Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961)
by Joe Rubenstein
Joe Rubenstein: Greetings to you. Joe Rubenstein here, producer and host of Real Time 1960s. I want to thank you very much for joining me today for Episode 11 of this portal into the past, where I document the ‘60s in real time with both podcasts and our daily timeline of what happened exactly 60 years ago. And that timeline, along with all our podcasts, social media links, contact info, all that is there for you on our newly revamped website, www.realtime1960s.com.
Last time, I concluded my two-part look at the Bay of Pigs Invasion. But today, we turn our attention to what I believe is the best American film of 1961, The Hustler, released 60 years ago this month. Based on the novel The Hustler by Walter Tevis, directed by veteran Robert Rossen, who also adapted the screenplay, the film boasts a terrific cast with great chemistry, despite the very different personalities and backgrounds of the actors: Paul Newman as the cocky, up-and-coming pool hustler Eddie Felson; Piper Laurie as his troubled love interest, Sarah Packard; George C. Scott as Bert Gordon, the ruthless gambler and financier; and finally, Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats, the champion that Eddie seeks to dethrone.
And contrary to the reviews of the day, which portrayed this film as a kind of exposé of the shadowy world of the pool hustler, it’s much more than that. It's really about what it means to be a human being. And while The Hustler certainly entertains, there’s real pain in the film which accumulates almost without our realizing it. And much of its power lies in the fact that the journey on which it takes us seems entirely plausible. So, my personal review of The Hustler — right now. [Music]
Now, to give Walter Tevis his due, much of the film’s dialogue is drawn directly from the book. But Rossen made significant changes in the second half of the story which helped animate buried themes that are implied in the novel, but not fully realized. Rossen, a product of the Lower East Side, had started his career in the ‘30s as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers, which had that incredible roster of stars at that time: Cagney, Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and then John Garfield, with whom Rossen had a close association, very similar backgrounds. And Garfield, in 1947, starred in Rossen’s first directorial success, a boxing film called Body and Soul, about the struggle between a cold, crooked gambler on the one hand and a nurturing woman on the other for the soul of the protagonist played by Garfield. And this is precisely the triangle that develops in the film version of The Hustler. Rossen greatly expanded the Sarah Packard character, creating one of the more multidimensional female film characters of the early ‘60s.
And Rossen, who had directed the very worthwhile Academy-Award winning film All the King’s Men in 1949 -- which, like Body and Soul and The Hustler, deals with the issue of personal corruption -- had seen his career suffer in the early ‘50s over his former membership in the Communist party, which he joined in 1937 and left about 10 years later. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 and took what was then called the “augmented fifth,” stating accurately that he was not a member of the party but refusing to answer the question of whether he had ever been a member, which didn’t satisfy the Committee. So, after two more years on the blacklist, during which the State Department refused to renew his passport, so he couldn’t work abroad, he testified again in 1953. And this time, as his colleague Elia Kazan had done the previous year, he admitted his former membership and identified a number of people in the industry as Communists.
Since this podcast isn’t called Real Time 1950s, I’m not going to get into a discussion of that historical episode. But Rossen was permitted to work again after this second testimony. And the commercial success of what was really a work-for-hire, a film he didn’t write but directed for Twentieth Century-Fox in 1957 called Island in the Sun — which was described accurately by one its stars, Harry Belafonte, as “a terrible picture based on a terrible best-selling book” — but the theme of interracial romance, even though it’s presented in the mildest possible way, fueled controversy and then ticket sales. It was the sixth highest grossing film that year. And through that success, Rossen was able to start rebuilding his status as a power player. And after buying the rights to The Hustler, Rossen turned to Fox once again for financing and distribution, although once Paul Newman signed on, that wasn’t a tough sell. By ’61, Newman was a proven moneymaker. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had been MGM’s most profitable release in ’58, and then Exodus was the third-highest-grossing film of 1960.
