|Hustler, The (Special Edition) (1961)|
|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 04 June 2002|
Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is a pool hustler who’s determined to make his mark on greatness. That search for self-actualization leads him to Ames Pool Hall in New York City where he meets up with pool legend Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Felson is absolutely the best pool shooter who ever lived, but he’s got fatal flaws: his own ego and insecurities. His foray at taking the cash and the title from Minnesota Fats rips away Eddie’s confidence and leaves him torn apart. Licking his wounds, Eddie finds a young woman named Sarah (Piper Laurie), who has her own dark secrets. Together, these two incomplete people help each other find their way back to health and happiness. But there’s a devil waiting in the wings, a man named Burt Gordon (George C. Scott), who dresses in black suits and picks the bones of his victims.
Although shot in black-and-white, “The Hustler” is a brilliant gem of visual entertainment. The lighting becomes as much a character as any of the stars. Even in broad daylight, the story and the events somehow come across as shadowed and sinister. Chapter 1 opens up at a gas station across the street from a small pool hall. The scenery looks like an authentic small business with a handful of regulars who obviously spend their day drinking beer and talking. The movie has no musical score at this point, and the silence that underscores the action reaches out and brings the audience up to the pool table and the hustle. In short order, the bartender is suckered into the scene.
Chapter 2 brings another audio aspect of the film into play: the cool jazz that underscores the scenes. The lean, clear music brings an element of adrenaline and danger. In Chapter 3, Fast Eddie Felson meets and challenges Minnesota Fats. A montage of pool shots follows. The dialogue between Felson and Fats is sharp, direct and flawless. The rasp of the shades coming up in Ames Pool Hall sounds like a guillotine blade slipping through the guides. Then the echoing rattle of the balls striking each other and rolling across the tables fills the environment. Footsteps ring across the wooden floor, giving the impression that Ames Pool Hall is a pocket universe that somehow exists outside the world.
Fast Eddie Felson crows that he_s going to win $10,000 in one night playing Minnesota Fats in Chapter 4. His joy at the coming challenge is tangible, and Newman is definitely hitting his stride as an actor. The dialogue exchange between Eddie and Minnesota Fats is awesome, scored against the audio backdrop of pool balls clacking and dropping into the pockets, just as staccato and direct. When the drop cloth is removed from Fats’ special table, the audience knows a truly special event is underway. Gleason’s portrayal of Minnesota Fats is deft and amazing, delivering the understated performance of an old master. While Eddie is like a kid in a candy store, and a little apprehensive to boot, Minnesota Fats is pure professional and totally relaxed.
Chapter 5 opens with the first game commencing between the two pool giants. Dead silence rings in the pool hall as they shoot the lag shot for break. When Fats drops the 6-ball in the corner and scatters the balls, viewers know they_re settling into to watch a master at work. The dialogue against the silence, interrupted only by Fats’ calling out his shots, sets up Eddie’s appreciative commentary on Fats’ shooting skills. Watching the cross-corner shot called out by Eddie gives nothing away as the ball drops into the pocket, and only the additional commentary tracks included on the DVD reveal that the shot was pure luck and was left in the movie because it was so pretty that it looked planned. Willie Moscone puts in an appearance as the money guy throughout the film. Then Eddie’s cockiness and confidence asserts itself, and he narrates his feelings as he shoots shot after shot, dropping ball after ball. The jazz music underscores and emphasizes the shots and Eddie’s pure love of the game.
Bert Gordon shows up in Chapter 6 and brings all the weight and warning of a picture of Death seated at a dinner table in a Renaissance painting. Gordon tells Fats to stay with Eddie because he_s a loser. They play for 25 hours straight, and Fats is still all business as Eddie falls apart. Jazz music interspersed with long silences set up the plot and the characters, driving Fast Eddie Felson toward a head-on collision with the darkness waiting inside him.
Chapter 8 maintains the low-key jazz score that was so much a part of the period when the movie was made. The quiet of the bus station and the public address messages bring home the fact that Eddie has nowhere to go and has no clue about how he’s going to get on with his life. In Chapter 9, Eddie and Sarah get together because she’s drunk. The scene at the door is a great example of the old-time movie making of the era. Eddie starts kissing her, and his passion scares her, making her tell him that he’s “too hungry.”
Chapter 10 brings another cool blast of jazz as Eddie starts trying to get on with his life. The room is small and grimy, shot on location in New York City, which (as the commentary reveals) wasn_t often done in those days. Eddie continues to hit bottom, but he does get together with Sarah. However, a great bit of dialogue she delivers is a standard of the films made during this decade. “I_ve got troubles, and I think maybe you’ve got troubles. Maybe it would be better if we just leave each other alone.”
Chapter 11 is another set piece of character development and emotional exposition. When Eddie gets angry and delivers a slap, the sound peals through the room and the scene. In Chapter 13, a tugboat whistle out in the harbor rolls over the pier area outside Arthur’s Pool Hall where Eddie takes another turn at a decidedly dark and ungenerous fate.
“The Hustler” sets up the morality play, the war between Good and Evil that exists within every person. As much it is a comeback story, it’s also a tragedy, a wonderful story and some of Paul Newman_s best work.
The additional DVD materials included on the Special Edition are terrific. The commentary provided on the movie is dense and complete, detailing stories about filming, the writing, the concerns Hollywood had about the production and the social environment of the United States at the time. In 1961, the world was still in flux, still looking for itself, still reaching backward and forward at the same time, and trying to hide the seamier sides of itself in the shadows. “The Hustler” brought several of those issues to the forefront and made statements that director Robert Rossen believed in. The ancillary pieces on pool shooting and trick shooting are welcome embellishments even though the story is much deeper than just the game.
”The Hustler” belongs on the shelves of every film aficionado and every Paul Newman fan. This is some of Hollywood’s best post-World War II storytelling, camerawork, acting and writing. The movies truly got away from the radio influence with movies like “The Hustler,” while the dialogue between powerhouses like Gleason and Newman crackles. A note for Tom Cruise fans: “The Color of Money” is the sequel to “The Hustler.” People who have seen Newman and Cruise’s film will definitely want to check out “The Hustler” and find out where the story of Fast Eddie Felson truly began.