The Hustler - Film (Movie) Plot and Review





USA, 1961


Director: Robert Rossen

Production: 20th Century-Fox/Robert Rossen Enterprises; black and white; CinemaScope; running time: 135 minutes; length: 12,109 feet. Released September 1961.


Producer: Robert Rossen; screenplay: Robert Rossen, Sidney Carroll, from the novel by Walter Tevis; assistant directors: Charles Maguire, Don Kranz; photography: Gene Shufton (Eugen Schüfftan); editor: Deedee Allan; sound: James Shields; art directors: Harry Horner, Albert Brenner; music: Kenyon Hopkins; technical advisor: Willie Mosconi.


Cast: Paul Newman ( "Fast" Eddie Felson ); Jackie Gleason ( Minnesota Fats ); Piper Laurie ( Sarah Packard ); George C. Scott ( Bert Gordon ); Myron McCormick ( Charlie Burns ); Murray Hamilton ( Findlay ); Michael Constantine ( Big John ); Stefan Gierasch ( Preacher ); Jake LaMotta and Vincent Gardinia ( Bartenders ); Gordon B. Clarke ( Cashier ); Alexander Rose ( Score Keeper ); Carolyn Coates ( Waitress ); Carl York ( Young Hustler ); Clifford Pellow ( Turk ).


Awards: Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Black and White Cinematography, 1961. British Film Academy Awards for Best Film from any Source, and Best Actor (Newman), 1961.


Publications


Script:

Rossen, Robert, The Hustler , in Three Screenplays , New York, 1972, 1985.

Books:

Casty, Alan, The Films of Robert Rossen , New York, 1969.

Hamblett, Charles, Paul Newman , London, 1975.

Harbinson, Allen, George C. Scott: The Man, The Actor, The Legend , New York, 1977.

Godfrey, Lionel, Paul Newman, Superstar: A Critical Biography , New York, 1978.

Landry, J.C., Paul Newman , London, 1983.

Quirk, Lawrence J., The Films of Paul Newman , Secaucus, 1986.

Oumano, Elena, Paul Newman , Gordonville, 1989.

Quirk, Lawrence J., Paul Newman: The Man Behind the Steel Blue Eyes , Dallas, 1997.

Lax, Eric, Newman: A Celebration , London, 1999.


Articles:

Motion Picture Herald (New York), 27 September 1961.

Variety (New York), 27 September 1961.

Baker, Peter, in Films and Filming (London), December 1961.

Houston, Penelope, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), December 1961.

Oakes, Philip, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1961–62.

Manchel, Frank, and Dan Ort, in Screen Education , March-April 1968.

Lloyd, Christopher, in Brighton Film Review , March 1970.

Royer, J.-P., in Cinématographe (Paris), May 1982.

Baxter, Bryan, in Films and Filming (London), November 1985.

Jenkins, Steve, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), February 1986.

Legrand, Gérard, Positif (Paris), May 1987.

Breakwell, Ian, "The Fat Man Within," in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 4, no. 6., June 1994.

Stévenin, Jean-François, "Économie d'énergies (sur L'arnaqueur)," in Positif (Paris), no. 400, June 1994.

Premiere (Boulder), vol. 10, October 1996.

Schaefer, R., in Metro Magazine (St. Kilda West), no. 113/114, 1998.


* * *


Unlike many other self-consciously "serious" American films of its period—the kind of movies Andrew Sarris once described as dealing "Realistically with a Problem in Adult Terms"— The Hustler has aged remarkably well. So much so, in fact, as to encourage the retrospective conviction that more of the movie's long list of Oscar nominees merited the ultimate accolade. As it is, the film did receive awards for art direction and cinematography, the latter particularly well deserved by the German émigré cameraman Eugen Schüfftan, whose skilled monochrome work on The Hustler remains an object lesson in framing and lighting the wide CinemaScope image.

In 1961 that was no mean achievement, for commercial anamorphic cinematography was still less than a decade old. Nor was it only a question of adapting the 1:2.25 aspect ratio to existing criteria of pictorial elegance or of harnessing it to the particular requirements of The Hustler 's distinctively seedy milieu. Schüfftan also found ways of framing the movie's characters so as to underline and comment upon their changing relationships, but without that process seeming unduly obtrusive. In so doing he introduced a specifically visual element into the style of Robert Rossen, a director whose films, while always exhibiting the more "literary" values of careful writing and characterization, had hitherto not been especially distinguished by their visual flair.

Rossen was invariably a good director of actors, however, and all the principal performances in The Hustler are of the highest quality. Paul Newman's account of Fast Eddie Felson is still, perhaps, his most accomplished film characterization, Eddie's internal stresses finding expression in a kind of controlled physicality—used to enormous effect after the thumb-breaking sequence, when, with his hands encased in plaster, he is unable to light a cigarette or hold a cup, let alone wield a pool cue. As Eddie's Mephistopheles, the gambler Bert Gordon, George C. Scott smiles like a benevolent shark, modulating that now familiar sandpaper voice across a range from whiplash harshness to silky persuasion. Jackie Gleason and Myron McCormick are impeccable as Eddie's principal opponent and discarded partner respectively, while Piper Laurie captures Sarah's enigmatic self-destructiveness with such conviction as to make one deeply regret that, after The Hustler , she retired from acting until Carrie in 1976.

This last judgment, it should be noted, was not wholly shared by reviewers of the period, several of whom identified the Sarah sub-plot as the film's main weakness. In hindsight, however, it is clear that this is not Piper Laurie's failing. While it is true that Sarah is observed tangentially, that she is not as clearly defined as Eddie or Bert, it is that ambiguity that makes her significant. She is, after all, central to the film's resolution. Without her intervention, Eddie's character could not plausibly meet the developmental requirements of this most classical of narratives. Through her he comes to understand what is really meant by Bert's facile explanation of his failure to beat Minnesota Fats: that he lacks "character." But he reaches that understanding not simply because she loves him, a narrative contrivance which, on its own, would be as banal as it is common in the movies, but because her suicide forces him to recognize the price of his own self-absorption. "I loved her, Bert," he concedes at the film's end; "I traded her in on a pool game."

There is, then, a real difficulty about Sarah's role, but it is intrinsic to the movie's single-minded focus on Eddie's progress toward "maturity." To make that work, a significant part of Sarah's motivation has to remain oblique for, if she kills herself solely because of Eddie's behaviour, he would then be beyond redemption. But if we are made to see her as already self-destructive, as in some part "Perverted, Twisted, Crippled" (the final message she scrawls over her own mirror image), it is then conventionally acceptable for Eddie to transcend the tragedy, defeat Minnesota Fats, and, as an appropriate expression of his new found "character," sacrifice his future in big-time pool.

It is that redemption, of course, which is the whole point of the film. Eddie must overcome his and our irresponsible impulses—here given metaphorical form in the pool hustler's need for self-restraint in the cause of ultimate victory—if he is to realize humane values on behalf of us all. Our reward is the spine-tingling satisfaction of that final dignified exchange with Minnesota Fats, an exchange appropriately set in the pool hall Eddie has earlier dubbed the "church of the good hustler." "Fat man," he says, "you shoot a great game of pool." "So do you, Fast Eddie." Redemption indeed.

—Andrew Tudor

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