Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Twilight Zone: A Game of Pool

One of the first images in "A Game of Pool" is of Jesse Cardiff (Jack Klugman) standing alone in an empty pool hall. It's a long shot, showing the entire length of the hall and all its pool tables, and in the background is Jesse, a small, dark figure looking insignificant and weak, which is exactly how he feels.

Jesse is an accomplished pool player who has beaten everyone except for the late James Howard "Fats" Brown (Jonathan Winters). No matter how good he is, no one recognizes Jesse as the best around because he never beat Fats, and Fats' photo on the wall is a constant reminder to Jesse of his own status as second tier. Frustrated and in a case of be careful what you wish for, Jesse wishes for the chance to play Fats so he can prove he's the best. Fats obliges, showing up for the challenge. He'll play on one condition: the stakes are Jesse's life.

"A Game of Pool" takes place entirely on one set with two characters, and yet, it never feels cheap, static, or restricted. The pool hall is a claustrophobic setting, and the script, by George Clayton Johnson, is tightly focused on the constant one-upmanship between Jesse and Fats. Director Buzz Kulik utilizes a lot of dynamic camerawork, upping the tension with off-balanced shots of the two men as they around the pool table, taking their shots or watching the other guy's. During one key play, the camera follows a ball as it rolls, its intended hole out of frame, and as we watch, we're anticipating whether the shot is sunk. We also get many examples of one of my favorite shots: the sweaty, black-and-white closeup.

As good as the technical craft is, the episode wouldn't work without the two performances, and both are stellar. Winters as Fats is very enigmatic; Winters was a funny guy, no doubt about it, but here, he has such a cool, calm presence, a guy self-assured of his own talent. When he talks, he gets under Jesse's skin, and you're not sure whether he means everything he says or if he's just trying to rattle his opponent and throw him off. Klugman is also great as the pool shark with a large chip on his shoulder and desperate to prove his worth.

At one point, Jesse tells Fats about how when he grew up, all the other kids were good at something, and his own lack of talent in other venues made him "feel that big," as he pinches his fingers together. When he discovered pool, he knew he found something he was good at and devoted his life to it. He doesn't date or go to the movies; he says he even made a deal with the owner of the pool hall so he can practice after hours.

But what he calls striving for greatness, Fats calls "rotting in this miserable dark hall." Fats was a great player in his life, but he says he found time for other things: travelling, romance, trips to the beach, etc. Pool is a friendly little game to Fats, but to Jesse, it's a win-at-all-cost affair.

Fats may just say all that to distract Jesse during their match, but there is truth to it. Jesse is a bitter loser at life who has sacrificed everything else to achieve greatness at one, rather unimportant game to make himself feel big. It reminds me of last year's Whiplash, which is about the extreme measures an aspiring jazz drummer takes to achieve his dreams. I have the same question here that I did watching that movie: is being the best worth giving up everything else that makes you human?

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