I don’t think they make ‘em like The Hustler anymore. Oh sure, they make underdog sports movies out the yin-yang, and some are also tragic tales of life, love and loss. But Robert Rossen’s classic 1961 pool shark drama starring Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Piper Laurie and Jackie Gleason doesn’t play like any of those. It’s not a rags to riches story about overcoming adversity. It’s a Greek tragedy about a man doomed by his own capacity for greatness. The movie doesn’t want its hero to learn his lesson and win the big game, The Hustler wants to tear him down. And it succeeds. The result is one of the better dramas to come out of the 1960’s, and one of the best performances of Paul Newman’s career. There’s a spectacular new Blu-Ray edition of the film in stores now.
Newman plays ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson, a young upstart pool shark with all the right moves and all the wrong choices. When Eddie challenges legendary pool player Minnesota Fats (Gleason) it spirals into a 26-hour grudge match. They’re equally matched on the table. Off of it Fats is a consummate professional, calmly accepting victory and defeat while Eddie blusters and sabotages his own performance with both bravado and booze. When Eddie loses it’s due to a difference in character, and his journey of self-discovery begins. But it’s hard to think of any protagonist more stubborn than Eddie, who, despite the love of a good (and equally damaged) woman played by Piper Laurie, keeps throwing himself back into the meat grinder, destroying himself over and over again in an effort to prove his greatness. When the slithery Bert Gordon (Scott) enters the picture and offers to manage Felson, it’s not a kind of uplifting “Mr. Miyagi” kind of relationship that is forged. Gordon takes advantage of Eddie’s weak character and pushes him further into the abyss.
As depressing as The Hustler sounds – and is – it’s never a chore thanks to the stylish direction from Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men), gorgeous Academy Award-winning cinematography from Eugen Schüfftan (Eyes Without a Face) and impeccable performances from its entire cast. That Newman and Scott are brilliant comes as no surprise, given their reputations as some of the finest actors of the century. But Piper Laurie is a wonder in a role that predates her more famous work in Carrie by fifteen years (she took a break from film in that period to focus on raising a family). Her character recognizes that her relationship with Eddie may be their last chance for happiness, even if it never makes them legends. But she’s the right woman at the wrong time: Eddie won’t appreciate life’s harsher lessons until it’s far too late.
The Hustler caroms onto Blu-Ray with an exceptional Blu-Ray transfer that does justice to Schüfftan’s photography with a crisp but moody presentation. The film predates surround sound so it’s a front-based experience, but it’s a quiet film set in cramped pool halls so the effect never feels less-than. More special are the army of special features, including extended documentaries on Newman’s history at Fox, the history of the film, the trick shots demonstrated on-screen and a commentary track featuring input from the late Newman himself.
The Hustler earns its reputation as a bona fide classic, whether this is your first trip to the pool hall or only the latest in a long line of repeat viewings. Fox has done a tremendous job bringing Robert Rossen’s exceptional movie to high-definition with a spot-on presentation and an impressive array of special features. It’s extremely highly recommended.
Crave Online Rating (Film): 9.5/10
Crave Online Rating (Blu-Ray): 9.5/10