But the subject matter of The Hustler was concerning to the executives at Fox. First of all, they thought the poolroom hustle would have limited appeal to a broad audience, especially the female demographic. They also thought the title The Hustler might make people think it was about a prostitute, so they changed it to Sin of Angels. Thankfully, that was reversed. But Rossen had learned a trick or two over the years dealing with these people and was a bit of a hustler himself. So, just as a pool hustler will defraud potential opponents by portraying himself as less gifted than he is, Rossen portrayed this film to the executives as being far more conventional than it was to gain their approval. He deliberately presented a simplified, really false synopsis that bore little relation to the film he wished to make and did make.
According to this fake synopsis, the film was about a young pool hustler who loses his head while playing the champ and thus loses the match. All right, so far, so good. Then, he’s taken on by a manager, Bert, who teaches him how to win. He then plays the champ again and wins. End of story. So, no mention of the Sarah Packard character, who drives the central conflict. No mention of the fact that the “manager,” played by George C. Scott, is nothing short of demonic. In fact, he’s the antagonist in the film and someone that Pauline Kael described as “a personification of the power of money” -- not dissimilar, actually, to the moguls that Rossen was conning with this bogus synopsis. So Fox, blissfully unaware of the film’s central darkness, was pacified with what seemed to them like a formula sports movie. So, Rossen was able to gain their trust and keep them off his back. It also helped that he shot the film entirely in New York. And the film, to the surprise of the executives, did really well: $5.5 million at the box office, great reviews, 8 Oscar nominations, and Jackie Gleason made the cover of Time magazine, which was a really big deal back then.
So, before I get into the actual synopsis of this film, spoilers ahead. You know, I can’t really talk about the film without talking about the film, right? So, if you haven’t seen it and want to watch it and come back, you have my official blessing. If you don’t, rest assured, there’s plenty that I won’t reveal about this film which, I can report, does hold up to multiple viewings.
So, after an opening pre-credit pool hustle scene in a suburban bar, which introduces us to Eddie and his father-figure manager, Charlie, and then the credits, comes the first major segment of the film, which takes place entirely in the old Ames Billiard Academy, which was located in the Claridge Hotel in Times Square. That hotel was demolished in 1972.
So, Eddie and Charlie enter this cathedral of pool for their shot at the champion. And soon enough, we are launched into the marathon with Fats, as Eddie loses at first, then starts to win big. Money man Bert Gordon is summoned by Fats, and after observing Eddie’s trash-talking antics, identifies an inner core of weakness, which he then activates by loudly instructing Fats: “Stay with this kid. He’s a loser,” despite the fact that Eddie is ahead $18,000. Charlie just wants to take the money and run, but Eddie says the match isn’t over until Fats says so.
Then comes a little set piece that likely earned Jackie Gleason his supporting actor nomination. They’ve been at this for 24 hours. But Fats, having surveyed the field of battle and finding conditions favorable, emerges from the washroom fresh as a daisy, very deliberately puts on his tailored jacket, carnation still fresh in the lapel, sprinkles some powder on his hands, takes out his cigarette case, and says, “Fast Eddie, let’s play some pool,” as if the previous 24 hours have been merely a preamble. And Eddie, after mocking Fats’ appearance, proceeds to get drunk and blow through all is money, finally telling Fats, “I got about two hundred dollars here. You can’t run out on me.” And Fats just looks at him and says, “You watch me.” And Gleason’s delivery of that line is tremendous; there’s contempt but also sadness. For the first time, you get the sense that this too is a tragic figure who knows far more about Eddie than Eddie knows about himself, as Gleason slaps the evening’s take into Bert’s hand and marches out the door.
The next segment presents Eddie as a transient. He walks out on Charlie and parks his suitcase and pool cue in a locker at the Greyhound Bus Terminal that used to exist alongside the old Penn Station. Rossen constructed a café in that terminal that was so convincing that travelers would wander onto the set and wait to be served. And that café is where we first see Sarah Packard sitting alone, pretending to wait for a bus. After a half-hearted pick-up try by Eddie fails, we dissolve to later that evening in the terminal bar, where Eddie stumbles across Sarah again, and we learn that she is a highly intelligent alcoholic and part-time college student leading a life of chronic aimlessness. She’s also partially lame due to a childhood bout with polio. And after a third wordless meeting with Sarah at the terminal, they leave together, two lost souls.
