Two men, one older and one younger, walk into pool hall in midtown Manhattan and take in the place. The younger man, a hungry, uniquely talented pool shark named “Fast” Eddie Felsen (Paul Newman), surmises that the pool hall is like a church in the early morning, quiet and worthy of respect; the older man, Felsen’s partner and manager, Charlie (Myron McCormick), concludes that it’s a morgue, where the bodies of men with immense promise are slid onto the green pool tables and left to decay. This seemingly minor exchange occurs only a few scenes into Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, but the film itself, a financial success back in 1961, spends the entirety of its two-plus hours proving the grim wisdom of Charlie, who has come to think of the cocky, ambitious, but weak-willed Eddie as his surrogate son. Where Eddie originally sees salvation, retribution, and vindication, he comes to find only heartbreak, humiliation, pain, corruption, and death, not so much from the game itself as from the glory that the sport offers to those who have a talent for it.
As it turns out, Felsen has talent in spades, the kind of talent that gets people to turn their heads, but he’s also perfected the hustle and has, in the few decades he’s been alive, made his way in the world by suckering small-town players and traveling businessmen. He’s just mopped the floor with a group of local folk, in fact, when he enters Ames’s Pool Hall and calls out the legendary Minnesota Fats (a tremendous yet graceful Jackie Gleason), the heralded king of the cue ball; Fats, sporting a three-piece suit and a calm demeanor that would leave any competitor unsettled, agrees. The game goes on for well over 24 hours, during which Eddie has trouble finding his feet before surging ahead to make $18,000, finally losing nearly all of it in the games’ final hours, done in by a bottle of cheap bourbon and his obsession with not only taking Fats’s money but having him admit defeat.
The scene itself lasts for over 20 minutes and unfurls with an incredibly rhythmic, measured sense of visual storytelling; the sequence’s emotional potency eludes careful analytical dissection, yet it’s easy to see that it’s the work of a master of the medium. It’s a triumph for Rossen, as well as editor Dede Allen and famed German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, and in a way, the film seems to be chasing the high that Eddie felt when he had Fats on the ropes, a high made palpable by Rossen’s cinematic rigor. Eddie’s money goes into the pocket of Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), the dark figure perched behind Fats as the game goes on, while Eddie himself goes after a girl he meets at the local bus station. She’s not very impressed with him at first, but they meet again, at a local dive, and she takes a shine to him enough to give over her name, Sarah, played with startling poise and vulnerability by Piper Laurie.
Weeks later, Eddie and Sarah are living together, drowning in booze and in need of money. A perceived betrayal causes a rift between Eddie and Charlie, but Bert offers to take the kid on despite his opinion of Eddie as a “loser.” But pride remains the favored sin of Eddie, and following a cheap $100 hustle, a group of goons break his thumbs. The script, adapted by the director and Sidney Carroll from Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name, structures these events like fractured Stations of the Cross, but Eddie is hardly the only person who suffers and certainly isn’t the one who suffers the most. Following his recuperation, Eddie agrees to go on the road with Bert on the sole condition that Sarah accompany them to Louisville, where Bert has located a sure bet with a drunk, flamboyant Southern heir (Murray Hamilton, conveying delirious abandon and helplessness with precise subtlety) who likes to go slumming with criminals, gamblers, musicians, and loose women. Eddie sees the spotlight and is blinded by it, but Sarah sees only Bert, dressed and groomed like Mephistopheles on a business trip, and his tendrils wrapped around Eddie’s inflated ego.
Words mean a lot in Rossen’s film and perhaps part of the reason we never hear what Bert says to Sarah that sends her into an emotional tailspin is that the words would set the tone of the film off-kilter. When Bert calls Eddie a loser, he does so because he knows that’s the exact word that would inflict the most damage; he never calls him anything else because he doesn’t have to. Everyone is hustling, but it’s rarely about a game or money and more about emotions, our fears, and our silenced weaknesses. Bert knows that by controlling Eddie, with money and the promise of cheap glory, that he has some, if not full, control over Sarah, and when he calls upon that control in full force, the results are of the most tragic sort, ending in a scene of immense grief and dismay, emotions so hefty that the cinema has rarely seen fit to touch them with such odd purity as Rossen has here.
