June 8, 2007
The Hustler (1961) is a crucial film in Paul Newman’s career. It launched him into the Hollywood stratosphere and marked the beginning of an incredible run in the 1960s, with movies like Hud (1963), Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Newman became a movie star but acted like a character actor, creating one memorable character after another. Arguably, The Hustler is where he really came into his own, delivering a powerful performance as small-time pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson.
The Hustler is not so much about the game of straight pool as it is about the meteoric rise and fall of Eddie. The prologue introduces him and his partner Charlie (McCormick) as they hustle a bar with a handful of customers (including a young Vincent Gardenia as the bartender). Eddie knows how to act like he’s an erratic pool player even feigning being drunk. But when it counts and when other people’s money is on the line, he makes the crucial shot to win it all.
What strikes you right away is that none of the supporting actors or extras look like movie stars. They look and act like the kind of people you’d find in a pool hall. Each of their faces tells a story. Rossen cast actors from New York-based theatre and television and this tends to add to the film’s authenticity. Eddie’s goal is to play and beat the best pool player there is: Minnesota Fats (Gleason). Eddie is young, cocky and full of life but he meets his match with Fats who wears him down over 36 hours straight of pool, defeating him financially, physically, and, most importantly, spiritually. Fats breaks Eddie who now has to figure out how to pick up the pieces.
Jackie Gleason plays Fats from the less is more school. He speaks little because he doesn’t have to. His reputation precedes him, both in real life because Gleason was very famous for The Honeymooners sitcom and in the movie because Fats is regarded as the best pool player in the country. He moves with the confidence of someone who knows that they are at the top of his game and has the experience to back it up.
Paul Newman is an excellent contrast with his youthful exuberance. Eddie is young, good-looking and plays a mean game of pool. He’s got the world by the tail, that is, until Fats beats him and he then stupidly (and arrogantly) hustles the wrong guys, getting his thumbs broken in the process. Over a short amount of time Eddie ages emotionally, changing into a bitter, angry man. Newman does a great job of conveying this transformation as Eddie begins to resemble one of the world-weary characters in Jack Kerouac’s Beat novels.
Eddie’s salvation, in a weird sort of way, lies with a woman he meets at a bus terminal. Like Eddie, Sarah Packard (Laurie) has been chewed up and spit out by life. She’s an alcoholic but seems to have more deep routed problems and Piper Laurie subtly hints at them. She plays Sarah like a classy barfly, although, she says that she’s an ex-actress turned college student. Sarah and Eddie are drawn to each other because they are both marginalized figures. They recognize the damaged qualities in each other.
In 1959, director Robert Rossen came across Walter Tevis’ novel about a small-time pool hustler, bought the rights and convinced 20th Century Fox to make it. The movie was shot in and around New York City, using many practical locations, like Ames Billiard Academy for the pool matches. Both Newman and Jackie Gleason trained with pool master Willie Mosconi, although, Gleason was a formidable player in his own right.
The Hustler went on to become a critical and commercial hit. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won for its cinematography and art direction. Many years later, Newman would revisit this character in The Color of Money (1986) co-starring Tom Cruise and directed by Martin Scorsese. The Hustler flies in the face of traditional 9-to-5 suburban living by presenting characters who live on the fringes and who refuse to conform. They are deeply flawed and this is what makes them so compelling to watch. They are capable of being so cruel to each other and the film explores the origins of this behaviour. Rossen and co. don’t judge the characters, instead leaving that up to the audience. Ultimately, the film is about winning and losing in America and the toll it takes on an individual.
The first disc includes an audio commentary by actor Paul Newman, daughter of director Robert Rossen, Carol Rossen, editor Dede Allen, actor Stefan Gierasch (who played Preacher), assistant director Ulu Grosbard, film critic Richard Schickel, and writer/producer Jeff Young. Allen says that they shot and edited the film in New York City which the studio did not like because they wanted to keep closer tabs on the production. The studio also wanted the prologue removed because they felt it was unnecessary. Rossen says that before her father optioned the book, Frank Sinatra wanted to adapt it but couldn’t figure out a way to do it. She also says that the film is about character and not pool. Gierasch and Newman talk about how they were cast and recall filming anecdotes. Each participant is interviewed separately and then edited together in this decent track.
“Trick Shot Analysis” allows you to watch the film with pool expert Mike Massey analyzing five pool sequences or on their own. He tends to describe what we’re watching but does explain some of the tactics on display in the movie.
New to this edition are three retrospective featurettes. “Life in the Fast Lane: Fast Eddie Felson and the Search for Greatness” includes new interviews with Newman, Laurie, Dede Allen and others. Newman speaks passionately about the film and tells an amusing story about researching his role.
“Milestones in Cinema History: The Hustler” examines the film’s legacy. It was different from classical Hollywood cinema because it was about losers. It was also important that the pool sequences were shot in actual pool halls because it gave them an authenticity. Newman admired Rossen for allowing them to experiment in the moment. He also recounts a story about how he got hustled by Gleason.
“Swimming with Sharks: The Art of the Hustle” explores the gambling aspect as well as the con aspect of the film. The movie sparked a renaissance in the game. The good hustle, an expert says, if done well, will be hard to detect. Pool hustlers will often start at the bottom in a place and work their way up in order to maximize their profits. A pool champ demonstrates some impressive trick shots and defines some key lingo of the sport.
Carried over from the previous DVD edition is “The Hustler: The Inside Story,” a retrospective featurette that provides a historical context and how Rossen wanted to comment on society with this film. It also explores the film’s origins, casting and various aspects.
“Paul Newman: Hollywood’s Cool Hand” is an A&E biography episode on the actor that examines his life and career with many of his contemporaries talking about him.
“How to Make a Shot” repeats the “Trick Shot Analysis” extra on the first disc.
Also included are trailers for eight of Newman’s films and two trailers for The Hustler.
Finally, there is a “Still Gallery” with a collection of behind-the-scene photographs, promotional stills and ad campaign material.