When I first became interested in film, I would routinely watch my favorites many times. This was the mid-90s, and thus most of the films I've seen dozens of times come from this era: Miller's Crossing (1990), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Heat (1995), Casino (1995), etc. But there were also many classic films that obsessed me, usually noir, Hitchcock, or Bogart: The Third Man (1949), Rear Window (1954), The Maltese Falcon (1941), etc. Since coming to Seoul, I've had a few occasions to revisit these old VHS memories on the big screen, which can be like experiencing them for the first time. On Sunday at the Seoul Cinematheque, I was able to revisit another of my old beloved classics, Robert Rossen's The Hustler (1961). It was easily one of the best experiences I've had at the theatre, and vaulted the film to near the top of my best films list. I thought I would try to articulate both my passion for this film and try to defend my high esteem for it. (SPOILERS ahead)
In terms of context, The Hustler was made in 1961, at a time when the old studio system was fading, and bares the marks of this period. Although essentially a gritty noir drama, it is shot in widescreen, making great use of this extended frame. In terms of its content, it is highly doubtful the movie gets made under the more strictly enforced Production Code of the 1940s. There is a greater frankness here, a feeling that this is an adult drama but still as subtle and restrained as classical filmmaking at its best. Furthermore, 1961 marks the year after Dalton Trumbo was the first blacklisted writer to officially return to Hollywood by receiving writing credit for Exodus (1960) and Spartacus (1960). This is significant in terms of the thematic harshness on display in The Hustler. It is not overtly political, but certainly would have cast suspicions on its director had it been released in the 1950s. In fact, director Rossen was called before HUAC before eventually "naming names" in 1953 in order to return to work. Viewed in this light, The Hustler is both a return to the social realm of Rossen's earlier work (particularly 1947's Body and Soul, another noir film using sports as metaphor) and even a self-critical comment by Rossen on his betrayal. This is why the blacklist context increases my appreciation of this film, as compared to Elia Kazan's self-justifying On the Waterfront (1954).
The story of The Hustler is structured into a very tight, very classical progression while feeling very loose and rambling, conveying an art cinema level of verisimilitude. After a seven-minute cold opening, itself a characteristic that marks it as slightly post-classical, we get the title sequence and then enter the Ames poolroom. The next 30 minutes, consisting of the first act, is made up of a pool match between Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) and Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason).
This is the most extended sports scene in the film, and, unusually, it takes place as the first act rather than the conclusion. Following this, the second act shows Eddie living in the transitory noir spaces of bus stations, bars, pool rooms, and seedy hotels (all filmed on location in New York City).
He meets the damaged and alcoholic Sarah (Piper Laurie) and develops a romance with her. For many, this romance is the major weakness of the movie, even amongst its admirers, but I enjoy this aspect as much as the rest. Laurie's performance here is right on the edge, at times heavily melodramatic and thus potentially off-putting but ultimately exactly the kind of high emotion needed. The theatrical gestures can seem overdone, especially in the close-up lens of the camera, but Sarah is herself a performative character acting a role while also trying to live it.
At the mid-point of the second act (and of the film as a whole), there is a turning point. Eddie rejects his old partner Charlie, fights with Sarah, rejects a business offer from the gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), and gets his thumbs broken after hustling money in a back alley pool game. In this castrated state, Eddie starts to become more thoughtful and reflective, no more so than in a picnic scene in the country with Sarah. After explaining how he was bothered by being called a loser by Gordon, he goes on to explain his love of the game. However, he still hasn't achieved any self-knowledge at this point, continuing to allow others, especially Gordon, determine his value.
After recovering, he agrees to work with Gordon, beginning the final act as Eddie, Sarah and Gordon travel to Louisville during Kentucky Derby weekend so Eddie can play a billiards match with the aristocratic Findley. It is here where the climax occurs, as Eddie is losing to Findley and begging Gordon to keep playing.
Sarah tells Eddie not to beg him, but Eddie coldly rejects her. After this display of "character", Gordon tells Eddie he can keep playing, and he easily defeats Findley. Back at the hotel, Sarah degrades herself with Gordon and then commits suicide in his bathroom.
The denouement finds Eddie back at Ames to defeat Minnesota Fats and confront Gordon. In contrast to the opening, the pool game is almost perfunctory, with Eddie now easily winning. He rejects Gordon's offer to keep playing pool for him, and leaves he game completely.
But not before a memorable exchange with Minnesota Fats:
Eddie: Fat man, you should a great game of pool.
Minnesota Fats: So do you, Fast Eddie.
The Hustler is very much a character study of Felson, and it is difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role more effectively than Newman,. In later years, in interviews, Newman admitted to disliking the performance, finding a lack of the kind of understatement that would more and more define with later career. And while that subtlety works with the characters in The Verdict (1982) and Nobody's Fool (1994), I disagree with Newman and think it would not work at all with this film and this character. I think Newman's reservations, like those critics who dislike the character of Sarah, revolves around the distrust of the large emotions of melodrama. This is a film of large gestures and large themes that seem to clash with the more realistic elements that most critics tend to valourize. For example, take the following shot of Eddie just before he collapses after his loss to Minnesota Fats.
Both the scene and Newman's performance can appear, as Newman put it, as someone playing the violin too hard and producing a shriek. But so few films try for this type of intensity that I admire the film all the more for it, especially since the moments are earned and take place within a believable if stylized world.
If some criticize Laurie and Newman, no one I know has anything but positives for the third lead, George C. Scott, an actor often seen as "too big" for the movies and thus most effective when given scenery to chew (Dr. Strangelove, Patton). This is a magnificent performance, big and broad and yet utterly grounded. Maybe his best moment is his most atypical, as he tries to explain to Eddie about Sarah's suicide and then sobs in tears as Eddie attacks him.
The final confrontation between Gordon and Felson thus already feels like a more equal grounding, as if Eddie has learned something and Gordon has finally felt something. Equally good in this final scene, and throughout, is Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. Although it is never explicitly stated, both Gleason's performance and Rossen's direction tell us an entire back story to this man.
Clearly, he has sold out to Gordon and recognizes everything Eddie says to Gordon to be accurate. By situating a sitting Minnesota Fats between the two men, Rossen is making the stakes involved for Eddie very clear. Thus the final great exchange between Fats and Eddie cited above is not only redemptive for Eddie, but for Fats as well, and Gleason's look and gesture convey this beautifully.
I want to conclude by recalling the political context and also remembering that this is a sports movie. I would call it maybe the greatest movie about sports, even if pool is not usually considered a sport but rather a game. I think it is a great sports movie because it gets at something at the heart of competition and its relationship with masculinity and capitalism. The desire to win, the desire to prove one's manhood, and the desire to make money are all corrupting of human relationships and corrupting of whatever value sports can have (if there is any, which is debatable). Eddie's speech about pool is touching not because he talks about winning, but because it is about "playing the game right" and earning self-respect. Eddie's tragedy is not realizing this until he has lost everything. Perhaps Rossen identified with this himself, having sold his soul to the Bert Gordons of HUAC and the studios to keep making money. He spent the 50s making largely forgettable spectacles. Now that the blacklist had started to clear, making The Hustler proved a certain redemption for him as well.