The Hustler (1961)

Director:  Robert Rossen
Cast:  Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott
Plot:  An up-and-coming pool player plays a long-time champion in a single high-stakes match.

Genre:  Drama / Sport
Awards:  Won 2 Oscars - Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction.  Nom. for 7 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Leading Actress, Best Supporting Actor (x2), Best Adapted Screenplay.
Runtime:  134min
Rating:  PG for some violence.

Perhaps the film that established the great Paul Newman as one of the leading actors of his generation was The Hustler.  Landing his second Oscar nomination, Newman’s role as Eddie Felson was memorable for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which was the intensity of his acting, which came across as cool yet charismatic. 

Newman’s natural flair for acting with composure had seen him racked up more than half a dozen Oscar nominations, though his only competitive win came in 1986 for Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money , a sequel of sorts to The Hustler.

Directed by Robert Rossen (not to be confused with the French director Robert Bresson), The Hustler is often thought to be his greatest film.  While I have not seen many of his works to give an opinion, I feel that it is an excellent film but not a great one. 

Shot in black-and-white, Rossen’s film is, according to critic James Berardinelli, “no more about pool than Raging Bull (1980) is about boxing."  It is a character-driven film that pits Eddie not against his opponents but with himself.  Drunk and obsessive about winning, Eddie succumbs to his character flaws in his long-drawn match against Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in the film’s early 'action' set-piece.

Much of the film after that does not quite reside in pool hustling.  Instead Rossen calls to attention Eddie’s romantic relationship with Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie).  Their romance is not seen as a subplot to the film’s main narrative but another lens to look at Eddie’s character. 

With Sarah, Eddie is warm and nice, though there are occasional instances of volatility.  But put a cue in his hands and he is a changed man.  And for the worst, if I may add.  One of the film’s supporting characters, a rich cutthroat gambler named Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), calls Eddie a born loser and one who is without character.

It is this quest to find that 'character' that sets Eddie to build towards it, to prove himself that not only is he the greatest pool player anyone has ever seen, but also one that, win or lose, acknowledges the value of integrity, something he has failed to see for most of his life, and as a consequence in numerous situations, failed him as well. 

The Hustler, while quite effective as a conventional character study on human behavior and emotions, is less potent when it comes to dealing with the psyche of its lead character.  The film does not seem to have the prerequisite grittiness to flesh out Eddie’s psychological motivation (or ambiguity).

Further, Newman’s image as a clean and likable, albeit rebellious dude, coupled with the film’s polished cinematography by Eugen Schufftan, who won an Oscar for his work here, suggest that The Hustler is not cut out to be a deep, complex, and raw character study in the mould of, say, Taxi Driver (1976). 

Here, Rossen takes his film to a level that is enough for us to understand and root for Eddie.  He refuses to go further and seeks instead to give us the pleasure of watching Newman and co. strut their stuff on the pool table.  Speaking of which, those shots are actually quite exciting to look at.

GRADE: B+ (8/10 or 3.5 stars)
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