DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Hustler

Sunday 29 May 2011

The Hustler

The Hustler (1961) dir. Robert Rossen
Starring: Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott


By Alan Bacchus

The opening 30 minutes of The Hustler is pure cinema. It’s a riveting sequence featuring the marathon 40-hour pool match between Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats, during which we establish Eddie as the cocky, brazen, unbridled talent who just can’t match up to the controlled sophisticated swagger of his gentlemanly opponent.

Paul Newman is terrific of course, but watch Jackie Gleason. With little dialogue, it’s his poise and immense stature that captures our attention. He’s also dressed to the nines, which helps, but contrasting his famed Honeymooners character with Minnesota Fats, we can see how underutilized Gleason was on film during his TV heyday.

Unfortunately, The Hustler is not all magnificence. After the first sequence, Rossen settles into a rather dull bit of method acting indulgence. After losing the match to Fats, Fast Eddie goes into a depressed funk, leaving town and hanging out in a local coffee shop where he meets a similarly depressed drunk, Sarah (Piper Laurie). Their relationship consists of getting drunk and having sex, which, due to the Hollywood Production Code, was only implied. Admittedly, whenever Fast Eddie is not in the pool hall, it's time to go the bathroom or the refrigerator.

On Blu-ray, as we also get to marvel at the fantastic and pristine widescreen black and white image. The period between 1960 and 1965 was one of the greatest in cinematography. It comes at the end of the black and white era and before colour was accepted in all genres, not just musicals or epics. It was also the beginning of cinemascope and widescreen photography. The combination of B&W and widescreen is simply sublime.

The 1960s was also a decade in which running times of studio pictures frequently ran past 120 minutes. The excessive 135 minute running time here does not benefit the viewing experience. It’s part of the method indulgences of Newman and Laurie, as unwatchable and eye-rolling as their over-the-top drunken stupors in the first half of the movie.

That said, the ground work laid in these indulgent drunken scenes pays off in the end in a violent act that changes Fast Eddie's outlook on life for good and gives him the life experience to beat Fats in the fantastic final scene of the film. It also informs Fast Eddie's maturity in the Scorsese-directed sequel, The Color of Money 25 years later. And if anything, re-watching The Hustler also allows me to appreciate this underappreciated film even more. Newman’s Oscar-winning performance in The Color of Money was indeed deserved and not the sympathy vote as it has been perceived.

The Hustler is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

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