Sidney Carroll, Robert Rossen (Novel: Walter Tevis)
Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott
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An upstart pool shark finds himself in over his head as he takes on one of the most legendary pool players in the country. The Hustler follows Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) as he attempts to cement his place as one of the greats while trying to keep his alcoholism from destroying him and those around him.
Capable of cheating the most knowledgeable pool enthusiasts, Fast Eddie Felson had slowly developed a reputation as a capable pool player. As his talent increased, his penchant for drink did as well, becoming a part of his swindle. But each step he took honing his craft led him closer to his intended target, legendary pool shark Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), who he dreamed of milking for $10,000. The film begins late in Felson’s journey as he hustles the last stop before his arrival Fats’ preferred pool hall. As he slowly sets up his prey, convincing them he’s a terrible shot with a penchant for booze, he walks away with enough cash to take him to his final destination.
As he sets up his stake against Minnesota Fats, he begins drinking and by the time he’s surpassed his goal, he’s so far into his cups that his hubris takes over and he begins to spiral into ruin, losing everything he’d won to that point. After suffering the humiliating defeat, he tucks his tail and runs, ending up eventually at a train station diner where he meets engaging fellow alcoholic Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie). The two fall in love but only across a bottle of liquor. After Felson has both of his thumbs broken by a group of angered players he’d effectively hustled, he must recuperate with Sarah’s help while coming to grips with his failures.
While on the mend, Fats’ bankroller Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) takes Eddie on as a student, hoping to turn him into the winning power player he could be seeing his biggest strength in Eddie’s desire not to be a loser. Bert grooms Eddie to win a sizable trophy for him and eventually takes him to compete against a foreign shark whose love of billiards threatens to capsize their entire endeavor. Yet, it’s not his success or failure that is tested, but his ability to appreciate the elements of life he can’t get while playing pool, causing a slow rift to develop between he and Sarah.
Robert Rossen had only directed ten films by the time of his death at age 57. Rossen began as a screenwriter in the 1930’s and moved behind the camera in 1947 after a string of popular screenplays including The Sea Wolf and Edge of Darkness. He made his biggest mark two years later with the Best Picture-winning All the King’s Men which brought him his first of two Best Director nominations. Like Elia Kazan, Rossen went before the House Unamerican Activities Committee in 1953. Although he initially refused to testify, he eventually named names, which earned him the hire of those Hollywood elite who stood strong against HUAC. In spite of everything, he continued working in the industry and earned further acclaim and his second and final Best Director nomination in 1961 with The Hustler. This film, perhaps more so than All the King’s Men, showed that Rossen was more than capable of directing actors. Newman, Gleason, Laurie, Scott and Myron McCormick, who played Eddie’s longtime con partner Charlie Burns, each give exquisite performances.
Newman, who has certainly performed better in other films, commands the screen like few others. Newman gained prominence in 1958 with his celebrated performance in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof after years toiling on the small screen. Each performance improved his standing with audiences, but his best work was always when he stepped back to more dramatic work. The Hustler is an example of how his natural charm, characteristic of a leading man, was blended effectively with the gifts of a talented thespian. Scott and Gleason deliver fine supporting performances, but the actor who stands out most opposite Newman is his leading lady Piper Laurie. No stranger to the big screen (or the little), Laurie took her ten years of experience in a wide array of films and television programs and parlayed it into an electric performance as the trusting, tragic, lonely woman who finally finds solace in a man who has the same foibles as she. While modern audiences are more likely familiar with her work in Carrie, her talent was as equally pronounced 15 years earlier even though she hadn’t practiced her craft much in that time, having become disillusioned with Hollywood and moving into retirement.
While a wonderful director of actors, Rossen lacked a visual style to distinguish himself from the layman directors. His film, without the work of Newman, Laurie and the others, might have ended up in the B slot at the local movie theater, taking back seat to a more prominent feature. As one of the film’s co-writers, he does a suitable job creating the dialogue and situations in which Newman and Laurie excel, but the film itself feels like the work of a journeyman, not a master craftsman. What a director like Billy Wilder could have done with this material is unquestionable (his The Lost Weekend, also dealing with alcohol abuse is probably the definitive treatment of the disease).
While I wouldn’t call The Hustler a masterpiece, the performances deserve high praise. The film shows the audience that being knowledgeable or capable of success doesn’t guarantee it. If we allow our worst impulses to control our minds, we are in danger of collapsing under the immense pressures of life.
April 10, 2011