In the third segment, the healthier part of Sarah’s ego starts to emerge as she falls in love with Eddie. The trouble is she wants it too much, and he isn’t sure if he wants it at all. One day, Charlie shows up and asks Eddie to go back on the road with him. But Charlie lets it slip that he had held money in reserve during the Fats match. So, Eddie explodes, making the highly dubious claim that if he’d had that money, he could have come back and won. Things get progressively nastier, until Eddie finally tells Charlie, “Lay down and die by yourself. Don’t take me with you.” And there’s a cut to Sarah as a single tear rolls down her cheek, perhaps crying as much for her own hopes in this relationship as for Charlie.
So, after a period of moral dissolution for the couple, isolation, booze, and sex as a kind of emotional anesthesia, Eddie storms out one day after an argument, and comes across Bert again, who, with brutal frankness, elaborates on his earlier diagnosis of Eddie as a loser -- not for lack of talent, but character, or Bert’s version of character, namely, killer instinct. Even so, Bert offers to stake Eddie for a rematch with Fats in exchange for 75% of the take, which Eddie rejects and then proceeds to the first of several circles of hell presented in this film, a creepy pool hall off the West Side docks where he gets caught hustling by some tough clientele and ends up with a bad case of the broken thumbs, at which point he crawls back to Sarah, who takes him in.
That struggle that I mentioned between Bert and Sarah for Eddie’s soul is set up in segment four. With both hands in casts, unable to play, Eddie’s convalescence is deeply frustrating for him, but strengthens her. She stops drinking, starts writing, and falls ever more deeply in love. And in one of the best scenes in the film, a picnic scene, the only extended sequence shot outdoors, Eddie asks her if she thinks he’s a loser. Bert’s designation has been eating away at him. After hearing that he’s a gambler, Sarah asks if Bert is a winner. Eddie says, “Well, he owns things.” And she says, “Is that what makes a winner?” And he says, “Well, what else does?” Which is meant rhetorically, but really, that’s the central question of the film.
And Paul Newman deserves some credit for the existence of this scene, which is not in the book. When he first read this script in Paris, where he was shooting a film, he knew how good it was. He said later, “The Hustler was one of those movies when you woke up every day and could hardly wait to get to work, because you knew it was so good that nobody was going to be able to louse it up.” But Newman did ask Rossen to add a scene that bolstered his interpretation — which I agree with — of the Eddie character as an artist or master craftsman. Newman said, “I told Rossen he ought to somehow liken what Eddie does to what anybody who’s performing something sensational is doing -- could be a ballplayer or some guy who laid 477 bricks in one day.” So, Rossen wrote this scene, where Eddie makes a speech, talking about the feeling he gets when he’s playing and he’s really clicking, after which Sarah says he’s not a loser and that she loves him, adding correctly, “Some men never get to feel that way about anything.”
So, here’s a legitimate crossroads moment. Bert has offered one vision of life, a hard vision of life as a bank statement, essentially. And here’s another, more human, more inner-directed, and it’s one that Eddie just does not know what to do with. So, after the casts are removed, he makes his deal with the devil, accepting Bert’s harsh terms as they plan an out-of-town warmup in Louisville against a dissipated rich guy named Findlay, played by Murray Hamilton, who would later play the dissipated Mr. Robinson in The Graduate. But the night before the trip, Eddie takes Sarah out to dinner in a fancy restaurant, where it dawns on her that this is goodbye, maybe for good. And after a raw exchange, Sarah convinces Eddie to take her with him, setting up the direct conflict with Bert and sealing her doom.
