The Hustler is no more about pool then than Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is about boxing. At first glance, you might disagree. After all, most of The Hustler takes place in billiard rooms and pool halls. However, if the lead character Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) were a tennis ace or poker player, the story would play out in a similar fashion. Robert Rossen’s film is less about Eddie’s face-offs with other players than it is about his struggle with inner demons.
As the film opens, Fast Eddie is traveling the country, making a living as a pool hustler, with his mentor and partner, Charlie (Myron McCormick), winning small amounts of cash in bars and other establishments. But Eddie wants something better. Not only does he want to make big money—he wants to play the best, and beat them. To that end, he sets up a meeting with the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). The two go head-to-head for days, without pause. Eddie is deep in the black at one point, with $18,000 on his side. However, Ego and liquor combine to get the best of him; Eddie keeps playing until he’s lost every last cent. Physically and emotionally drained, Eddie spends the night in a bust station, where he meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie). Like Eddie, she lacks any real sense of purpose or direction in her life. She goes to college two days a week to stave off boredom, and spends the rest of the time drinking. Quicker than you can say “pool shark,” Eddie ditches Charlie and moves into Sarah’s apartment.
In what comes as a surprise to Eddie, his match with Minnesota Fats didn’t go unnoticed. A shady fellow named Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) saw the whole thing, and asks Eddie to come work for him. When Eddie declines, Bert lets him know just how difficult the art of pool hustling is without a partner/manager. It’s nearly impossible to play pool with two broken thumbs.
Although their classic confrontations are dramatic, and take up quarter of the movie’s running length, the film’s essential struggle isn’t between Eddie and Fats. Nor is it between Eddie and Bert, though their scenes together are some of the most dramatic. Throughout the proceedings, Eddie’s inner struggle remains front-and-center. By the end of The Hustler, it’s clear that Eddie knows who he is and what he wants out of life, but he has to learn some hard lessons along the way.
Eddie’s biggest influences are Bert and Sarah. While Bert is a malicious individual whose only interest in Eddie is financial, Sarah’s relationship with him is based on need and (later) love. Her lack of self-esteem makes her vulnerable to depression and alcohol. Bert, seeing her as a rival for Eddie’s utter concentration, finds an easy target to destroy. Unfortunately, Eddie doesn’t recognize Bert’s motives until it’s too late.
In The Hustler, the supporting characters are developed very well. Bert and Sarah aren’t just people placed into the script to give Eddie an antagonist and a love interest. Bert is more than just a two-bit hood. He’s a man no moral center; he’s so emotionless that he needs to dominate everything just to feel alive. George C. Scott gives a wonderful performance, full of much fire and vitriol. He was deservedly nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar, although he did not win. Sarah is emotionally complex. Wisely, Piper Laurie plays her as someone seemingly not aware of her good looks. Instead, she is a fragile girl whose tenuous hold on life is shatterd by her contact with Bert. Her final actions make a lasting impression.
Jackie Gleason, who will always best be remembered as Ralph from The Honeymooners, exhibits restraint and subtlety in his interpretation of Minnesota Fats. A commanding presence, though he says little, you tend to notice each and every mannerism, and listen closely when he does speak.
Paul Newman is perfect as Eddie Felson. During scenes away from the pool table, he is relaxed and charming. But, in the midst of a match, there is a rush of volcanic emotion, presented alongside a sense of obsessive impatience. At the same time, Eddie grows up a lot during the film, and Newman has no difficulty charting the course of the man he plays.
The Hustler is one of the most compelling character-based films to emerge from the 1960s.
The Hustler looks stunning on Blu-ray. Blacks are inky and the contrast throughout the film is fairly consistent. Detail is as good in the dark pool rooms, as it is on faces. Though there´s a thin layer of filmic grain, it adds to the gritty realism of the film rather than proving a distraction. If you have the two-disc DVD, this is a noticeable upgrade.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio sound mix is solid. The sound design of the film is rather sparse—only when the frenzied jazz score kicks in does the film really take on any real personality—but that simplicity is represented well here. Fidelity is very good, with clean low- and high-ends. Dialogue is always clear.
We get quite a few special features including everything (save for the Stills Gallery) from the previously released 2 DVD Special Edition, as well as several new items. The new items are:
- Paul Newman at Fox (HD; 27:11) a nice career retrospective concentrating on the studio where Newman made some of his most iconic films.
- Jackie Gleason: The Big Man (HD; 12:04) gives similar, albeit briefer, treatment to Gleason, a man many dismiss as not much of an actor. The Hustler proves that that simply isn’t the case.
- The Real Hustler: Walter Tevis (Audio only; 18:55) is a really interesting 1984 radio interview with Tevis, the novelist who wrote the original book on which the movie was based.
Ported over from the previously released DVD are:
- Commentary with Paul Newman, Carol Rossen, Dede Allen, Stefan Gierasch, Ulu Grosbard, Richard Schickel and Jeff Young. This fascinating, well edited piece (hosted by Stuart Galbraith) gets into an amazing amount of material, courtesy of a very well selected group of insiders, including Robert Rossen’s daughter Carol and Editor Dede Allen.
- Life in the Fast Lane: Fast Eddie Felson and The Search for Greatness (SD; 11:49) features a bunch of interviews (including Newman and Piper Laurie) and is a decent overview of the film and its impact.
- Milestones in Cinema History: The Hustler (SD; 28:04) is a somewhat more in-depth look at the film than Fast Lane is, with a wealth of background information and interviews.
- Swimming with Sharks: The Art of the Hustle (SD; 9:38) features pro players talking about real life hustles.
- The Hustler: The Inside Story (SD; 24:32) is yet another retrospective, though this one takes the form of reminiscences by several people, including those (like Jerry Orbach) not inherently associated with the film.
- Paul Newman: Hollywood’s Cool Hand (SD; 43:44) A&E Biography episode devoted to Newman.
- Trick Shot Analysis by Mike Massey (SD; 13:51) has the pro pool expert doing PIP commentary on several trick shots from the film.
- How to Make the Shot with Mike Massey (SD; 3:41) has Massey recreating some of those trick shots himself.