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The Twilight Zone (Episode #70): “A Game of Pool” (airdate 10/13/61)
The Plot: A pool champion has no one left to beat, but no one considers him the best because a dead legend looms over his skills. If only he could play him…
The Goods: Jesse Cardiff (Jack Klugman) is pissed. He’s spent his entire life in the darkness of the pool hall trying to become the best, but even though he’s on top of the living charts, the framed portrait of Fats Brown (Jonathan Winters) smirks down on him from on high. Cardiff is a stellar player, but Fats’s image is a constant reminder that there’s a difference between “the best” and “legendary.”
Which is why Cardiff wishes with all his might that he get one shot at taking down the immortal.
Fortunately, since he’s in The Twilight Zone, his wish comes true, and Fats walks out of the smoke to challenge him to a game with the highest possible stakes: life or death. Of course, the unspoken prize on the table is something that exceeds both. Immortality is what Cardiff is after, and if he wins, he can get it.
First of all, the episode shines because of Klugman and Winters riffing back and forth like the old pros should. They make a dynamic team here, especially with Winters playing the subdued, serious role, and Klugman ready to fly into a rage at the drop of a piece of chalk. The guest stars of this season have all been first rate, and this episode is no different.
However, it is different in that it’s far more play-like than most in the series. Two characters, one room, all dialogue about the nature of competition and immortality. With Rod Serling handing off writing duties to George Clayton Johnson (who wrote Ocean’s Eleven and the novel “Logan’s Run”), there’s a use of the supernatural here that’s more like Field of Dreams than Invaders From Mars. It’s a subtle work that sees Cardiff soar through every emotion out there. This is his life’s work, and he’s willing to die for it.
The ending seems to give a lesson, but it’s not all that cut and dry. With grand success comes the eternity of being challenged. By beating Fats, Cardiff has freed his foe and ensnared himself in the pool hall version of the Wild West gunslinger who is constantly looking over his shoulder. It might prove that dedicating your life to a dank billiard table was the wrong call, but in a lesser way it simply displays the high cost of incredible dedication to becoming the best at something.
Of course, that brand of immortality seems so antithetical to Western religion and to atheism alike. It’s akin to what the Egyptians believed, and sliding in the concept that people remembering you means you live on into a show aimed at 1960s America is more subversive than it seems at first glance. It plays off a common view of Western work ethic and the American dream, but it insults the core of Christianity and seems silly by atheistic standards. Salvation through being a celebrity (even one made through sweat and blood) is insulting, and the idea that someone would get to enjoy their noteworthiness after their death is absurd.
Yet, here it is, at the heart of a thrilling, smoke-tinged drama.
What do you think?
The Trivia: The original version of the script featured Jesse losing and learning the lesson that the stakes of life or death were for how he’d die. If he’d won, he’d die then but live as a legend until he lost. With losing, he’d die like all other non-champions – forgotten.
On the Next Episode: Peter Falk plays a Cuban dictator with a magic mirror.
Catch-Up: Episodes covered by Twitch / Episodes covered by FSR
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.