At last, we come to a film that presages the New Hollywood movement that shook up the system starting in the mid-sixties, and continuing all the way up to the early 80s. This is my era – these were the types of movies that made me love the movies – films about important ideas, mature themes, characters that jumped off the screen with gritty, earthy honesty, and stylistics that transcended the usual picture-perfect look that characterized the vintage age. The New Hollywood movement broke all the rules, and forever shattered the studio system that tried vainly to keep them.
I could say a zillion things about The Hustler, and I probably will soon enough, but I’ll start by admiring just how dateless it feels. Yes, it was filmed in B&W (the majority of films still were in the early 60s), but it has a raw edge that gives it an independent film feel. It begins with freeze-frame opening credits over stark shots of a pool game, and with an avant-garde jazz score. Paul Newman as the now-legendary Eddie Felson enters the picture, and he possesses a Brando-esque nonchalance throughout the first third of the film- smoking, drinking, shooting – spouting spare but poetic dialogue with the ordinary tenor of daily life. I just mentioned Brando, and it occurred to me just how much his acting approach changed the movies, and not just technically. Unlikeable characters like Eddie could now inhabit the screen, and the only thing that really mattered was that they were real.
But Eddie, of course, is a fabulous pool player – the best there is – and he travels town-to-town as a hustler, betting on games for money (the opening game with a couple of oblivious victims shows precisely how he does this, and it’s mesmerizing). But at a tournament he meets Minnesota Fats, a pool legend, and Eddie is bound and determined to beat the man. The cigarettes burn, the whiskey flows, and after hours and hours of marathon playing, Eddie admits defeat, at a loss of $12,000. Penniless and demoralized, he wanders the city alone, and finds another lost soul in the form of Sarah (Piper Laurie), a doe-eyed, plain but pretty young woman – and an alcoholic. And so their relationship – comprised mainly of drinking and lovemaking (which she pathetically calls a “contract of depravity”) – begins.
As their cohabitation continues, Sarah’s love for Eddie grows, but it’s frustratingly unrequited. Things aren’t helped much by the arrival of Bert Gordon, a manager who sees potential in Eddie, but he knows the wunderkind’s desperation, not to mention debilitating character flaws, so he extracts a crippling 75% from all winnings. Bert spots a potential windfall from a heavy-betting Southerner, and Sarah coaxes Eddie into taking her with him to Kentucky, despite her profound lovesickness. The game is all money – no joy – and when Eddie returns to the hotel room, he discovers Sarah’s suicide, spurred by her guilt over sleeping with Bert. Conditions are not ideal for a return match with Fats, but it happens, and this time Eddie is ready, beating the master handily and confidently. But his real victory turns out to be unrelated to pool: standing up to Bert and refusing to hand over his cut, effectively retiring from professional hustling completely.
I mentioned before the synopsis that The Hustler trod new ground in the realm of mature content, and that must indeed have been a salient element upon its release back in 1961. For the first time, at least in this collection, it’s clear that two adults have had premarital sex. (Beforehand, the studio made sure that at the end of a date or dinner, the man or woman drove home). It’s nonchalant and unromanticized too, more an act of wastrels longing for each other’s carnality to escape a cold world. For me, this doomed union, a romance that never would be, or could be, is the best part of the film, reminding me a bit of Cassavette’s later work (Faces, in particular). (Unusual, too, for a sports movie, a genre where the love story is always the weakest part, and the girl is usually confined to the cheering section, or the role which has to get the protagonist to “look inside himself” if he has any chance at victory.) But The Hustler is no ordinary sorts movie, and one could even make the case that the love story is paramount with the pool story secondary in importance.
And it’s impossible to praise the love story without mentioning Piper Laurie’s performance. She is nothing less than phenomenal. She was nominated for Best Actress that year; she should’ve won. She depicts a psychologically fragile yet emotionally hungry woman with such precision, such profundity, that I knew it could only come fro a stage-trained actress – another hallmark of the Brando-begun movement that paved the way for the new guard. It’s a performance that reminded me of Shirley MacLaine’s similarly-wounded, suicidal character in the previous year’s The Apartment. Although each have different outcomes, they are both women you just want to reach into the screen and save from the outside world – to nurture and love. And it’s also what makes Newman’s guilt-ridden breakdown in the final scene so poignant. He wishes he could’ve saved her with his love. But he couldn’t.
I’d also like to applaud the film’s screenplay. Again, it’s probably the first film in the Fox collection that doesn’t feel dated, and part of that relates to the writing. This is nt to say that a film like Gentleman’s Agreement wasn’t well-written, but The Hustler’s lines crackle with immediacy. They’re not overly literary, or overly theatrical. They approximate the speech of real life, while at the same time conveying the messages and meanings necessary for quality art. The picnic scene is the perfect example; Eddie and Sarah seem to have things together (he had just gotten his thumbs broken) and engage in a romantic, outdoor interlude. But she says, “I love you,” and he responds, “Do you need the words?” “I do,” she whispers, “and if you say them, I’ll never let you take them back.” And then dead silence.
That’s sublime writing. And, truth be told, it’s even underrated. The Hustler’s screenplay isn’t up there with the pantheon of Citizen Kane, All About Eve, Chinatown or The Godfather. But it should be.
Some bits and pieces: George C, Scott, in an early role, perfectly straddles the line between mentor and bully, and the “Great One,” Jackie Gleason, is excellent in the way he underplays his role. I’ll never forget their first match, and the way he just stares at an alcohol-addled Newman, realizing the upstart’s heavy insecurities but not judging. That look alone speaks volumes about his character, and it reveals the full breadth of Gleason’s histrionic intelligence.
Guess I’ve said enough. Sorry I never really saw this brilliant film earlier. And if you’ve already seen it, see it again. It will be better than you remembered it.