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USA 1961
Directed by
Robert Rossen
135 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

The Hustler

Although released in 1961, The Hustler really belongs to the fine 1950s American school of black and white realist film-making with its well-observed characters and strongly empathetic stories. It is little surprise that director Rossen, like Elia Kazan who was responsible for such exemplary films as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On The Waterfront (1954), belonged to a group of Left-leaning film-makers whose commitment was to telling real stories about real people.

Adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis, who also wrote the original text of the 1976 David Bowie cult classic, The Man Who Fell To Earth, it tells the story of Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), a pool hustler whose ambition it is to take down the No1 on the circuit, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleeson).

2 hours 15 minutes might sound like a long time for a film about two guys playing pool but Rossen does a superb job of building tension within a very limited narrative structure and a few settings. The reason for this is that the film is not so much about the contest as the men who are playing it and primarily about Fast Eddie, a young hot-head driven by demons that are ready to consume him.

Newman had just entered the highwater phase of his career, playing mixed-up, angry young men with an effortless charm in film after film from The Long Hot Summer in 1958 to Cool Hand Luke in 1967. Although he varied little in each role he was one of the last great film stars and he carries the central role effortlessly. The support cast are however equally good,

Jackie Gleeson, better known as Ralph in the early television sit-com, The Honeymooners, is a wonderful presence as The Fat Man, despite (or perhaps because of) having few spoken lines. George C. Scott's heartless professional gambler, Bert Gordon, and Piper Laurie’s Sarah, a lonely lush who sees more in Eddie than he sees in himself are the other counterpoints that galvanize the flaws in Eddie’s character.  All these actors give marvellous performances with Scott, being nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (ludicrously it went to George Chakiris for his part in West Side Story, Scott being so put out by this that when he won the Best Actor Oscar for Patton in 1970 he rejected it).  Fortunately cinematographer Eugen Shuftan deservedly won an Oscar for his atmospheric black and white palette.

FYI: Newman and Gleeson played most of their own shots although some were played by Willie Mosconi, the 14-time world billiards champion who was the film's technical advisor.

Buffs should check out the film’s tardy and nowhere-as-good sequel, the Martin Scorsese-directed The Color of Money (1986), a disappointing film for which Paul Newman won a kind of retrospective Oscar for his reprise of the Fast Eddie role. And if you are really taken with the film, check out also its poker variant, The Cincinnati Kid (1965) with another blue-eyed boy, Steve McQueen, in the lead.

Like Kazan although originally refusing to testify at the House of Un-American Activities Committee hearings, Rossen admitted to being a member of the Communist Party in May, 1953, and named 57 others as well, thereby being able to continue working in Hollywood though in his defense those named had already been named many times.




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