The Hustler

Director: Robert Rossen
Screenplay: Sidney Carroll & Robert Rossen (based on the novel by Walter Tevis)
Stars: Paul Newman (Eddie Felson), Jackie Gleason (Minnesota Fats), Piper Laurie (Sarah Packard), George C. Scott (Bert Gordon), Myron McCormick (Charlie Burns), Murray Hamilton (Findley), Michael Constantine (Big John), Stefan Gierasch (Preacher), Cliff Pellow (Turk), Jake LaMotta (Bartender)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1961
Country: U.S.
The Hustler DVD
The HustlerSet within a black-and-white CinemaScope frame that cannily reflects the dimensions of a billiards table, Robert Rossen's The Hustler tells the story of an exceedingly talented young pool shark coming to terms with himself. It is a quintessential character study that mixes psychology and social realism to create something that, in 1961, was distinctly modern, a far cry from classical Hollywood's focus on winners and conventional narratives of redemption. “You're a born loser” Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is told midway through the film, and in that single, blunt line of dialogue lies both The Hustler's soul and its importance in the history of American cinema.

Eddie is a loser--he just doesn't know it. At the beginning of the film he is brash, confident, and arrogant. Working with his older partner and financier, Charlie Burns (Myron McCormick), he travels across the country hustling pool games. At the end of the road is Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), a legendary unbeaten pool player who Eddie is sure he can defeat. As it turns out, Minnesota Fats isn't the end of the road, but rather the beginning. After an exhausting 40 hours of pool, Minnesota is victorious and Eddie is broke, not because Minnesota is necessarily a better pool player, but because he could outlast Eddie, whose arrogance ultimately worked against him. The lesson: Eddie may have talent, but he doesn't have character.

Defeated, Eddie retreats into his own world and moves in with Sarah (Piper Laurie), an alcoholic would-be writer he meets at the bus stations. Sarah is, like Eddie, a loser; however, unlike Eddie, she is self-aware, and because of that she holds out the possibility of helping Eddie on his way to redemption. They are both desperately in need of love, but only Sarah recognizes it; Eddie doesn't believe that he would recognize love if it came into his life, and for a long time he doesn't. The real tragedy of The Hustler is that Eddie doesn't recognize the love in his life until he had already lost it. Thus, it takes a tragedy to save Eddie from his own worst impulses, and the end of the film is heavy with the weight of that burden.

In this way, The Hustler is an immensely powerful film, one that cuts to the core of its characters and exposes their flaws. All of the film's characters are troubled souls, and Rossen reflects this in the film's visual scheme, which relies almost entirely on interiors that feel steadily more claustrophobic (the film's one outdoor sequence, a picnic, is not surprisingly its most pointed moment of idealism). Eddie and Sarah's individual problems seem magnified when they are cooped up together in her tiny apartment; at one point, she tells him quite rightly, “Look, I've got troubles and I think maybe you've got troubles. Maybe it'd be better if we just leave each other alone.” Eddie hits rock bottom when he gets involved with Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), a wealthy and amoral financier who backs Minnesota Fats and sees in Eddie great potential that he can manipulate to his own benefit. Bert is the closest thing the film has to unadulterated evil, but even here we get a sense of the pathetic intermingled with his ruthlessness.

More so than any other film of the early 1960s, The Hustler presaged the cinematic revolution that would come to be known as “The New American Cinema”--that sudden explosion of youthful talent and unconventional filmmaking that was spurred as much by Hollywood's economic troubles as it was by the emergence of a new generation of film-school trained auteurs. Like the films of Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola, and other New American Cinema directors, The Hustler is built around an antihero, someone who is not necessarily a role model, but whose charm and force of conviction make him imminently likeable, if not admirable. Despite all his interactions and relationships, Eddie is essential alone (note how frequently he occupies the frame by himself or how, if he is framed with another character, there is some kind of obstacle between them).

The casting of Paul Newman was crucial to the film's success; his seamless Method performance casts an aura of undeniable power and verve, walking that fine line between the engrossing and the off-putting. He is charming and fascinating, but he can also be downright cruel. His arrogance demands that his opponents not only be beaten, but have their faces rubbed in their defeat, a trait that, at one point, almost costs him his life. This is particularly lucid in the scenes in which Fast Eddie is contrasted with Minnesota Fats, who is the very model of calmness, professionalism, and dignity. Yet, Minnesota also falls into the rogue's gallery of troubled souls, as his coolness is primarily a reflection of his having sold out a long, long time ago.

