Thursday 4 March 2010

The Hustler (1961)

Director: Robert Rossen
Star: Paul Newman

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I'd seen The Hustler before but I'm always very glad to see it again. Even though there are sections that, let's be honest, are hard to watch, it's a powerful drama that remains powerful on repeat viewings. It's powerful enough that Paul Newman deservedly won an Oscar for his role as Fast Eddie Felson, but surprisingly not here in The Hustler. He won for The Color of Money, the sequel that director Martin Scorsese made twenty-five years later, with young upstart Tom Cruise as his cocky protégé Vincent Lauria. My pet theory is that he was a shoe-in in 1986 because the Academy regretted not recognising him first time round in 1961. That happens a lot if you read up on Oscar history. It's so commonplace to see people winning for work they did the year before or the year before that or over a long career that it's great fun reading through the awards lists and trying to work out what anyone really won for. The Academy apologised a lot with Oscars.

Fast Eddie is the hustler of the title and he specialises in straight pool. He's been working his way east from California to challenge the acknowledged greatest player in the nation, Minnesota Fats on his home turf in New York. His confidence and his talent have earned him and his partner Charlie Burns a decent living on the road but he dreams of beating the best there is, so much so that when he finally walks into Ames Billiards Hall to duke it out with Fats, it plays out almost like a religious experience. 'Quiet like a church,' he says with a gleam in his eye as he stands inside the door and absorbs the atmosphere. It's early and he has a while to relax before his opponent turns up, not that he can relax. 'How much am I going to win tonight?' he asks anyone who might be listening. He wants a $10,000 night and he knows that he's good enough to get it.

It's strange to see a film start with what equates to a boss battle, but that's what we get: our protagonist Fast Eddie Felson against the boss, Minnesota Fats, a legend who hasn't lost in fifteen years. Fats was a fictional character, brought to vivid life by Jackie Gleason, though a real player called Rudy Wanderone took on the monicker after the film was released and ran with it to some success. This boss battle is a marathon session that outlasts the night and the day that follows it. After 25 hours straight Fast Eddie is $18,000 up and a bottle of bourbon down but he won't quit, even when Charlie begs him to. He's not really there for the money, after all, he's there to beat the best and as he repeats like a mantra, the game's over only when Minnesota Fats says its over. Those two words are all that matters.

It even takes us half an hour to watch it, about a quarter of the film's entire running time, and when it's all over Eddie is back down to a couple of hundred bucks. He's so lost that he sprawls headlong on the floor begging for the game to keep going, and that's really what this film, as well as the source novel by Walter Tevis, is all about. Fats doesn't beat Eddie, Eddie beats himself and he doesn't know it. It isn't even really about pool, though there's enough of it to be more than a minor focus and even to spark a revival in the game. It's about winning and losing and what really drives people to do either.

After a half hour of pool, we get a half hour of no pool. In fact we don't get much pool at all for the entire middle hour of the film, because we watch Fast Eddie losing at life, just as he lost at pool, perhaps the only thing he's good at. The turning point of the game with Fats is when a high powered gambler called Bert Gordon calls Eddie a loser and that rankles. Gordon becomes an even more important character later, after Eddie has split with Charlie and found himself a girl, an alcoholic called Sarah Packard with a limp and a dubious source of income. She's a girl with serious issues, yet another excuse for losing to sit alongside all the others that Eddie has. Gordon offers him a way back to Minnesota Fats, putting up the stake money for 75% of the take, and eventually Eddie takes it because he needs the money.

Initially these scenes with Sarah seem a little out of place because we're just waiting for the next game of pool. We're expecting to see the same old sports movie where the arrogant hotshot learns his lesson the hard way by losing to the best and comes back to win as an underdog. Well, this one goes a lot deeper than that. Sure, it's a sports movie, if you want to call it that, but to do so underestimates what it aims at and what it achieves. It's a human drama about a man fighting himself and using the world as a crutch to beat himself down, even though he has the talent to rise above it all if only he can find the character to win. We're not even convinced if Eddie wants to find the character to win, because Bert Gordon is so successful and so apparently on the ball that we can't help but believe along with him that perhaps Eddie is a born loser.

It takes a talented actor to bring the appropriate depth to such a character and Paul Newman is more than up to the task. Even without the benefit of colour to highlight the most famous blue eyes in the world, he sparkles with both arrogance and self loathing. When he wins he's on top of the world, the only scene in which he really comes alive with Sarah being the one where he talks about winning, about being so on his game he doesn't even have to look because he just knows. When he loses he turns into an embarrassing wreck, losing all semblance of humanity to beg for another chance just like an addict begging for another fix. That's a heck of a wide field of character for an actor to have to realise in a couple of hours and Newman does the job well, even though he had never picked up a cue before signing up for this film. That's how much this is about pool.