Segment five unfolds with the merciless momentum of a nightmare. On the train to Kentucky, Bert, with the predatory instincts of a hawk, immediately begins clawing at Sarah’s self-esteem, little demeaning remarks, subtle condescension. But the true hostilities commence at the hotel in Louisville. Eddie goes off with some friends, and Sarah, who’s alone with Bert for the first time, makes so bold as to challenge Bert’s authority. And here’s where that controlled savagery at which George C. Scott was truly unsurpassed, emerges — the body language as he stalks toward her and, using every inch of that tall frame, peers down and bores in with that wonderfully guttural, raspy voice. It’s like coins rolling around a rusty tin can. And seeing her wilt under this verbal rampage, he backs off a little, and adds, “I’ll make it up to you.” And when she asks in a trembling, hollowed-out voice, “How?”, you know that not only is she finished, but it dawns on you that the moth-to-a-flame part of her makeup is actually attracted to Bert. And that attraction underlined in a later scene as well.
So, Rossen isn’t trotting out clichéd Hollywood characters here. Sarah isn’t some 1940s-style angel in distress. And the Bert character isn’t only ruthless. He’s intelligent, he can be charming, he can be insightful. He makes a speech at one point about the human tendency toward self-pity where I found myself nodding in agreement. So Rossen, to his credit, is giving you people as they are — flawed and complex. And I’m not making any comparisons, but that’s what makes Shakespeare’s work so compelling, you know? Hamlet wasn’t a good guy, he wasn’t a bad guy, he was a human being.
So the next circle of hell is a garish party thrown by Findlay at his mansion; loud aggressive Dixieland jazz, drinking, dancing, we see a beautiful woman talking to a dressed-up Eddie. And then Sarah, like some stray gazelle wandering into a pride of lions, limps down the stairs, nearly catatonic with drink. So Bert, seeing an opportunity to draw fresh blood, casually works his way over and whispers obscenities in her ear, which we don’t hear but which drive her into a state of instant hysteria.
Years later, Piper Laurie, after seeing George C. Scott in a play, went backstage, and after congratulating him, said, “George, you must tell me something. People always ask me what on earth you could have possibly said to me in that scene that brought that reaction, and for the life of me, I can’t remember.” And he laughed and he said, “Nothing. I knew I could never come up with something as disturbing as what your imagination could summon, so I just made sounds.” But that lack of specificity works on us too — not hearing the words, just seeing the reaction, lets our imagination run wild as we summon the worst possible thing which, for each of us, may be entirely different.
So, after the party, it emerges that Findlay plays billiards, not pool -- slightly different rules and table dimensions. So, Eddie quickly burns through all the money Bert is willing to front, then his own money until, finally, he’s reduced to begging on his knees for Bert not to close the bank, at which point a somewhat sobered-up Sarah descends to this lower circle of hell, and tells Eddie not to beg, saying “Doesn’t any of this come through to you? These people wear masks — and underneath the masks, they’re perverted, twisted, crippled.” But Eddie is on a binge, and just tells her to get lost, much as he did Charlie earlier in the film. And just to add a malevolent grace note, in contrast to Sarah’s tearful reaction in that scene, Findlay, occupying the same position in the frame, lower left, smirks and giggles at Sarah’s humiliation, while Bert sees that he has now won the battle for Eddie’s soul, and says, “Go ahead and play him, Eddie. Thousand dollars a game,” as Sarah limps back up the stairs.
We don’t see Eddie’s comeback, just the aftermath, as Findlay pays Bert off, after which Eddie, who seems contrite, makes the fateful decision to walk back to the hotel, which gives Bert an opportunity to claw at his victim one last time. After a quick drink, he aggressively pushes open the door to her room and just stands there, arrayed in the doorframe, again, like some bird of prey showing off its wingspan before bearing down on a helpless rabbit. As for Sarah’s final destruction, it is quietly horrifying and, for those who haven’t seen the film, I’ll let you discover that on your own. But at the end of this penultimate segment, she is indeed dead.
