THE HUSTLER (1961) 

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Paul Newman
Piper Laurie
George C. Scott
Jackie Gleason
Myron McCormick
Murray Hamilton
Michael Constantine Stefan Gierasch

Robert Rossen



Time: 134 mins.
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Drama/Romance

Won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and Cinematography. Nominated for Best Actor (Newman), Supporting Actor (Gleason), Actress (Laurie), Director, Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.

Newman garners his second Oscar nomination in a performance that enraptures from the first frame to the last. Having only seen scenes of Newman and Gleason playing pool, I was unprepared for the intense melodrama that takes place in between hustles. Fast Eddie Felson may be a winner when he holds a pool cue, but he's a dime a dozen loser when it comes to everyday life. Charm only goes so far, though Eddie has it in spades and real talent to boot. Unfortunately, it takes more than talent to win a big money game. Life experience, self-confidence and character mean more on the felt than a trick bank shot. Eddie learns this lesson the hard way. More soul-searching expedition than billiards primer, THE HUSTLER follows Eddie as he finds love, honor and self-respect on the road to accomplishing his life's dream – beating Minnesota Fats, the best pool shark in the business. Not a lofty goal, but one he'll die trying to attain.

Eddie's sweet, innocent face hustles the audience as much as his competition, hiding the darkness right below the surface. The early scenes sucker us into believing, much like Eddie does, that he's unbeatable. His life has been an easy one, because his innate talent allows him to ignore his one weakness – a lack of self-worth. He doesn't have to confront his inner demons as long as he continues winning. If he beats Fats, he'll prove to everyone, including himself, that he's not the loser he deep down fears he is. It doesn't take much persuading to get Fats to agree to a match. Fats has heard about Eddie and wants to see what he's got for himself. Things begin even enough with Eddie slowing taking the lead over the first few hours. His partner Charlie (McCormick) begs Eddie to stop when they reach their goal of $10 grand. However, the choice is not up to Eddie. He has to play until Fats is satisfied. Their battle drags on until the wee hours of the morning and long into the following day.

"The pool game is over when Fats says it's over... I came after him and I'm gonna get him. I'm going with him all the way."

Eddie does his best, but is just unable to keep up with Fats. Lack of sleep finally does him in, leaving him with about the same amount of money he started with. The loss is devastating, but only makes Eddie more determined. An early morning stroll brings him into the presence of a lovely, young woman with as many scars as Eddie. Sarah (Laurie) shares Eddie's love of the bottle and quickly becomes his soft place to land. Most of the time. She sees beneath Eddie's shiny surface and falls in love with him anyway. It takes a tortured soul to know one. She tries to give him the confidence he needs, to get him to open up and love her back, but he's unable to give up his desires to fulfill hers. Bert Gordon (Scott), a local "businessman" offers to back Eddie while he tries to gather enough money to challenge Fats again. His cut is large, but his connections could pay big. Eddie initially decides that he can make it on his own, but his reputation has preceded him and pick up games become few and far between. His arrogance almost costs him his entire future when a friendly match goes very wrong.

With nothing but time on his hands, Eddie and Sarah really begin to open up to each other. The only problem with that is the layers underneath aren't half as attractive as the ones on the surface. Bert decides to give Eddie another chance to strike it big at the expense of a wealthy Southern gentlemen who fancies himself a real player. Sarah comes along for the ride, which does not go over well with Bert. This is business and he makes it known that she's not worth the distraction. Her presence makes him uncomfortable because she calls his bluff. He's not there to help Eddie, just to make a quick buck and will drop Eddie like a hot potato if things don't go his way. Eddie loves Sarah, but Bert offers his only chance of a rematch with Fats and for that he'll do anything, even let himself be used. Certainly that's something she can understand? Eddie ultimately wins, getting him the money he needs, but he winds up paying a price for his ambition that cuts him to the core. Bert claimed Eddie would never beat Fats because he didn't have enough character. Well, thanks to Bert, Eddie now has it in spades and their next encounter proves to be a match that he just can't lose. A bittersweet dream come true.

The interplay of light and darkness in the plot is mirrored in the breathtaking photography created by Eugene Schufftan, who won an Oscar for his work here. There are films that can only be told in the gray tones of black and white, where shadows reign supreme. Pool hustling is not a pleasant, happy profession and color would have taken the elements of danger and seediness out of the picture. Filmmakers were given a choice in the 40s, 50s and 60s and it's devastating to see the magic of B&W photography not given the respect it deserves. An intensely, emotional film such as this one would have been pushed over the top if it were shot in color. As it stands, the subtlety of the images focuses our attention on the interaction between the actors, which is right where it should be. It's amazing to me that Newman didn't win the Oscar for this performance. The film peels Eddie like an onion and Newman reveals something different every step of the way. He's quickly becoming my favorite dramatic actor. Scott matches Newman's intensity scene for scene. His character is utter scum, yet he stands tall in the knowledge that his interests are being met. He cares for nothing, but the bottom line, a lesson Eddie and Sarah learn the hard way. He's unlikable from beginning to end, and yet we're as charmed by his arguments as Eddie. It's a damn impressive turn. Piper Laurie breaks your heart as Sarah, a girl with only Eddie to live for. She brings softness and decency to the story and gets trampled on for it. A character you won't soon forget.

Gleason has very little overall screen time, but he makes the most of his moments, churning out a memorable piece of cinema history. He's the ultimate cool cat with a cue, in command every second, never afraid, supremely confident in his abilities. Eddie may be the hero of the piece, but Gleason makes Fats so awesome, you don't want him to lose. The 24-hour pool match is a joy to behold. The wearier Newman gets the fresher Gleason appears to be. It's a battle of wills with the best man winning. Fats respects Eddie's talent, but that doesn't stop him from taking him to school and practically destroying his will to live. It's an amazing sequence from the acting to the editing to the pool playing. The true life pool great Willie Mosconi was the technical advisor, as well as Newman's hands, and his presence and talent make a big difference in how the game is portrayed. It can't have been easy to make billiards exciting, but they actually pull it off. THE HUSTLER is not exactly the film I expected it to be, but the experience was still a memorable one. If you want to see what all the hoopla about Newman is, this is definitely a film to check out.

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