Newman was one of the legends of American cinema and even though he was still notably young in 1961, he already had a number of key roles behind him. Two years after taking out an ad in Variety to apologise for his performance in his debut film, The Silver Chalice, he made his name with his second, playing boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Two years after that came Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to begin a long string of Oscar nominations. Riding high after Exodus, this film provided his second nomination. By the time he finally won for The Color of Money, he'd racked up seven other nominations and played many important roles in many important films, the sixties bringing Hud, Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; the seventies The Sting, The Towering Inferno and Slap Shot; and the eighties Fort Apache the Bronx, Absence of Malice and The Verdict.

Regardless of how much respect he had racked up by this time, Newman was the new guy in The Hustler. Jackie Gleason was already long established when he played Minnesota Fats, though mostly from television, where people from a generation or two before mine knew him well from comedy shows like The Life of Riley, The Jackie Gleason Show and especially The Honeymooners. Some people knew him instead from the stage where he won a Tony award in 1960. Millions knew him from the mood music albums he recorded, though how much he contributed to these is open to question. Certainly 1953's Music for Lovers Only was a huge hit and still holds the record for the most weeks spent in the Billboard Top Ten.

Being just a young 'un I know him instead as the blustering Sheriff Buford T Justice in the Smokey and the Bandit movies and in more recent years from a few earlier films he made for Warner Brothers like All Through the Night and Larceny, Inc. Whatever we know him from though, that's undeniably a lot of versatility for an actor to have behind him. He had also been a carnival barker, a disk jockey and even a pool hustler, though nowhere near as successful as anyone in this film. He was good enough to make most of his own shots, leaving only the specialised trick shots to the film's technical advisor, Willie Mosconi, who had won fifteen World Straight Pool Championships.

Two other actors make their presence known to no small degree here, along with plenty of memorable supporting actors including Murray Hamilton, Myron McCormick and even boxer Jake LaMotta who plays a bartender. One is Piper Laurie, at the time an actress at Universal who hadn't found a decent role on film in eight years and who was being held back by her studio publicity department who were pushing her as an ingenue by suggesting she took milk baths and ate gardenia petals for breakfast. She'd all but given up on being an actress when she made The Hustler and, after the offers surprisingly failed to arrive even after this, she retired from the screen, returning for Carrie, making her surely unique in being Oscar nominated for two consecutive films that came fifteen years apart. She's memorable here as Sarah, a character who is deeply broken but knows it and punctuates her spells of alcohol-induced forgetfulness with powerful insights, seeing through the other characters but unable to save herself even with all that knowledge.

The other is George C Scott, still very new to the business but with one decent role behind him already, as the prosecutor in Anatomy of a Murder. His portrayal here of the sleazy and calculating gambler Bert Gordon helped too, but three years and two films later he'd be gifted with the role of Gen Buck Turgidson in Kubrick's Dr Strangelove and he'd be set for life. He was the first man to turn down an Oscar, for the title role in 1970's Patton, because he felt that the awards process, which he called a 'meat market', forced actors to become stars. When he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor here, for the second time, he refused the nomination, telling the Academy simply 'no thanks.'

As Bert Gordon, Scott provides the grounding for the story. He's the least obvious of the four main characters, floating into the first marathon game after Fats sends him an invite partway through and merely sitting there watching. He flits in and out of the film for a while, gradually becoming more obviously important, but it's his job to sit in the background and manipulate rather than let his ego play in the foreground like the strutting pool players. As he tells it, life is a game and he simply plays it better than most because he understands the rules of that game. He's already rich and powerful but that success merely means that he has no needs or wants other than to press buttons and find the action and it's fascinating to watch him play with people by confronting them with brutal honesty.

Half the time he praises Eddie's talent, telling him that he hadn't seen Minnesota Fats rattled like Eddie rattled him in ten years. The other half he decries him as a born loser, a man without the character to beat someone who isn't as good as he is. Bert knows Eddie has character too and he sets himself the challenge of finding a way to drag it out of him. 'Walk into the wrong place,' he says, 'and they'll eat you alive.' They do too, after Eddie wanders into a game at Arthur's Pool Hall where a hustler has been taking small time money off the locals. He hustles the hustler and the locals break his thumbs. Bert perseveres, throwing out well defined barbs at well defined times, and what he brings Fast Eddie Felson is a lot of good and a lot of bad all wrapped up together in a package that could easily be material for a thesis.

At the end of the day, that's the beauty of this film. It's great to watch the pool players prance and strut. 'I'm shooting pool, Fats,' Fast Eddie throws out at one point. 'When I miss, you can shoot.' This supreme confidence is as palpable as that of a rock singer on stage, though it's done far more subtly here than Tom Cruise's even more arrogant and theatrical take on the concept in The Color of Money. Yet beyond our appreciation for the talent on show there's so much depth to explore that it's easy to keep coming back to the film and finding something extra. Building our understanding of who and how and especially why is defining and it can teach us as much as it taught Fast Eddie Felson.


Anonymous said...

Great review! I'm not going to pick any of what you said here apart because it's spot on!

Anonymous said...

Its Martin Scorcese, not Michael.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Absolutely it's Martin not Michael. I've fixed. Thanks for the correction.