In the final segment, Eddie plays his return match with Fats cold sober and with crisp confidence. As before, he talks a lot, but this time he addresses his remarks to Bert, whom he and we now understand to be his true adversary. So, after an extended pool montage, expertly edited by Dede Allen, who would later do such great work on Bonnie and Clyde -- that death scene where Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are riddled with bullets, 50 cuts in about 50 seconds, that was Dede Allen. But finally, Fats quits and tells Bert, “You got yourself a pool player.” But that may be a compromise Fats had been willing or forced to make, but not Eddie, who takes his money and starts to leave, at which point Burt erupts, yelling out double fortissimo that Eddie owes him money. And here, unlike the whispered obscenities at the party, Bert’s threats are clearly enunciated and quite detailed. If Eddie doesn’t pay, the thumbs will be re-broken, the fingers as well, and the right arm in three or four places for good measure. So, after pretending negotiate a better percentage, to which Bert is amenable, Eddie shows his true new colors and says, “We really stuck the knife in her, didn’t we, Bert? We really gave it to her good.” So, Eddie has developed character, finally, not Bert’s version, but true character. And he’s apparently acquired some courage as well, since he not only refuses to pay but announces his intention, if Bert’s goons don’t finish him off, to come back and kill Bert.
And here, you see the internal calculations on George C. Scott’s wonderfully mobile features, as Bert reaches a verdict — okay. This time, Eddie is free not to pay. However, there’s a price, always a price, as Bert adds with deceptive casualness, “Only don’t ever walk into a big-time pool hall ever again.” See, Bert controls not only Ames but every other major pool hall in the country, which leaves Eddie just two options: compromise or resign, and compromise is not an option. But just before Eddie leaves this world for good, there’s a terrific moment, a simple, heartfelt exchange of appreciation between two artists, as Eddie looks Fats in the eye and says, “Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool.” And Fats, with a rueful smile, lifts his glass and returns the compliment. It’s one of the most touching moments you’ll ever see, as Fats, presented in the opening act as a somewhat arrogant obstacle, is now completely sympathetic. After having been edified by the last two hours and also by the wonderful reaction shots of Gleason that Dede Allen gives you in this last scene, you can only begin to guess at some of the accommodations he’s had to make. So, Eddie, having sacrificed his only mode of self-expression but having retained his soul, walks out into the sunlight toward whatever the future holds for him.
The film is superbly directed and photographed, the German cinematographer, Eugen Schüfftan, won the Oscar for his work here, the black-and-white Oscar. Between 1939 and ’67, they had separate awards for color and black-and-white. But he and Rossen use every inch of that ultra-wide Cinemascope screen very effectively, the elongated pool table, the low ceilings, the spectators carefully arranged in the frame, it all fits beautifully.
As for the acting, Paul Newman, who was nominated for his performance as Eddie Felson, for the most part delivers the goods in a very demanding role. He really carries the movie and manages emotional shadings miles above anything he’d done to this point. If there’s one flaw that pops up now and again in Newman’s early work, it’s excessive calculation; you see the performance. And there are a few self-conscious moments like that in this film, especially early on. Brando, at his best, in On the Waterfront, for example, was able to submerge himself so deeply into his characters, that every gesture, every facial tic seemed not only true but unrehearsed, somehow surprising. That may be an unfair comparison. They were very different actors, very different men, certainly. But even though Newman may not have had Brando’s explosive natural talent, I think of Paul Newman as a lunch-pail actor, you know? Year after year, film after film, just working at it. While Brando, with a couple of exceptions, honestly, kind of threw away his talent in his middle and later years, frequently giving half-hearted or ludicrous performances. But Newman just kept chipping away, and he delivered a flawless performance a few years after The Hustler in Cool Hand Luke, for which he should have won Best Actor. He also probably should have won for The Verdict. But The Hustler was by far the best screenplay that Newman had had to work with to that point, and certainly represents a giant leap forward for him as an actor.