Much like Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954), which featured another great Method performance by Marlon Brando, The Hustler is an American masterpiece that is shot through to the core by its director's lingering sense of guilt about cooperating in HUAC's communist witch hunt during the 1950s. Rossen was a strikingly individualistic director, working independently from the studio system long before most mainstream filmmakers saw that as even a remote possibility. Although Rossen originally refused to testify before HUAC in 1948 and was blacklisted (during that time his 1949 film All the King's Men, a portrait of political corruption, won Best Picture), he eventually reappeared before the committee, recanted his communist membership, and dutifully named names. While the blacklist is never explicitly referenced in The Hustler, the film's themes of the ruthlessness of ambition and the destructiveness of moral corruption dovetail unavoidably with Rossen's real-life experiences. Eddie's guilt over the tragic results of his treatment of Sarah is a poignant and meaningful cinematic reflection of Rossen's own compromises. The film may end on a superficially triumphant moment of victory, but rarely has a victory ever felt so hollow.

The Hustler Collector's Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Subtitles English, Spanish
  • Audio commentary by Paul Newman, Carol Rossen, Dede Allen, Stefan Gierasch, Ulu Grosbard, Jeff Young, and Richard Schickel
  • Episode of A&E's Biography: “Paul Newman: Hollywood's Cool Hand”
  • “Life in the Fast Lane: Fast Eddie Felson and the Search for Greatness” featurette
  • “Swimming With Sharks: The Art of the Hustle” featurette
  • “How to Make the Shot” featurette
  • “Milestones in Cinema History: The Hustler” episode
  • The Hustler: The Inside Story” featurette
  • Trick shot analysis of five scenes
  • Photo gallery
  • Two theatrical trailers
  • Trailers for eight Paul Newman films
  • Distributor20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    Release DateJune 12, 2007

    The Hustler is presented in a strong anamorphic widescreen transfer. The black-and-white image has good contrast and is and well-detailed, bringing out all the nuances of the many dark interiors, even though the image as a whole is slightly softer than you might expect. The image is extremely clean, with no signs of age or damage. The only complaint is that the transfer is interlaced, rather than progressive, which is surely a mastering error. The stereo soundtrack is quite good, with no ambient hiss or aural artifacts, and the film's lively jazz score has a rich kick to it.
    The supplements on this two-disc Collector's Edition of The Hustler include all of the supplements from the previously available Special Edition from 2002 and adds a few new ones. On the first disc we get the same audio commentary hosted by Stuart Galbraith, which edits together memories from star Paul Newman, Carol Rossen (daughter of the film's director, Robert Rossen), editor Dede Allen, actor Stefan Gierasch (who played Preacher in the film), assistant director Ulu Grosbard, film historian Jeff Young, and film critic Richard Schickel. Considering the wide breadth of participants in the commentary, it has something to offer everyone, from direct memories of working on the film, to astute critical analysis of its lasting importance. Also from that disc is the analysis of five scenes in the film by world trick shot artist Mike Massey, which utilizes a picture-in-picture option. You can either watch them individually or set it so that the picture-in-picture pops up during key pool scenes.

    The second disc contains a number of new featurettes, starting with the 12-minute “Life in the Fast Lane: Fast Eddie Felson and the Search for Greatness,” which is focused primarily on discussing Newman's character, and “Milestones in Cinema History: The Hustler,” a more general 28-minute retrospective look at the film. Both of these featurettes include new interviews with Newman, Allen, actors Piper Laurie and Michael Constantine (Big John), and USC film professor Drew Casper. “The Hustler: The Inside Story” (25 min.) is another retrospective featurette, but it includes a wider variety of interview subjects, including Carol Rossen, Richard Schickel, pocket billiards historian Charles J. Ursitti, Willie's Game author Stanley Cohen, and actor Jerry Orbach. Paul Newman fans will be exhilarated by the inclusion of an episode of A&E's Biography titled “Paul Newman: Hollywood's Cool Hand” (43 min.).

    Those interested in pool will find a couple of featurettes focused on the sport. “Swimming With Sharks: The Art of the Hustle” features a pair of experts: R.A. Dyer (author of Hustler Days) and IPT pro player Max Eberle, who demonstrates some cool trick shots and explains gambling lingo like “post,” “rail birds,” and “stake horses.” Meanwhile, under the heading “How to Make the Shot” are five mini-featurettes about 30 seconds each that feature Mike Massey explaining and demonstrating how to make difficult shots featured in the film. The second disc is rounded out by a stills gallery, two theatrical trailers for The Hustler, and trailers for eight other Paul Newman films: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, From the Terrace, Hombre, The Verdict, The Long, Hot Summer, Quintet, The Towering Inferno, and What a Way to Go!.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © 20th Century Fox

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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