“A Game Of Pool” (season 3, episode 5; originally aired 10/13/1961)
In which being the best comes with a price...
Let’s start with the ending. A great twist is a bit like a rhyme, only with story instead of words; the best Twlight Zone shock endings serve to snap the episode that preceded them into focus, providing a kind of clarity and gratifying focus to all that build-up and character work. A great twist is something that we can’t imagine before it happens, but can’t imagine being any other way after it does. And that is incredibly difficult to pull off, especially once, as Todd noted last week, audiences are on their guard and get a sense for your best-loved tricks. “A Game Of Pool” was written by George Clayton Johnson, not Serling, but anyone sitting down to watch it with a few Zone episodes already under their viewing belt is going to be waiting for the figurative other shoe drop. But the problem here is less a case of predictability than it is a certain lack of definition. This is, on the whole, a good thirty minutes, with two strong performances and a compelling premise. The last minute doesn’t change that. But it does leave things feeling oddly incomplete. From the moment Jesse Cardiff (the always excellent Jack Klugman) agrees to put his life on the line for a game of pool, you know there’s going to be some kind of irony, something that will punish Jesse for his obsessive, maddening devotion to the game. But when that punishment arrives, it's thin gruel compared to the passion which came before it.
The idea is, Jesse wins his game against the legendary pool hall champ Fats Brown (Jonathan Winters, in one of his rare dramatic turns), and doesn’t find out until after he dies that this puts him under a certain obligation; as he is now the best pool player who ever lived, he (like Fats before him) will have to spend his afterlife taking on any young punks who think they can beat him until one of them does. This isn’t presented as a happy ending. Fats is clearly relieved when Jesse beats him, and Klugman’s slumped shoulders in the final shot as a disembodied voice calls him to work is not the look of a man who loves his job. But as a “twist,” it doesn’t snap, y’know? I’m too busy trying to work out the details. What did Jesse do with the rest of his life? How bad would it be, really, to play a bunch of pool games until someone beat you? The game has a certain degree of luck to it. You wouldn’t have to wait that long to lose. And wouldn’t it be nice to pop back down to Earth for a bit, just to get some fresh air?
Silly, I know, and as I said, I think this is overall good episode. Plus, the ending does play into an idea Fats raises earlier in the story, that by fixating so much on one thing, Jesse risks losing the rest of the world. But, again, we don’t know what happens to him after he wins, and before the funeral, and, as Hells go, this is a minor one at worst. Not that Jesse deserves Hell, mind you. But if they’re going for a twist, the choice needs to be something stronger than a vague sense that he’s maybe going to have some boring times after he dies. The script’s original ending had him losing the game, and Fats telling him “You’ll die... eventually,” and then giving a speech how much it sucks to be a loser. Which is, again, unexpected, but it still doesn’t have a lot of oomph behind it. It still feels like the work of someone reaching for something and not quite getting it. I suspect the episode would’ve played better without any surprise ending at all, because either version mostly serves as a distraction.
Anyway, enough of that. “A Game Of Pool” is a lot of fun to watch because Klugman and Winters are both at the top of their game (so to speak), throwing off some of the most gorgeous trash talk I’ve ever heard. (“You’re a big balloon, waiting for somebody to stick a needle in it” is great, as is “You like to play with fire, but you don’t like to cook.”) It’s a two person episode, with all the action (apart from those two brief shots up in the clouds) taking place in some greasy dive where apparently everybody else has gone home for the night. The whole thing is very simple: Jesse complains that no matter how good he gets, everyone is always telling him he isn’t as good as James Howard “Fats” Brown, but Fats is dead, so he’ll never get a chance to prove them wrong. Somebody up there here’s Jesse’s shouts, and Fats appears in the pool hall, with a proposition: one game of pool, life or death stakes.
Here’s where normally I’d start railing about the stupidity of playing life-or-death stakes for anything when you don’t have to, but honestly, “A Game Of Pool” makes it work. Fats is very convincing, but even more importantly, the script makes it fairly obvious that Jesse has nothing else in his life he considers worth living for. As another in a long line of The Twlight Zone’s Lean And Hungry Men, Jesse is fixated on a single idea: being the best pool player there is. For a normal person, risking death on account of a game where the only bonus is bragging rights no one will ever believe is a no-brainer of a choice. But to Jesse, through the dialogue and Klugman’s furious, heartbroken performance, it makes sense for him to take the chance. If he doesn’t, to his eyes, it would be as bad as if he lost.
With the set-up out of the way and the bait taken, the episode gets down to the game itself. It’s thrilling stuff, and well-handled, making sure we understand the basic outlines of the back and forth between the two players even if the details aren’t clear. The 14.1 rack to 300 points that Fats proposes is, despite the name (I had to look it up, pool shark though I am)(I am not), straightforward, just calling shots and dropping balls, and neither player makes much in the way of trick shots. As they say, the game’s more mental than physical, with Jesse and Fats sparring at each other, trying to psyche the other man out in the show’s colorful venacular, occasionally tossing out bits of slang that still sound fresh. (My favorite is Jesse’s “That’s a pocket hanger,” about his last, and easiest, shot.) Without saying much specific about themselves, you get a sense of who they are. Fats makes sure to tell Jesse how much life he lived outside the pool hall, trying to shake the other man some, get him to realize he’s making a mistake. But Jesse’s stuck where he is. His “That was great,” after he makes a terrific shot and doesn’t get the praise he expected, is wonderful, a little boy bringing home an all A report card to an empty house. As a story of the fantastic, this never entirely gels. But as a look at a lonely man determined to stay lonely, it’s not bad at all.
What a twist: Jesse wins the game against Fats, but finds out after he dies that he has to take up the mantle of the Best Pool Player Who Ever Lived, and face off against anyone who challenges his record.
