I've come to The Hustler in a strange route, having seen Martin Scorsese's sequel The Color of Money) a couple times before finally seeing this. And while seeing Money gives you a further appreciation of the evolution of the Fast Eddie Felson character, seeing Paul Newman as a younger, flashier and cockier version of the character is fascinating. Even more fascinating is the transformation the character undergoes.
Based on the Walter Tevis novel and adapted to the screen by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen (the latter of whom directed the film), Felson and his 'manager' come into a pool hall and challenges Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason, The Honeymooners) to a game of pool. Eddie's talent is prodigious, though the longer the game drags on (more than 40 hours at one point) he becomes more and more spent, physically and emotionally. Fats on the other hand is unflappable and fresh as freakin' daisy, which is crystallized in a scene near Eddie's demise where Gleason washes up, powders his hands and resumes the game with Eddie with a "Fast Eddie, Let's Play Pool!" as if he is saying it for the first time. Eddie might not have realized he was finished then, but he would be shortly thereafter, left to wonder what to do next.
One of the first things that happens is that he meets Sarah (Piper Laurie, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway) and they strike up a relationship with each other at a bus station where she sees him putting away his belongings in a locker. Sarah and Eddie tend to share the same tendency to self-destruct whether it's at billiards or to drinking, but they fall in love and he starts to feel happy. He runs into Bert Gordon (George C. Scott, Patton), who was a mysterious figure at Eddie's first match with Fats and offers him a chance to regain his game. He tempts Eddie with the chance at maybe getting a little bit of payback to Fats in the process, but perhaps at the cost of what Eddie believes.
There is a lot to take from the movie, but I think the first thing that strikes about it (and The Color of Money) is that while these are two different types of movies visually about pool, the core essence in both films, about the changing and evolving of the characters is the common shared . Newman's swagger in The Hustler is awfully similar to Tom Cruise's in Color, but both figures are molded differently-Eddie sees the failings of Bert's teachings and uses them when staking Cruise's Vincent character, even as both young Vincent and young Eddie go through their own learning processes. Those changes (particularly in The Hustler) are bold for a film of its era. For that matter, the film is bold in its material and its choice of actors. Gleason was the face of television (along with Lucille Ball) and this dramatic turn was something that not many had been privy to see before. Newman was not afraid of taking chances with his performance, and this slightly darker and downward turn with Eddie Felson was strong for its time, to say nothing about the film's story. Scott was a relative unknown before this performance and his role as Bert would launch him into bigger projects.
Ultimately while The Color of Money helps provide some closure on Fast Eddie Felson, The Hustler gave us fascinating arcs for Felson, Sarah, Fats and Bert. Everything that occurs is compelling viewing and worthy of rewatching on multiple counts, and it's nice to come back to the film that started it all, and it's more than easy to see why the film has remained to compelling to watch as it marks a half century of existence.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The Hustler is presented in 2.35:1 high-definition widescreen using the AVC encode and it looks excellent. Blacks look solid and provide a good contrast through the feature, and film grain is present during many scenes and looks natural. There is one scene early in the first battle between Eddie and Fats where Gleason is leaning over to take a shot, and the beads of sweat on his forehead are clearly discernible, and the detail in this (and some other) scenes looks much better than I was anticipating for a release of this age. This is a quality presentation.
Fox rolls out a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that is a little wasted in long stretches of the production. The jazz music that plays in the opening credits and is sprinkled through the film sounds clear and presents a nice soundstage to listen to, and the pool sequences include some action that gently pans to the front channels. However, most of what occurs stays in the front, with no noticeable directional effects or speaker panning, and the lossless track is adequate without being overkill. As a postscript, the disc does come with the original mono sound which is a nice inclusion from Fox.
Most of the extras from the standard definition disc have been ported over, though there are some Blu-ray exclusives that have been added here. The first new piece is "Paul Newman At Fox" (27:11), which looks at the actor's relationship with the studio and includes looks at most of his films during his time there, and his impact on changing the studio system for his other actors. It's an interesting piece and well worth the time. In a similar mold is "Jack Gleason: The Big Man" (12:04), similar to the Newman piece in tone and the context of his performance is touched upon by many of the side but very good. It's a decent piece. Following that is "The Real Author" (18:55), which looks at Tevis featuring memories from his children. The billiards beginnings are discussed and the segment includes radio interview footage from Tevis as well. It's a little on the long side by very good.
In terms of the older extras, Newman, Rossen's daughter Carol, assistant director Ulu Grosbard, critic Richard Schickel, producer Jeff Young, editor Dede Allen and Siefan Gierasch (who played Preacher in the film) all combine forces in a commentary track, hosted by our own Stuart Galbraith. It's a fascinating track to listen to, with production information, recollections on the House Unamerican Activities Committee and film deconstruction. It's quite extensive (or at least as much as something like this can be), full of interesting information and well worth the time for those fans of the film. Next is "Life in the Fast Lane" (11:49), which looks at the Felson character and includes recollections from Newman and other members of the cast. Newman's stories are interesting, as he talks about the research he put into the film and the anecdotes borne from pool playing. There is even some deconstruction of some scenes but altogether it's good viewing.
Following that, "Milestones in Cinema History" (28:04) looks at the film's history and legacy, with Allen discussing how she edited some sequences and the cast recalls working with Rossen and their thoughts on him (and each other). There are many interviews with the cast in this piece and they're all pretty good, and they talk about the impact of the film since it came out. "Swimming With Sharks" (9:38) looks at the hustling aspect of the film, while "The Inside Story" is a traditional retrospective look at the production. "Hollywood's Cool Hand" (43:44) is an A&E biographical piece on Newman, while "Trick Shot Analysis" (13:51) and "How the Make The Shot" (3:41) are two separate pieces where billiards expert Mike Massey examines and performs the shots in the film. Two trailers (including a Spanish language one) complete the disc*.
* There's a stipulation here because Fox has decided to present The Hustler in digibook packaging, with 24 pages of photos and biographical information in a hard-bound book of sorts. It's not a Warner presentation, but it is an excellent first presentation.
The Hustler is looked upon (and rightly so) as an important, fascinating film with great performances and a daring story. Technically the presentation is excellent for a film of its age and Fox has taken an already solid extras package and upped the ante. Worth watching at the very least, and if you have, a must-own label should be slapped onto it.