Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: The Hustler (1961)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal review, here at Enuffa.com!

Today's subject is the 1961 billiards-related classic, The Hustler, starring Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason.  This gritty saga of gambling, winning and losing, and unlikely romance centers around "Fast" Eddie Felson, a prodigious pool hall hustler who along with his manager Charlie, travels town to town playing for money.  His ultimate quarry is pool legend Minnesota Fats (Gleason), whom he challenges to a series of games.  Eddie dominates most of the 25-hour session but can't bring himself to quit while he's ahead, and Fats cleans him out by the end.  Financially ruined and now "outed" as a hustler, Eddie plans to move on but meets Sarah (Piper Laurie), a part-time college student and full-time alcoholic, at the bus terminal.  The two connect instantly and Eddie moves in with her, breaking his partnership with Charlie.  Facing a choice between resuming his life as a hustler and going all-in with Sarah, Eddie strikes up a business arrangement with Fats' associate Bert (an austere George C. Scott) to get him back in a game against Fats.  Under Bert's cruel tutelage, Eddie learns the true nature of hustling, sacrificing his humanity and more to become a "winner."

Directed by Robert Rossen, a former Communist who sold out over 50 associates during the HUAC hearings in the 1950s, The Hustler is steeped in guilt and regret, now read almost as a parable for Rossen's McCarthy-era betrayals.  The Eddie character doesn't realize his dream of becoming the best pool player until after he's destroyed the two relationships he cared about, first his partnership with Charlie, then his romance with Sarah.  That inner conflict, career ambition at all costs vs. personal happiness, is central to the story, and The Hustler was one of few American films at the time to directly address such a theme.  
The principle performances are all Oscar-worthy (in fact all four actors received nominations that year).  Piper Laurie is given considerable screen time to explore Sarah as a three-dimensional character - lonely and ashamed of her past, but kind of sweetly taken with Eddie.  Jackie Gleason is only featured in two scenes but lends presence to Minnesota Fats, commanding the room as he walks in - the average person might not know him as an ace pool player but they'd instinctively be aware he's someone of importance.  George C. Scott as Bert is brutally hard-edged, cynical, able to read and exploit people at will; were he not a professional gambler he'd make a remarkable salesman or politician.  And finally Paul Newman, in the role that made him a household name, fully embodies Eddie as an everyman-handsome, naturally charming scamp, a hustler who can put an unsuspecting opponent at ease before taking all his money.  But underneath the surface lay aggression and self-loathing that have never been addressed.  We see the former come out during a scene where, desperate to raise the stakes for another shot at Fats, Eddie belligerently out-hustles a far inferior pool shark, and his impatience is rewarded with two broken thumbs.  The latter quality, self-loathing, rears its head throughout the film, most prominently in the first game with Fats - Eddie can't seem to handle his besting the legend, and self-destructs over the course of several hours, drinking himself nearly unconscious and refusing to walk away until Fats throws in the towel.  As Bert later points out to him, "You were looking for an excuse to lose."  This is one of Newman's great performances.  

The Hustler was released at a time when Hollywood was just beginning to inject a sense of warts-and-all realism into its films.  The early 60s were a transitional period between 40s and 50s Hollywood glamor, when leading men and women were larger than life and their films seemed to exist in a simplistically moral universe, and late 60s/early 70s cinema, which showed life's ugly side and featured artful, palpable method performances by consummate actors.  This film served as one of the bridges between the two periods and influenced a slew of similar movies (The Cincinatti Kid, Rounders and of course this film's sequel The Color of Money).  Shot in grainy, shadow-punctuated black & white, Rossen's direction coupled with Eugene Shuftan's camera capture the dirt and grime of the pool hall underworld - dimly lit bars where all eyes are drawn to the rings of light projected onto felt surfaces.  It's here where fortunes are won and lost, but in Fast Eddie's case, the real winning and losing takes place within.       

I give The Hustler **** out of ****.

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