George C. Scott, and the middle initial, by the way, when he was asked late in life why he had added the “C.” to his professional name, he said, “It took up space. I tell people that nobody knows who Edward Robinson is, but everyone knows who Edward G. Robinson is.” And everyone now knows who George C. Scott is, an actor of not only volcanic force but great intelligence and a wonderful sense of irony to counterbalance that force. The Hustler was only his second major film role. His first was two years earlier, as a prosecuting attorney in Anatomy of a Murder, where he squares off with Jimmy Stewart. In both films, his character really comes to the fore in the second half, and also in both films, every frame of his performance is like a shot of adrenaline, not only for the viewer but he makes the actors around him better as well.
Scott remained primarily a stage actor throughout his career. And he’d made his initial mark on stage in 1957 with a legendary portrayal of Richard III with the off-Broadway New York Shakespeare Festival. But it’s interesting with stage actors and film. When I was in college, I saw James Earl Jones on Broadway in Fences, by August Wilson. And he was dynamic, huge charisma, filled the room. Although I should say about ten years ago, I saw Denzel Washington play the same role on Broadway, and he may have surpassed even Jones. But when you see James Earl Jones in films -- and this may be a minority view -- he’s doesn’t seem to me to make the necessary adjustment, just a little too big for the medium. Now, George C. Scott was big as well, but he was able to modulate, and his film performances are incredibly effective. And when it came to playing ruthless, demonically driven men, as here or in Patton, he was truly a world’s champion.
Like Newman and Piper Laurie and Gleason, Scott was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Bert Gordon and probably would’ve won if he hadn’t rejected — or tried to reject — the nomination, which, no one did that in 1962, especially a guy with just 2 films under his belt. But this rejection by Scott derived from his earlier experience with Anatomy of a Murder, for which he happily accepted the Supporting Actor nomination. And everyone, from his competitors to Hedda Hopper, powerful Hollywood columnist, everyone thought he was a shoo-in. But he ended up getting trampled under the chariot wheels of Ben-Hur, which won a record 11 Oscars that year, including Supporting Actor for Hugh Griffith, a competent but unremarkable performance.
And Scott talked about this around the time of The Hustler, he said, “I was disappointed not to win. And then, after thinking it over, I was disappointed over being disappointed, and I determined never to be placed in that position again. I believe that actors should not be forced to out-advertise and out-stab each other.” So, he rejected his nomination via telegram. And the Academy responded by saying, in so many words: you know, if you don’t want to show up, fine. But nominations, once issued, cannot be declined. And once again, he lost to an inferior performance, George Chakiris in West Side Story. But what a talent. He had the gift of fury, which, along with his alcoholism, certainly wreaked havoc in his personal life but left us with some indelible performances, of which this is definitely one.
Piper Laurie is an interesting case. She was a Hollywood veteran by ’61, having appeared in films well before Newman or Scott. As a child, she had been pathologically shy, and would frequently just shut down. In her autobiography, which I just read, it’s called Learning to Live Out Loud, she says she didn’t laugh out loud until she was 18 years old. Before that, she would just silently shake when something struck her funny. So, her mother enrolled her in elocution lessons when she was about 12 or 13, which led to acting classes, which, incredibly enough, led to a contract in 1949 with Universal Studios, which, although lucrative, quickly soured. First of all, Universal at that time was churning out cheap, low-quality B or even C genre pictures. I saw one of her Universal films, a 1954 disaster-film atrocity called Dangerous Mission with Victor Mature and Vincent Price. No actor or actress could do anything with those lines, not to mention the bargain-basement production values.
And in addition to the name, Piper Laurie, which she hated, because Piper Laurie didn’t seem to her to even be a name, but I guess they considered her real name, Rosetta Jacobs, too Jewish or something. The studio also saddled her with a ludicrous, too-precious-for-this-world image. The studio told gossip columnists that their new ingenue bathed in milk and ate flower petals to protect her luminous skin. I’m not even kidding. They actually arranged for her to consume, in the presence of a reporter, some sort of flower or plant life that had been prepared for her. She said, “I didn’t know what it was, but I ate most of it. It was certainly more interesting than the roles they were giving me.” But when reporters weren’t in the room and she was eating actual food in the cafeteria, the studio heads would constantly hassle her about her weight. They would stop by, check out what she was eating, and say loudly, “Watch it there, Piper. Do you really need that?” Which led to a 15-year dependence on diet pills, also known as amphetamines. And that addiction is a primary reason why her career didn’t prosper in the wake of her nomination for The Hustler. In fact, her portrayal of Sarah Packard was her last film performance until 1976, when she played Sissy Spacek’s maniacal, butcher-knife-wielding mother in Carrie.
