#37) The Hustler (1961)

hustler1961

#37) The Hustler (1961)

OR “Harold Hill was Right”

Directed by Robert Rossen

Written by Rossen and Sidney Carroll. Based on the novel by Walter S. Tevis.

Class of 1997

The Plot: “Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is a small-town pool hustler looking for his big break. He challenges champion Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) to a match. Eddie starts off strong, but his cockiness gets the better of him and he loses everything. While on the streets he starts a relationship with Sarah (Piper Laurie) an alcoholic with dashed dreams of her own. Eddie starts hustling again and attracts the eye of high-roller Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) who tries to craft the “born loser” into a true champ. Eddie’s hunger for winning fuels him, but at a personal cost.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it a “moody, deliberately-paced morality play” and singles out the film’s direction, writing, cinematography and performers, specifically George C. Scott.

But Does It Really?: It could have been just a little shorter, but the film is definitely worth it as a character study of people’s competitive natures. The film’s strength is the emphasis on character rather than on the game of pool itself, which I feel a lesser director would have done. Performances by the four leads are solid (if maybe a little too “Actors Studio” for my taste) and the pool games are riveting. While the film’s impact may have worn off over the years, I’d still chalk this one up to a “minor classic”.

Everybody Gets One: Amazingly this is the only appearance for stars Jackie Gleason and Piper Laurie. Also noteworthy are appearances by Vincent “Old Italian Stereotype” Gardenia and Michael “Old Greek Stereotype” Constantine. Plus that’s boxer Jake LaMotta as the bartender when Eddie and Sarah meet up again. Hey, someone should make a movie about him!

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the fact that modern professional pool players are not as cool or classy as Paul Newman or Jackie Gleason.

Seriously, Oscars?: “The Hustler” received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Almost completely shut out by “West Side Story” and “Judgment at Nuremberg”, the film won two technical awards; Art Direction and Cinematography. Most noteworthy is George C. Scott’s Supporting Actor nomination. After losing for “Anatomy of a Murder” two years earlier, Scott decided he no longer believed in competition among actors and asked that the Academy remove his nomination. The Academy declined his request. Scott split the vote with Gleason and lost to George Chakiris for “West Side Story”.

Other notes

  • Speaking of Oscars, I’m disappointed that Dede Allen didn’t get a nomination for her editing. It took a while for Hollywood’s Old Home Guard to accept that faster New York style of editing. And kudos to Fox’s Oscar campaign for putting Piper Laurie in the lead category. They could have easily put her in supporting and committed category fraud, but Fox made the right choice.
  • I’m a sucker for films that are shot in Black & White with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. They always look so artful. This is the brief era of film where this combination was more frequent.
  • We’re still in the Hays Code era, so characters aren’t allowed to swear. Instead we get substitutes like “up the flagpole”, “crum”, and “kiss off”. The film, however, is edgy enough to let Sarah call Bert a “bastard”.
  • Holy hell those trick shots are amazing! Gleason was a seasoned pool player and did all his own shots. Newman picked up the game quickly and only needed assistance on one shot by pool champ (and the film’s technical advisor) Willie Mosconi.
  • This film has one of my favorite types of scenes; montages that have several images superimposed over each other.
  • I’m convinced that Gleason actually misses one of his shots, but they cut away before you see where the ball ends up. You win this round, Rossen.
  • Why is Piper Laurie dubbed so much? Like, almost every scene she’s in. It’s especially noticeable in her big scene towards the end where the sync is way off.
  • That’s character actor Murray Hamilton as Kentucky pool champ Findley. For those of you keeping score, he’s in movies about pool sharks and actual sharks.
  • George C. Scott is good, but he only gets to do his famous “Turn It Off!” line reading once, saved towards the end for, “You owe me MONEY!” This was only Scott’s third film, yet the transition from stage actor to film actor is already seamless.

Legacy

  • 25 years later Paul Newman reprised Fast Eddie in the Scorsese-helmed semi-sequel “The Color of Money”. Reviews were mixed, but Newman’s performance finally won him his first and only Academy Award.
  • “The Hustler” is credited with helping to revive interest in pool. So…that’s cool I guess.
  • Shortly after the film came out, pool player Rudolf Wanderone started calling himself “Minnesota Fats” and claimed that Gleason’s character was based on him. The story didn’t stick, but the nickname did.

Further Viewing: The 1978 showdown between aforementioned pool champions Minnesota Fats and Willie Mosconi. Because it’s a ‘70s sports match, Howard Cosell provides commentary.

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