will soon understand that becoming a champion carries with it a responsibility that ultimately develops into a burden.

The exchanges between Cardiff and Brown are beautifully written, as plain spoken dialogue that suits these two characters. There are no glorious, overwrought speeeches here - just tough, direct lines spoken by the two characters that remind us of their differences. Yet at the same time, the screenplay takes on notes of wonder and imagination, as Cardiff imagines what it would be like to be champ.

One of my favorite lines is delivered by Fats when he is egging on Jesse for the match. Sensing Cardiff’s sudden doubt about beating him, Brown tells Cardiff, “You’ll never make the grade at anything by playing it safe.”

After a great shot by Cardiff, he asks Brown, “How about that, fat boy?” Brown replies, “Not bad.” To which Cardiff replies, You know, you’re like all the others.” He confidence is at an all-time high here, but that will soon be questioned.

Toward the end, Brown tells Cardiff, “there’s more to life than this pool hall.” It’s a brilliant line, as it sums up what Cardiff, in all of his intensity and dedication to the game, misses out on in his existence. Become the champ, Johnson is saying, and you may gain some respect from a few, but in the big picture, you lose out on everyday friendship.

Ultimately, Johnson in his screenplay asks several significant questions. Do we have what it takes to dethrone a champion? Do we want to work hard enough to achieve that goal? And finally, what do we gain by becoming the best? These questions raise “A Game of Pool” from a simple human duel to an examination of how we see ourselves among our fellow man. This is an exceptional screenplay and a timeless episode.

A final note: Yes, I goofed on my prediction for Best Editing at this year's Academy Awards. In my last post, I emphatically predicted that "The Dark Knight" would win the award, but of course, it went to "Slumdog Millionaire." Who knew?

Anyway, I'll be back again next year (I hope) with another Oscar prediction. I'm just glad I didn't predict Kate Winslet winning- I probably would have jinxed her. Thank goodness she finally got her long overdue Oscar!

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