Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Hustler

THE HUSTLER           A                     
USA  (134 mi)  1961  ‘Scope  d:  Robert Rossen

No bar, no pinball machines, no bowling alleys, just pool... nothing else. This is Ames, mister.        —cashier (Gordon B. Clarke)    

One of the outstanding films of the 60’s, the kind of American classic they just don’t make any more, perhaps modeled after Marlon Brando as Terry Mallow, a guy with mixed emotions and a tormented soul, with dreams of becoming a championship boxer in Elia Kazan’s ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), but the seedy side of the sport gets in the way.  While the general consensus for the greatest sports movies ever made tend to thrive on schmaltz and sentimentality, where the names Hoosiers (1986) or MIRACLE (2004) spring to mind, but nothing comes close to the searing realism of this film where winning at all costs is the name of the game, no matter the price, one of the bleaker psychological expressions of an athlete’s interior struggles.  Few films depict the dark side of sports as blisteringly truthful as this one, where faded hopes and broken dreams must be crushed in order to overcome the pain of having lost everything.  It’s a gritty and bittersweet journey expressed through magnificent black-and-white cinematography shot by Eugen Schüfftan, a master class in lighting and ‘Scope framing, where winning is not redemptive and cannot replace the value of what’s lost, actually making winning a losing proposition.  Told with a downbeat tone and a jazzy score from Kenyon Hopkins, much of the film takes place in the smoky confines of a pool hall where with the technical help of 14-time world billiards champion Willie Mosconi, the action literally pops off the screen and the room comes alive, especially the opening 40-minutes of the film which are simply enthralling.  Paul Newman is “Fast Eddie” Felson in a performance that arguably represents the peak of his career, showing an intensity that can't be found anywhere else in the actor’s lifetime, working the small-time pool rooms as he makes his way across the country from Oakland to New York, where when he finally reaches the pool palace that is the renown Ames Billiard Academy in Manhattan, home of the best player in the world, the resplendent Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats, also known as the Fat Man, a term affectionately used in the presence of royalty.  To Eddie, the room is quiet as a church, a sacred mecca to men in his trade, but to his partner Charlie Burns (Myron McCormick) who’s accompanied him on his cross-country trek, “Looks more like a morgue to me. Those tables are the slabs they lay the stiffs on.”

Rossen and William Carroll co-wrote the brilliant screenplay, adapted from the Walter Tevis novel, where three of his six novels have been turned into movies, including THE HUSTLER (1962), the follow-up THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986), and the sci-fi movie The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).  Rossen was charged by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a former member of the Communist Party and after refusing to testify he was initially blacklisted by the Hollywood studios, but when he was called back he named 57 people as current or former Communists in order to revive his career.  Had he not cooperated, one seriously doubts whether this film would ever have been made. Certainly the pervasive tone of cynicism and bitterness running throughout the film may have originated with his disillusionment from those McCarthy hearings.  Rossen’s films reflect his sympathies for the working man, where ambition and a drive for success are common themes, where the hero is undone by flaws in his character and an often exploitive work environment, occasionally basing his screenplays on real subjects.  While Minnesota Fats is a fictional character from the book, real life professional pool player Rudolf Wanderone Jr., known as “New York Fats,” always claimed the character was based on himself, turning his momentary fame into book deals and television appearances, including a series of highly publicized matches with Willie Mosconi, who plays the character Willie in the film, also seen is professional boxer Jake LaMotta, the subject of Martin Scorsese’s RAGING BULL (1980), playing a bartender, while an uncredited Blue Washington, a black actor from the early Hollywood Silent era, plays the limping pool attendant at Ames.  Of noted significance, both Newman, who trained intently for the performance, and Gleason, already an accomplished player, perform their own pool shots, while several Mosconi-aided specialty shots were added for effect.  But the dingy atmosphere, the grime and stench of the poolroom, with 24 hour marathon games going all day and night, are perfectly captured by Rossen, especially the raw emotion of the moment where players are in their element.  Newman portrays Felson as a complicated character who thrives on the adrenaline rush, riding the tide where he runs the table with ease, cocky and confident, seemingly unbeatable, but then something happens, or a remark gets under his skin and starts to gnaw at him, literally eating him alive where he dies a little bit with each lost game.  He’s a compulsive gambler who doesn’t know when to quit, riding huge winning streaks to giant cash holdings, but then is just as apt to lose it all in a downward tailspin.  While the poolroom is the apparent setting, the film is more about the internal trappings of obsession, what you have to sacrifice in your life to win, and what defines a man who is searching just as hard to discover his own long lost character as he is for victories.  This moral interior struggle, which is the same for anyone, is the real heart and soul of the film.  Newman's iconic performance paved the way for the rebel anti-heroes of the 60’s and even the 70’s, flawed and tormented characters that would lead to the likes of Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Jack Nicholson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), Al Pacino’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Robert De Niro’s Taxi Driver (1976).    

With victory so close he could taste it, Eddie revels in the illusory moment of invincibility, all liquored up and preening like a peacock instead of staying in the moment, where Eddie’s descent into defeat is monumental, losing it all, literally collapsing from exhaustion when he realizes it’s over.  In this dazed stupor of letting it all get away, he spends the night in a bus station where he meets another ship drifting in the night at a coffee shop, Piper Laurie as Sarah Packard, another bleary-eyed, disillusioned soul who spends too much of her time drinking, mostly to avoid facing the truth about her own pathetic existence.  Both from the school of hard knocks who have to learn the hard way, the two play house for a bit, while he recovers what’s left of his wounded pride, but eventually he feels the itch to get back into the game, letting his pent-up pride and vanity get the better of him by wiping a guy off the table and letting him know it, which only gets his thumbs broke in a decrepit warehouse district that doesn’t take kindly to pool hustlers.  Sarah nurses him back to health and falls in love with him in the process, where there’s a beautiful scene of the two of them having a picnic overlooking a river where Eddie explains the feeling he gets when everything is going right and he knows he can’t lose, where he can make shots nobody’s ever made before, which is a zone athletes can all relate to, as they’ve been there before, where everything just falls into place, as if by fate.  The beauty of this moment is the audience has already seen this with their own eyes in the earlier poolhall sequences, bookended later in the film with this dazzling poolhall montage The Hustler Final Pool Game HD - YouTube (1:28).  Despite her declarations of love, this barely registers with Eddie, as all he wants to do is get back into the game, swallowing his pride and turning instead to one of the most vile and ferocious portraits of power and blind ambition, George C. Scott as high stakes gambler and manager Bert Gordon, one of the more thoroughly despicable characters he’s ever played, not that far removed from Lee J. Cobb’s ruthlessly corrupt union boss in ON THE WATERFRONT.  Gordon is all about the money, where he’ll step over anybody who stands in his way, showcasing Eddie like he would a prize-winning racehorse.  Scott was so upset he didn’t win an Oscar for this performance that he denounced the Academy and refused to accept his Best Actor award in PATTON (1970).  But it’s Rossen who finds the cinema magic, beautifully blending all the swirling tragic and heartbreaking elements, perfectly edited by a young Dede Allen, ending not with resounding victory or glory, as everyone dreams of, but with intense grief and a quiet, bewildering dismay.  Is this what winning looks like?  Described by Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times [Roger Ebert]) as “one of those films where scenes have such psychic weight that they grow in our memories,” this is one of the great character studies where the secondary performers are as memorable as the leads, offering depths of emotion rarely seen anywhere, among the most unforgettable performances ever captured in American film.  

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