THE HUSTLER racked a winning game in 1961, earning praise for peers and critics, enjoying boxoffice success and securing Paul Newman’s place in the front rank with the second of his ten Academy Award nominations. The first of his lucky 4-H clique (Hud, Harper and Hombre) didn’t snag Paul the trophy: ironically he’d get it 26 years later in The Color of Money, playing the same character, the cockiness seasoned into candor, teaching a new hotshot what balls were for. Other than being overlong, it’s exceptionally well done, if hardly a cheerful project, spending 134 humorless minutes in drab settings with cynical, self-serving and self-destructive jerks.
“One of the best indoor sports, feeling sorry for yourself. A sport enjoyed by all, especially the born losers.”
Brash pool hustler ‘Eddie Felson’ (Newman) has talent on the hoof (or cue) but can’t control his impulse to screw himself out of victory with ego and drink. After blowing a match with the legendary ‘Minnesota Fats’ (Jackie Gleason), and losing his long-suffering manager (Myron McCormick), “Fast Eddie” slowly crawls back to form. But his road back to beating Fats is pitted by his touchy relationship with fragile alcoholic ‘Sarah Packard’ (Piper Laurie) and the web spun by ‘Bert Gordon’ (George C. Scott), a morally poisoned promoter. They don’t call them ‘pool sharks’ for nuthin’.
- At 35, Newman had been acting for a dozen years, starring in movies for seven, a mix of hits and clunkers, but even having notched an Oscar nomination (Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) and headlining an epic (Exodus) he hadn’t broken free from the accursed brooder-shadow cast by Marlon Brando and throne-pretender James Dean: he was too often glum and sullen. Here, though Fast Eddie’s a louse, Newman’s energy and confidence are focused so acutely, his physical positioning so dynamic and persuasive—he’d never picked a pool cue before making the movie yet moves like he was born with one—that he makes this emotionally adrift figure charismatic, eventually even pitiable.
As the viper-in-the-lawn Bert Gordon, Scott’s dangerous intensity glows like a hot coal; McCormick embodies weariness as Eddie’s cast-off partner (he passed away the following year at 54); Murray Hamilton offers another superb slice of honey-voiced sickness, the high-born, moneyed kind. At 44, Gleason’s film career—busy with TV he hadn’t made a movie in a decade—was resuscitated by this performance, a masterful piece of watchful deliberation and restraint coupled with natural grace of movement. At 28, the offbeat Laurie had been in films since 1950, but they were mostly throwaway roles (her last, Until They Sail, five years earlier, had also starred Newman): after the acclaim for her heart-rending victim of The Hustler, she ducked out of feature films for TV and stage, and social justice work, until coming back fifteen years later with a Biblical vengeance (and another nomination) in Carrie.
Since 1937 Robert Rossen had written screenplays, but his brief career as a director only encompassed ten pictures over 17 years: he died at 57 in 1966. But they include Body and Soul, arguably the best movie about the boxing game, and All The King’s Men, what many call one of the best about amore dangerous blood-sport, politics. With The Hustler he delivered the pool picture. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Sidney Carroll, off the novel by Walter Tevis.
The stark cinematography (Eugen Schüfftan) won an Oscar, as did the functional, smell-the-desperation art direction (a bit of a stretch, since much of the activity took place in a real pool hall). The “thumbs’ scene is still a shocker. Nominations justifiably went up as Best Picture and for Actor (Newman), Actress (Laurie), Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (both Scott and Gleason). The iconoclastic Scott refused his.
With Michael Constantine, Vincent Gardenia, Stefan Gierasch, Jake LaMotta (yep), Willie Mosconi, Blue Washington, Charles Dierkop. Cost pegged at $2,125,000, gross at $10,900,000.