- I wonder how this system works, exactly. At one point, Fats tries to warn Jesse that he’s in over his head, but when Jesse snaps, he just says, “I’m sorry. I was required to say that.” Which implies all kinds of rules and obligations and what not, but is Fats able to throw the game? I’m guessing no, since he looks so relieved when he loses (if he could throw the game, he would’ve done so by now, right?), but that last shot of his is so obviously terrible that it’s hard to say.
- It’s not surprising that Klugman is good, but Winters really gives him a run for his money. I especially like how he sells the whole “life or death” angle; if either actor were weaker, the exchange wouldn’t work, but they make it believable.
- This is a very sweaty episode.
- Something about the way Klugman says, “I haven’t been to the movies in years!” made me laugh.
“The Mirror” (season 3, episode 6; originally aired 10/20/1961)
In which Peter Falk reflects...
With most episodes of a given show, you get a little bit of a window before an episode goes bad. This is especially true of shows that are generally excellent, like The Twilight Zone so often is. A couple weeks ago, when I watched “The Arrival,” I spent the first fifteen minutes enjoying the hell out of it before the wheels came off, because in this first ten or fifteen minutes, everything is set up, and not certainty. It’s almost always easier to come up with a good hook than it is to come up with a good ending, and in the early stages, a story is just a lot of possibilities veering around one another, waiting to see which one will land. “The Mirror,” a terrible episode, shows its true colors in seconds. Partly it’s the fact that Peter Falk is playing a Central American revolutionary named Ramos Clemente. Partly it’s the fake beards everyone seems to be wearing. But mostly it’s just that awful sense that we’re in for a lecture about something, and Rod Serling and lectures are an uncomfortable combination. Sometimes it works, and when it does, all the hamfisted moralizing can dull the power of the message. Other times, it’s just a slow, grinding drive to a conclusion that we saw coming during the opening credits.
“The Mirror” is inspired by real-life successful revolutionary Fidel Castro, who executed prisoners after his rise to power much like Ramos does in this episode. But while that connection at least explains the motivation behind the script, it doesn’t stop the result from being a plodding, unimaginative waste of time. The plot, as it were: Ramos and his four trusted lieutenants have succeeded in toppling a regime, and are now determined to remake the country in their own image. But as De Cruz, the deposed dictator, tells the squirrely, already half-crazy Ramos, power comes with a cost. Being the leader means living in fear that someone is coming to do to you what you did to the last guy. And by the way, have you seen this mirror hanging on the wall? An old woman gave it to De Cruz years ago. She said it was magic, and that it would reflect the intentions of anyone who wanted him dead.
Ramos sends De Cruz off to a horrible death, and sets the firing squads to work mowing down the thousand prisoners in the city prison, but the damage has been done. Minutes after De Cruz leaves, Ramos sees one of his associates, the noble D’Alessandro, in the mirror raising a gun, and out D’Alessandro goes over the balcony. The others fall soon enough; because this is a half hour of television and not ten minutes, Ramos takes his time before dispatching the last man in his group, engaging him in a philosophical discussion which is every bit as enervating and pointless as you can imagine. A priest comes to visit, warns Ramos he’ll never see the last assassin, the leaves long enough for Ramos to destroy the mirror and shoot himself. “The last assassin,” the priest intones, in case we missed it before. “They never learn.”
Blech. It’s hard to see what the point is to all of this. Sure, there’s the obvious swipe at men who want power suffering under the weight of their greed, but it’s done so simplistically and so cheaply that it’s hard to get worked up one way or the other. Ramos is an idiot, and his men are idiots, and there’s this nasty undercurrent of nihilism running under everything, like this is the lot of all people with the temerity to try and cast aside a dictatorship. Is De Cruz supposed to be a good guy, somehow? There’s no context to say one way or the other. It’s not like Ramos turns from hero to villain or anything interesting like that, either. Apart from Serling’s vaguely complimentary opening narration (in which Ramos at least sounds like a dude who can get shit done), Ramos comes across as a nutter from beginning to end. Given the location, and Falk’s casting, and the thick, almost self-parodying accent he adopts throughout, there’s some uncomfortable racial undertones as well. Falk is a great actor, and at his best, provides a kind of rumpled humanity for the characters he plays. There’s no humanity to be found here, just a mean, melodramatic twerp with a Napoleon complex.
The plot structure doesn’t help matters, either. As soon as De Cruz introduces the concept of the “magical” mirror, it’s easy to predict every beat of what follows. The only surprise comes from how little energy Serling puts into killing everyone; the only twist is that the mirror isn’t actually magical, which is about as exciting as spending Christmas Eve telling your kids about population densities and air-speed travel. This might have been blackly comic, but apart from a few seconds here and there, it’s not. There’s no suspense, because the outcome is inevitable, and there’s no emotional investment in any of the characters, since the only one even remotely likeable dies first. And hell, it’s not as though characters need to be likable to be interesting, but not of these guys register much deeper than the paper their lines were originally printed on. The only thing that stops this from being a complete waste of time is that it looks great (fake beards aside), full of the striking shots and shadows that define so much of The Twilight Zone. Otherwise, it’s just an unpleasant slog to an inevitable conclusion. By the end, I found I was grateful for Falk’s presence. As badly cast as he is, at least the thought of Columbo in a Castro disguise could make me smile.
What a twist: Ramos’s “magic” mirror probably isn’t magical, but everyone winds up dead anyway.
- Some of the lines are okay. I like the phrase “arrogance in full braid” a lot, although “I also have a yen to live” seems a little out of place.
Next week: Todd digs up “The Grave,” and does his best to stay out of the cornfield in “It’s A Good Life.”