Rossen was the last of a myriad of directors, stars, and producers who had attempted to adapt Tevis’s novel, not the least known of which was Frank Sinatra, who Rossen would later consider for the role of Eddie after Newman declined due to a project with Elizabeth Taylor, which was later aborted. It’s fascinating to think what Old Blue Eyes could have done with the role, whether his magnetism could have been pared down to reach those moments of brutal sincerity in Eddie, but why waste time when Newman got everything so right? It’s no small assertion to crown The Hustler as the high peak of Newman’s career, but considering even his work in The Verdict, Cool Hand Luke, Slap Shot, and The Long, Hot Summer, there’s a humor, a languor, and a hidden honesty in “Fast” Eddie Felsen that Newman zeroes in on from the very first scene and responds to with an intensity that can’t be found anywhere else in the actor’s career. The performance certainly deserved its Oscar nomination, but Newman would only win the award a quarter-century later, for the same exact role in Martin Scorsese’s feeble sequel, The Color of Money, of which his performance was the only noteworthy accomplishment.
Scorsese’s film concerns Felsen, aged and cynical, begrudgingly agreeing to coach a hotshot rookie, played by a young Tom Cruise. Sure, Eddie Felsen’s life could only really be told in the shadowy realm of black-and-white photography, but aesthetic choices are the least of the problems with The Color of Money. Scorsese took to the story like a cinematic coroner performing an autopsy on a film that helped charter his own creative course, but was unable to summon even a single scene that would match Rossen’s work. Of course, Scorsese had his own brutal masterpiece of self-defeatism and psychological flagellation, Raging Bull, which does deserve to stand next to The Hustler, but The Color of Money was a failed exercise in nostalgia, an attempt to recapture some elusive magic that a young Scorsese had witnessed when he saw Rossen’s film on the big screen as a college student.
The Hustler concludes with Eddie’s second and final game against Fats, but this isn’t a celebratory scene, nor does it have the air of tension or catharsis. Instead, the weight of defeat seems to hang in the clouds of tobacco smoke that float above the solemn game that Fats and Eddie play, before Eddie confronts Bert and walks out of Ames’s Pool Hall for the last time. The film depicts the sport with considerable energy, helped by the fact that Gleason was an admired pool player to begin with, and billiards pro and technical consultant Willie Mosconi performed many of the trick shots. The game scenes are perhaps more engaging than those that focus on the dire desperation felt between Sarah and Eddie, but The Hustler never dithers, never plateaus, rather forever reaching for another emotion to play, much like Eddie. That the film revolves, in a very general sense, around a sport has often caused this masterwork to appear on lists of the greatest sports films ever made when, indeed, the film deserves to be ranked high on a list of great American films, regardless of genre or time period. More than a few scenes feature striped and solid balls being knocked around on a felt tabletop, but Rossen’s drive for storytelling emanates from those crippled souls who refuse to learn any way but the hard way, those who can see all the places the ball can go and should go, and yet can’t see where they themselves are heading until it’s too late.
Color will always prove more difficult to transfer seamlessly to Blu-ray than black and white, but that doesn't make a triumph in the arena of black and white any less of an achievement. Fox's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is such a triumph, presented in its original, engulfing 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Detail and contrast are fantastic, and clarity here is markedly better than the solid work done on the DVD release. Blacks are well saturated and beautifully balanced with the whites and greys. Pay special attention to how clean the transfer is, no debris and no major processing marks, and how shadow detail comes off in the poolhalls and the phenomenal Louisville party scene. The audio is just as noteworthy, especially for its handling of the rich dialogue and Kenyon Hopkins's excellent, jazzy score. The mix keeps the dialogue slightly up front and balances it out well with the score and atmosphere noise, making for a sumptuous overall presentation. Savor this.
There's a wealth of information to dig into with these extras, which are myriad in content. Throughout the nine featurettes, only three of which could be construed as superfluous, the story of the production, those who were chiefly involved, the release, the reception, and the legacy of the movie are documented with admirable attention to detail. On top of this, there's an excellent audio commentary featuring, among others, Paul Newman, editor Dede Allen, assistant director Ullu Grosbard, and Time film critic Richard Schickel. This is a fine, entertaining listen that fills in the gaps that might be left over after the featurettes, and the mixture of voices gives a fully rounded sense of perspective on a diversity of subjects tied to the production. The choice to shoot on location in Manhattan and Los Angeles, and the work Newman did with pool legend Willie Mosconi, who served as a technical consultant, are just two of the more prominent subjects of interest—and rarely does the material dither in overall interest. An almost embarrassing amount of information for such a seemingly humble and simple film.
This hardboiled, emotionally potent Cinemascope sonata of addiction and self-defeatism makes for one of the strongest Blu-ray releases Fox is likely to produce this year.