The Hustler is a straightforward morality play, but it is told with a lean, hard-edged intensity that pushes it into the realm of classic cinema. It helped that it featured a slew of great acting performances, including a superstar-making turn by Paul Newman. Now, the acclaimed 1961 drama receives loving treatment in a two-disc special collector's edition from 20th Century Fox.
Based on a 1959 novel by Walter Tevis and directed by Robert Rossen (All the King's Men), The Hustler follows the journey of Fast Eddie Felson. A handsome, brash poolroom hustler, Eddie has a knack for bragging and the talent to back it up. He and his older partner, Charlie (Myron McCormick), arrive at New York's Ames pool hall to take on the most legendary pool ace of them all, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). As the match-up stretches through the night and into the following morning, Eddie's cockiness segues into drunken desperation; he doesn't know when to walk away with his winnings. He is up by $18,000 at one point, but Minnesota Fats is unflappable. The champ washes up, powders his hands and proceeds to decimate his young challenger. A local gambler, Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), sums up Eddie tersely: "a born loser."
Broke and broken, Eddie skips out on Charlie and transfers all that he owns out into a rented locker at the bus station. There he meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), a young woman who drinks too much, walks with a limp and hints at a checkered past. The two share loneliness and desperation that make them kindred spirits, and they strike up a loving relationship.
But Eddie cannot stay away from plying his craft. After a hustle in a seedy pool hall results in a beating, he ends up under the wing of the pitiless Bert Gordon. Although the gambler has dismissed Eddie as a loser, he knows when there's money to be made from raw talent, and so he takes Eddie -- and, grudgingly, Sarah -- to Louisville, Kentucky, to hustle a rich ne'er do well (Murray Hamilton) who fancies himself a skilled billiards player.
Influenced by film noir and even a hint of neorealism, The Hustler is a clear-eyed critique of winning and losing and the psychological toll of both. Bert is the unequivocal villain of the piece, but he is an astute student of human behavior. Eddie will always pale beside Minnesota Fats, Bert observes, because Eddie mistakenly thinks talent can trump character. In fact, Bert exploits that very absence of character, squeezing every semblance of humanity out of Eddie in an effort to make him a ruthless -- and soulless -- pool champ. "You can't live unless you make everything else dead around you," Eddie tells Bert.
Sarah is Eddie's opportunity for salvation. She loves him and tries to make him see the folly behind the success he craves. She warns that cutthroats such as Bert and his cronies mask "perverted, twisted, crippled" realities, but Eddie must learn the lesson in the hardest of ways.
Some movie scholars suggest that The Hustler's solemn themes were informed by Robert Rossen's experience during Hollywood's blacklisting in the McCarthy era. A onetime communist, Rossen was banned from the business in 1951 after refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The inability to work took its toll. Two years later, Rossen recanted his silence and gave HUAC the names of nearly 60 other alleged communists.
Regardless of whether Rossen used The Hustler to exorcise sundry demons, there is no disputing that the movie pulsates with energy. The screenplay by Rossen and Sydney is a revelation of sharp, searing dialogue. But the movie is at its best in the dingy pool halls, particularly the Eddie-Fats games that bookend it. For those scenes, the filmmakers enlisted Willie Mosconi, arguably the greatest pool player of all time, to serve as an off-screen consultant (he also appears in a blink-or-you'll-miss-it cameo).
The cast is excellent. Newman pours all his considerable charm into Fast Eddie (a role he would reprise in Martin Scorsese's 1986 sequel, The Color of Money), and the result is the blueprint of what would become Newman's distinctive brand of antihero, a guy who elicits a sort of seductive sympathy even when being utterly selfish.
Although the weight of the film rests on Newman's shoulders, The Hustler boasts a number of stellar performances. Piper Laurie is heartbreaking as the conscience of the story, while Scott, appearing in only his third movie, showed early on why he made such a great heavy. Newman, Laurie, Gleason and Scott all earned Oscar nominations.
The four contribute mightily to the picture's gritty atmospherics. And it's all captured in glorious black and white Cinemascope by director of photography Eugen Schüfftan, who won an Academy Award for his work here.
Disc One includes the movie, feature commentary and trick-shot commentary, with the rest of the extras loaded on Disc Two.
It's a gorgeous print transfer, in beautifully preserved anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1. Only toward the film's end is there a slight softness of image. Otherwise, the picture is sharp and rich.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is pointed and clean, which is all you need for what is essentially a dialogue-driven picture. The sounds of the pool halls -- the strike of a pool stick against a cue ball, the clacking of balls - are crystal clear. An English track is also available in mono, as are tracks in French and Spanish.
Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
A generous helping of supplemental material is here. First up is a commentary (back from the movie's previous incarnation on DVD) moderated and effectively corralled by DVD Talk's own Stuart Galbraith IV. It's an exhaustive group that includes Newman; Rossen's daughter, Carol Rossen; film editor Dede Allen; Siefan Gierasch, who had a bit part in the flick; Hustler assistant director Ulu Grosbard; Time film critic Richard Schickel; and movie producer-writer Jeff Young. With that broad of a lineup, some of the commentary inevitably falls a bit short, but Allen and Grosbard (who went on to become a gifted director in his own right) offer some great anecdotes. On a different note, it's a bit strange to hear Richard Schickel defend McCarthy-era red-baiting.
Five scenes are spotlighted in a picture-in-a-picture trick-shot analysis (also in the previous version) featuring pool great Mike Massey. It's not terribly illuminating or helpful stuff, but Massey's enthusiasm for the movie is kinda endearing.
The final leftover from the previous DVD is the 24-minute, 29-second The Hustler: The Inside Story, in which clips and interviews shape an overview of the many aspects of this classic.
Life in the Fast Lane: Fast Eddie Felson and the Search for Greatness (11:49) covers much the same ground as The Inside Story, albeit a tad less focused and with a smattering of new interviews. Much better is the 28-minute Milestones in Cinema History: The Hustler, an informative and entertaining entry. Swimming with Sharks: The Art of the Hustle (9:39) is a clever sidebar of a featurette, examining the fundamentals - origins, tricks of the trade, vocabulary -- of hustling pool. Newman fans have a treat in the Biography Channel's Paul Newman: Hollywood's Cool Hand (43:40), an exhaustive, clips-packed profile of the superstar.
How to Make the Shot features Mike Massey duplicating five of The Hustler's key shots. Other extras include a theatrical trailer (including one in Spanish), a still gallery and trailers for other Paul Newman movies: The Towering Inferno, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Quintet, Hombre, The Long Hot Summer, From the Terrace, The Verdict and What a Way to Go!
One of the most remarkable aspects of The Hustler is how well it still holds up. Rossen's morality play is spare, tense and searing despite a running time north of two hours. The timeless movie is done right by this collector's edition, with a gorgeous print and a slew of supplemental materials that enhances the audience's appreciation. Nice shooting, Fox.