Hustler, The

Poster
1961
Robert Rossen

8/10 (choppy editing, boring love story, lame-ish ending)

Here is a justifiable classic that should be seen despite its flaws. Its the story of Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), possibly the best pool player in the country, and his quest to overcome his self-handicapping in order to prove himself to the world.

The first 30 minutes are a masterpiece of subtle, self-assured filmmaking. You meet Eddie and his partner Charlie as they hustle a small-town tavern and then head to Ame’s billiards, where Eddie is seeking out the best pool player in the world, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). What follows is their 25-hour match in which, though winning handily for a long while, Eddie can’t maintain the pace and Fats ends up mopping the floor with him. This marks the end of the opening act.

What makes it so amazing is that the director doesn’t have to explain anything. The characters communicate so naturally through their lingo, mannerisms and gestures that you feel like you’re being shown some secret part of the seedy pool underworld. The dialogue is simultaneously smart and low-key, something that isn’t often seen in films from this period. The entire sequence feels so authentic that you suspect that all of the players involved are well-acquainted not only with pool but the hustle. And sure enough it turns out that director Rossen hustled in his youth and attempted his own pool screenplay before securing the rights to this novel adaptation.

These 30 minutes had me quite excited for the rest of the film, but unfortunately the story nosedives soon thereafter. Eddie, destroyed, is thinking of skipping town when he meets Sarah (Piper Laurie) and develops an unlikely and completely underdeveloped romance with her. Their story drags considerably after the opening, most likely due to the lack of credibility. While I recognize her importance to the plot, I think it would have been more effective for Newman to already have a girlfriend when the movie starts, rather than rush him through an unbelievable courtship.

The movie is still interesting afterward, but it has lost a lot of its sheen, and some other flaws begin to show up. The between scenes transitions are often abrupt and leave the viewer jarred (A good example would be after Eddie throws his former partner out of the house and kisses Sarah, it quickly cuts.). And in the predictable ending, director Rossen throws all semblance of subtlety out the window as Eddie makes an earnest, preachy speech on the importance of love and integrity over money. It did not fit at all with the rest of the movie. Or perhaps it’s the opening that didn’t fit.

Either way, the movie is well worth watching. It is captivating throughout, and it has a strapping young Newman showing off some chops and looking extremely handsome at the same time. The opening alone is worth sitting through the movie for, and of course there’s always something to be said for brushing up on your knowledge of the classics.

1 June 2010

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