Saturday, December 29, 2012
CANON OF FILM: "THE HUSTLER"
THE HUSTLER (1961)
Screenplay:Sydney Carroll and Robert Rossen based on the novel by Walter S. Tevis
I once wrote a short screenplay about a pool player after soon after watching “The Hustler.” (Not a good one, unfortunately.) I'm surprised "The Hustler" doesn't get more recognition as one of the great American films; few movies I’ve seen contain such memorable dialogue and have such an emotional impact. When Fast Eddie (Oscar-nominee Paul Newman) and Charlie (Myron McCormick) walk into Ames, Eddie says the place is like a church; Charlie says it’s a morgue with tables as slabs to lay the stiffs on. With seedy backroom sports, these are the two correct comparisons. Fast Eddie plays a game with the best pool player around, Minnesota Fats. Fats, played by Jackie Gleason, earning him his only Oscar nomination, is all presence. He says only a few words, but the moment he enters the pool room, his fills the movie. After losing the game, Eddie befriends a lame, drunk girl who spends her days at the train station named Sarah (Oscar-nominee Piper Laurie). One look at her says tough life. She’s drunk most of the time, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays she goes to college, although mostly because she can’t handle being drunk seven days a week. It’s kind of odd that this film gives her character full weight and not just as a hanger-on girlfriend of the main character. It's unusual in it's depth, and actually, multiple characters given much more time than they normally would to develop. That's the thing about the best sports movies, they aren't about the outcomes, but about the characters Telling Sarha's story helps us to learn about Fast Eddie. After losing, he gets recruited by Bert Gordon, (Oscar-nominated George C. Scott) who’s a“gambler,” as he puts it, and a very successful one. He watches with a quiet determination at his investments. The same way that Fast Eddie doesn’t look like a Hustler, Gordon doesn’t look like a personification of Satan, but even his hairline looks like devil horns, hidden in plain sight by dark sunglasses. Unassuming at first, but then his presence gets bigger and bigger throughout the film. Fast Eddie finally agrees to let him be his manager, after certain manipulations. Still, Sarah, Eddie’s girl has to come along, but she’s no match for Gordon. How Gordon manipulates her is so diabolical and methodical, we don’t even realize what he’s doing until it’s way too late. I’ve already revealed too much of the storyline of the film, but I will note this that the movie isn’t about winning a final game like most sports films, or getting a girl, or any other cliché, this movie is run on emotions, and how they make us act, how they can help us and how they can backfire. Skills that we may have and the realization that they can only take us so far.
The movie was directed by Robert Rossen, a communist who at first refused to name names to HUAC, but then turned in 57 people in order to keep working. “The Hustler,” subtextually, is about his sadness of having made such a decision. To have to live life, forever knowing, you've betrayed your own principles. If Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” was an explanation of why he named names. "The Hustler" is a sad film, more than most sports films. Sad in mood, as much as outcome. The movie became a prototype for sports movies. In fact, the original Walter S. Tevis novel, was adapted on more than one occasion, after "The Hustler," most famously, with the game changed from pool to poker, in "The Cincinnati Kid". 25 years later, the sequel to "The Hustler", the Martin Scorsese directed "The Color of Money", earned Paul Newman, his only Oscar.
Gordon: …I saw you shoot the other night at Ames. You got talent.
Fast Eddie: So, I got talent, so what beat me?