The Hustler (1961)

On a search for my last ex-girlfriend’s first alcohol purchase, we stumbled across the Newman’s Own Cabernet Sauvignon. Or rather, I did. I endorsed this repeatedly (as red wine is the only alcohol I happily drink) until she gave in. I noted the quality (for the value, at the least) to folks and was told that many Newman’s Own products were quite good. I stumbled again across one later, this time the pizza. I suddenly envision the perfect plan, which is what I characterized the night of my viewing of The Hustler as: drinking Paul Newman wine, eating Paul Newman pizza and watching Paul Newman movies. I intended to watch more than one, but my “flexible” scheduling toward days off left me with time only for one. It was actually long before I’m writing this review, but I haven’t gotten around to my review until now.

“Fast” Eddie Felson (Newman) is a pool player, a hustler and a shark, who has traveled to Ames pool hall where reputed master Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) frequents in order to prove that he, and not Fats, is the best pool player in the country. His straight man and partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) helps with hustles, scams and cheats, as well as controlling the finances of the partnership. After initially beginning to lose to Fats, Eddie begins to overtake him and Fats sends Preacher (Stefan Gierasch) to get whiskey–what Preacher brings back is Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), a man who gambles professionally and has the money to do it. With $1000 riding on each rack, Eddie is destroying Fats until time and booze begin to take their toll and Eddie falls behind. Eventually, after hours and hours, Fats retakes the lead and nearly bankrupts Eddie. Charlie encourages him to leave, and Eddie is lost. He leaves half their money with Charlie and skips out to a bus terminal, where he finds Sarah (Piper Laurie), who seems similarly lost, but refuses to take on Eddie’s troubles. Eddie sets himself up alone, working smalltime hustles periodically to make ends meet. Sarah finds him again and this time decides he’s worth the effort. Charlie finds him there and tries to bring him back out, but Eddie finds he was stashing away some money and refuses to have anything to do with him again. When a poker game brings Eddie back into contact with Bert, Bert tells him he’s a born loser, and that he couldn’t beat Fats because he lacks character, which Fats oozes–and says that he will, oddly, still take him on as a hustler for a 75% stake. Unsurprisingly, Eddie refuses this deal. When a stick at his pride causes Eddie to reveal his hustle too openly, his thumbs are broken. Left to ponder his fate in frustration like this, Eddie changes his mind and joins Bert, with Sarah tagging along to Louisville, Kentucky. There the effete Findley (Murray Hamilton) nearly trounces Eddie, but the intervention of Sarah–begging Eddie to leave from this morally twisted world–angers Eddie into a win, and leaves Bert calmly tugging him one way and Sarah passionately the other.

I was not surprised by the colour (or rather, lack) of the film, as I already knew that it was a black and white oddity (1961 and studio-backed!), but I was surprised by the film and its construction. I felt sort of bad watching The Color of Money months ago, because I had never seen this, but I still didn’t know I’d be getting this, even with that one under my belt. The first thing that jumps out is the clearly careful framing and arrangement of any and all scenes. I’m not one to pick up on those subtleties (they are, though, intended not to be noticed so much as seen–and judged subconsciously, not consciously) like the arrangement of the heights of characters, but it was easy to feel the emphasis placed on where objects and especially characters were from frame to frame. This was a surprise to me because I think I expected something more in line with a sort of “sports film” that simply had a strong performance from Newman. Instead, it’s a film about a sport that has little to do with that sport, and the framing was probably the biggest give away, only a bit into the film.

The plotting, pacing, writing and timing of the film are all languid, but maintain a consistent tension despite it. The visuals, the acting and the plot are what maintain the tension (the plot somewhat paradoxically, though the events within it are indeed tension-building), while the Kenyon Hopkins score slows and relaxes the tone of the film, like a fine, taut gloss over the seething underbelly of the torture of a man’s pride and character. Felson is obsessed with being the best and proving it, determined to do so at all costs, ever-confident in his own abilities, even when he’s losing. On the surface, anyway. Underneath he knows when he’s down, but he also knows that pool is what he knows and what he’s good at. Sarah is not disgusted by this, or bothered by this, and loves him anyway because of it. She sees the passion, determination and confidence and loves him for it, even though he can’t really declare love for her, because the game is everything. It’s not everything like people say it is, but because Eddie truly lives by it.

The constant discussion of “born losers” and people who “want to lose” is fascinatingly thoughtful, with Eddie the flawed innocent taken under the microscope for vivisection. He’s not evilly intentioned for all that he’s a hustler–he does it more to prove and test his skill than to dupe people, but he’s also interested in himself, and because he lives so much for pool he has little time for other people. He does harm them, even as he doesn’t mean to. The contrast to this is Bert, who, by his own viewpoint, is the matured form of someone like Eddie, who he feels is a loser because of his lack of character–which amounts to gravitas, after a fashion. It’s pain and risk and danger that make maturity in his mind, and he’s not afraid to inflict any or all of them to serve himself. It, too, isn’t evil, but it has no concern for others whatsoever, and willingly uses them in his “mature” fashion. When Eddie finally sees this “maturity,” his response is far more truly mature, instead of finally acknowledging the danger of the world and using and abusing it, he makes a choice that acknowledges it and rebels against it.

This is a lot more emotional, psychological and philosophical content than I had envisioned in the film, and it is mixed with the youthful intensity of Newman, the cold, viperous venom of Scott and the vulnerable Laurie, as well as an incredible atmosphere of “cool” behind it all, that is utterly successful and absolutely perfected by Hopkins’ score. A film that truly lives up to its reputation.

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