Saturday, December 4, 2010

Robert Rossen - The Hustler (1961)

Heck, what can my comments add to the already classic status of Robert Rossen’s 1961 masterpiece The Hustler? Not much at all, but if it’s a movie you’ve always meant to see, but never got around to it, you’re doing yourself a grave disservice. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (winner of two), The Hustler is every bit as brilliant as its lofty reputation suggests.

Paul Newman stars in one of his most memorable roles as Fast Eddie Felson, a young pool hustler who’s as cocky and brash as he is talented with a pool cue. Eddie and his devoted partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) maintain a consistent payday by hustling at the local billiard halls. The young pool shark grows weary of the nickel-and-dime games, and sets out to take on Minnesota Fats – a legendary pool player often mentioned as the finest player in the country. But the hustler gets hustled by the crafty old veteran, and Eddie hits the skids with a horrifying thud.

Living out of a local bus station, Eddie comes across a kindred spirit, the alcoholic Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie) and the two strike up a tentative love affair. Thanks to his amazing skills, Eddie is repeatedly offered second chances by reliable old Charlie and a sleazy local gambler, but it takes a nasty beating and two broken thumbs before the petulant hustler starts to wise up. Along with his new ‘manager’ Bert (George C. Scott), Eddie hits the road in an effort to earn some money… all in an attempt to square off one more time against the seemingly unbeatable Fats.

Less of a sports flick and more of a brilliantly conceived character study, The Hustler features a laundry list of superlative features: the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Eugen Schufftan was effective enough to earn an Oscar, as was the art direction by Gene Callahan and Harry Horner; the screenplay by Rossen and Sidney Carroll – based on the novel by Walter Tevis – is chock full of individual scenes of dialogue that absolutely sparkle, while the film as a whole is cast in a melancholy and mysterious tone. It’s rare to scan back on a DVD to enjoy dialogue scenes more than once, but you may do it repeatedly with this film.

The cast is sterling. Newman delivers one of his best turns ever, and if you’re at all familiar with Newman’s work, you know that’s high praise indeed. His Fast Eddie should come off as nothing more than a self-centred and unlovable jerk, but Newman can do more with one eyebrow than most actors can with their whole body. It’s a testament to Newman’s skill that we care for this guy at all, yet it’s impossible not to. Laurie (Carrie) is tragic and touching as an aimless young woman who seemingly cares only for Eddie and the bottle of whiskey she’s always holding. Scott (Patton) is drop-dead perfect as the devious gambler Bert Gordon, creating a character that’s equal parts hateful and hypnotic.

You don’t need me telling you that The Hustler is a brilliant film. It’s been lauded for years and adored by generations for good reason. This one strikes that magical balance between a phenomenal cast, a director with a gift for shadow and mood, and a near-perfect screenplay. If you’re the kind of movie fan who normally shies away from black-and-white flicks, just trust me on this one. The Hustler is as good as you’ve heard – maybe better. (Scott Weinberg'review)

Interesting to note that the characters in The Hustler were fictitious and an above average pool player legally changed his name to Minnesota Fats AFTER the film was released. The real life 'Minnesota Fats' eventually played a nationally televised (hosted by Howard Cosell) pool exhibition with William Mosconi in the 1970's more than 10 years after this 1961 film.

DVD EXTRAS (included ):

Richard Schickel hosts the too short documentary The Hustler: The Inside Story which gives us some details on how the film came to be made, and delivers some we were there stories from some of the film-makers and a few surprise guests.

This is a superb commentary track which features the comments, reminisces, and perspectives from actors: Paul Newman, and Stefan Gierash (Preacher), Dede Allen (film editor), Ulu Grosbard (assistant director), Carol Rossen (the director's daughter), Richard Schickel (film critic, Time), and Jeff Young (film historian). The comments cover all aspects of the making of the film. Newman's comments are interspersed throughout the film.