June 30, 2015

The Hustler (1961)
Grade: 86/100

Director: Robert Rossen
Stars: Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott

What it's about. One of Paul Newman's highest regarded films, and the predecessor movie to the one that landed his only Best Actor Oscar, The Color of Money (1986). Newman plays Fast Eddie, a talented pool shark whose dream is to beat champion pool player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) on the latter's own table at Ames.

Newman's aging partner is Myron McCormick. Together, they travel from town to town, looking for overconfident pool hall sharks to take to the cleaners. They do well, and Eddie believes he is ready to take on Fats. Indeed, he plays him over a period of 36 hours or so, and for a while is riding high in winnings.

But Fats' backer Gordon (George C. Scott) believes that Eddie will eventually fold. He does, and Eddie is left nearly broke. He splits with McCormick and promptly meets Sarah (Piper Laurie), who is pretty and intelligent but moody and alcoholic. Soon, Eddie and Sarah have a raging affair, proof that the Production Code had lost most of its power over movie plots. After all, films had to compete with television, which was free, or nearly so.

But Eddie still wants to conquer the world, and Minnesota Fats, so he takes Gordon up on his offer to become Eddie's manager. Sarah is still in the picture, and although she dislikes Gordon, all three are soon on the road together. Their first chump is Murray Hamilton, a well-to-do Louisville aristocrat who enjoys billiards and gambling. After the inevitable confrontation between Gordon and Sarah has its inevitable result, Eddie returns to the Ames pool hall for a big money rematch with Minnesota Fats.

Vincent Gardenia and former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta have cameos as bartenders.

How others will see it. The Hustler was widely praised upon release as the perfect modern film noir. It was nominated for nine Oscars, in all the major categories, but was mostly shut out by box office monolith West Side Story and the highbrow, star-studded Judgment at Nuremberg. But time has been kind to The Hustler, and at imdb.com, it has a higher user rating than the overlong and often annoying West Side Story, no matter how pretty Natalie Wood might have been. The user rating increases with advancing age, from 7.7 under 18 to 8.2 over 45. The audience recognizes a well-made movie: everything from the characters, script, story, casting, and acting is on cue, even if the melodrama is turned up too high now and then.

How I felt about it. The Hustler was the high point of Jackie Gleason's lengthy but intermittent movie career. The "Honeymooners" star and jazz aficionado was ideal for his role as the dapper, congenial, sarcastic, and chain-smoking Fats.

The same cannot quite be said for Newman, whose iconic film, Hud, was still in his future. But he thrives here, boosted by a fine script and an excellent supporting cast. Self-loathing Piper Laurie and cunning, malevolent George C. Scott are particularly good. It is ironic that Laurie's character is the only one that dies, yet she has outlived all the other major players from the movie, reminiscent of Gone With the Wind (1939) and Olivia de Havilland.

The film's message is that talent isn't enough. You need character to succeed. The Hustler is about the journey that provides Fast Eddie with character. It requires three tragedies: his initial defeat to Minnesota Fats, his unfortunate encounter with pool room heavies, and his girlfriend's dramatic suicide. Sarah sacrifices herself to save Eddie's soul from Gordon's corrupting influence.

In real life, of course, no tragedies are required to build character. Character is showing up when you don't want to, and keeping a straight face regardless of highs and lows of fortune. By this measure, Gordon has more character than either Eddie or Sarah. He's just playing for the wrong team.

But tragedies are cinematic, and especially useful as a means to dispense of characters no longer necessary to the story. We can forgive Eddie's angst, Gordon's evil, and Sarah's self-destructive behavior because we know they're not real.