February 22, 2015

The Hustler

Robert Rossen, 1961
Skilled Pool player Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is dead-set on defeating notorious player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). 

The Hustler is a throwback piece. To a piece of time. A timepiece. No, a grainy timepiece. To a period in time, in the early 1960's, where men wore suits and not flip flops and shorts. A period in time where cigarette smoke filled the air, along with smell of daytime whiskey drinking. A period in time where men slapped women for getting out of line, and when it was an eyebrow raising thought of a 30 year old attending college classes. Okay, so not all of it was something to be proud about. While The Hustler focuses upon Eddie and his pursuit of financial success with Pool gambling, the film is more of a character study on Eddie. His relentless pursuit of winning. Self destruction, sacrifice, pride. Self doubt. Personal torture. Eddie is a complicated character. He proves quite early on in the film that there is more to his motivations than pure victory. If this were the case, he could have taken his winnings and called it a day when he was up $18,000 against Minnesota Fats (which is $142,000 in today's dollars if you were wondering).

He meets fellow complicated person Sarah at the diner while he is attempting to put himself back together again. They are two peas in a pod because of their questionable pasts. They don't want to disclose it all to each other, at least not right away. Sarah works her way into Eddie's heart, but it's quite obvious that it's still not as close as his beloved Pool game or his gambling tendencies. You could easily say the film is a film on gambling addiction. It explores some of the layers of an addict, some of the ambiguity of what its going to take to feel complete. Eddie certainly doesn't feel complete, and he is unable to enjoy his success even when he's right in the middle of it.

It's a really nice film to look at. The Ames Billiards, Eddie and Sarah's apartment, the bus station. Exceptionally well-shot. Certainly deserving of the two Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography. The lingering cigarette smoke and paint-peeling apartment walls may remind you of films like Lumet's 1957 courtroom drama (or back of courtroom drama) 12 Angry Men. Plot-wise they are completely different from each other, but there is a similar visual quality to the two. They are also timeless treasures beautifully preserved in black and white. Both are enjoyable to come back to 40 or 50 years later.

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