So, after extricating herself from that contract, she moved to New York to reinvent herself. And her breakout was a live production of Days of Wine and Roses on CBS-TV with Cliff Robertson as her partner-in-booze. The later film from 1962 with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick is much better, great in fact. But even so, you can see Piper Laurie’s gifts start to emerge in this role: the intelligence, the vulnerability, excellent use of her full vocal range with startling resonance in the lower register, which she would use to great effect in Carrie.
But one of the things I love about her performance in The Hustler, the moments when she listens, her complete absorption when her scene partner is speaking to her. It’s a tool that actors will often underutilize. Spencer Tracy was an absolute master at that, to be present and attentive rather than simply wait for the other actor to stop speaking. As with Newman’s performance, a couple of stagy moments that feel a little melodramatic, but pretty much the highest compliment I can pay Piper Laurie — and Rossen too, for creating the role -- is that it hurts when you see her character destroyed like that. Despite her weakness, which the actress and screenwriter have bravely allowed us to see -- or perhaps because of that weakness, that humanity -- there really is a sense of personal loss when she goes down. So, a very brave, very sensitive performance by Piper Laurie -- or let’s use her preferred name, Rosetta Jacobs, the only major member of this cast still with us at 89 years of age. So, God bless her.
Jackie Gleason, who appears only in the first and final segments, moves through this film with incredible grace for such a large man. At other times, his stillness speaks volumes. That early scene where Newman is mocking him, the way Gleason contains his anger, the tension in that bull neck, the glare, just a tremendously economical performance. And Gleason, as a teenager in Brooklyn, had hustled pool himself. And at one point, he and Newman had an impromptu three-game series in front of most of the cast and crew, just a few bucks a game. And Newman, who’d had a table installed in his home and had been practicing night and day, won all three games -- barely, but he won, after which Gleason, visibly annoyed, took him aside and said, “Listen Paul, after all my bragging about my skills with the cue, this is really embarrassing. Give me one more crack at this thing, just one game, $100, and I’ll leave you alone. I promise.” And it crossed Newman’s mind, briefly, that maybe he was being hustled. But knowing how proud Gleason was, always projecting that image of mastery, he thought, “No, it’s inconceivable that this man would allow himself to be humiliated like that in front of all these people.” So, Newman, with typical generosity, graciously accepted, and proceeded to get wiped off the table, just utterly destroyed by a beaming Jackie Gleason. Although Newman did get some revenge later by paying off the $100 in pennies dumped on the floor of Gleason’s house. But the damage was done, the hustler got hustled. But masterful work by Jackie Gleason in really his best film performance.
Also very effective is the jazz soundtrack by Kenyon Hopkins. It’s not a traditional orchestra with jazz inflections, as in, say, Streetcar Named Desire, but a jazz ensemble with drum kit to which Hopkins added traditional orchestral instruments here and there for color. There’s the main up-tempo, alto-sax driven theme, but he often has the ensemble back off, exposing a solo instrument to convey vulnerability. For example, during Newman’s remorseful speech at the end, there’s a quiet oboe solo on the soundtrack that adds a nice, unobtrusive, mournful touch.
So, whatever its minor imperfections here and there, a few moments where the dialogue is a little too literary, or the acting a bit stiff, these to me are insignificant blemishes and, in fact, they are few and far between. The Hustler, in my opinion, is first-class cinema created by adults for adults with something very real and very important to say. You know, I once saw an interview with Steven Spielberg where he defined drama simply as “people with problems.” And The Hustler is certainly that, but real people, not Hollywood archetypes, and real problems, not fabricated constructs.
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