Classic Film Review: A Masterpiece that’s not just Newman’s Own — “The Hustler” (1961)

When I was a kid I lived next door to a respectable middle class gent who ran the local pool hall in the small town where I grew up. His family made great neighbors, but I remember getting a warning, here and there, about not going to the pool hall where — it was implied — all manner of adult stuff went down.

Perhaps my parents were alarmed at Professor Harold Hill’s deprecations about “trouble with a capital ‘T’ that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for ‘pool'” in “Music Man.”

But the pool hall was right next door to the town bakery. And when I hit my tweens, I’d drop by for an eclair on my afternoon paper route.

Yes, way back in the olden days, kids, there were small town bakeries and pool halls, and there were such things as viable afternoon newspapers for factory workers to read after getting off from first shift or getting ready to go on second shift.

After the first time I saw “The Hustler” on TV, I could no longer resist and ducked into the pool hall a few times, just to soak up the atmosphere and see if Fast Eddie Felson or his equivalent was passing through. We had a pool table at my house, and any pointers a kid could pick up might keep his friends from mopping the floor with him on his own table.

I’m pretty sure my neighbor never gave me away, although I never stayed long enough to get a much-deserved “Run along, kid.” Every small southern town fancied itself another “Mayberry” back then. Pool halls were no place for kids. All I remember about it was how quiet and faintly depressing it was. Granted, I was stepping in during late afternoon and not later hours. But I remember thinking “They got the ‘quiet’ right.”

Something about this movie pulls me back in every time I spy it channel surfing. It’s the down and out noir milieu of the halls, the gritty “kitchen sink” settings outside of the smokey poolrooms where Fast Eddie (Paul Newman), a “real high class con man” according to his enthusiastic first manager “partner” (Myron McCormick of “No Time for Sergeants”), “a born loser” according to his second (George C. Scott, cynicism on the half shell), plies his trade.

 “I don’t think there’s a pool player alive shoots better pool than I saw you shoot the other night at Ames. You got talent.

“So I got talent. So what beat me?” Character.

Robert Rossen’s film is a patient, leisurely down and out tale, an overlong alcoholic haze of a hustle that captures a cocky young pool shark’s comeuppance. The story arc is the familiar tumble from the self-confident peak to the gutter, and the slow crawl back to redemption. The film’s length is largely due to the games within it, chiefly the epic game of “straight pool” against Jackie Gleason, as self-described “legend” Minnesota Fats, that opens the picture.

Rossen (“All the King’s Men”) messes with structure with that lengthy, show-stopping opening act. And then he has his “hero” sink and sink further, grabbing hold of a dissolute, disabled drunk (Piper Laurie, in her finest screen performance) on the way down.

The script is grand soliloquies in an unsentimental street argot that has nothing to do with “Guys and Dolls.” The seedy production design and dense, shadowy cinematography were honored with Academy Awards back in 1962, and remain the film’s signature to this day.

“Hustler” was nominated for nine Oscars, and is probably the first time Paul Newman deserved to win, as he was nominated along with Laurie, Gleason and Scott, and Rossen as director and co-writer and best picture-nominated producer. It didn’t help that the film came out the same year as “West Side Story,” “Breakfast at Tiffanies” or “Judgement at Nuremberg,” which won Maximillian Schell the best actor trophy.

That’s all right. Newman turned in decades of great performances after “Hustler.” And when he returned to Fast Eddie for the sequel, he finally was honored with a richly-deserved Best Actor Oscar.

For years after that 1986 film, I preferred the sex appeal, pop and pizzaz of “The Color of Money,” Martin Scorsese’s shot at a classic sequel, at working with Paul Newman and catching Tom Cruise, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Forest Whitaker and John Turturro on the rise. Eddie, the seasoned “manager” and sometime liquor distributor is the one who lectures a new “kid” (Cruise) about “character,” this time.

But for all the gloomy living-color grit that the great Scorsese served up in his faster-paced ’80s follow-up, there’s something absolutely timeless about Rossen’s picture. “The Hustler” feels like a black and white memory, a time capsule for a world that felt artificially recreated in “The Color of Money.”

My small town pool hall, like some of those depicted in “The Hustler,” was long gone. The “real Minnesota Fats,” whom you could catch every now and then on “Wide World of Sports,” had mercifully hustled off into the sunset. Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” dream of “borrow my daddy’s cue” to “make a living outta playing pool” was gone. Arcades had taken over, and were inherently less menacing, more infantile if just as alluring as billiards parlors had once been.

“The Hustler” isn’t just a memory, it’s a memory of a dream — a seedy and sinister movie of smoke, booze, lies and the consequences of the con, a relic of a less frazzled, pre-“first person shooter” age.

“It’s quiet.” “Yeah, like a church. Church of the good hustler.”

Rating: unrated, adult situations, smoking, alcohol abuse

Cast: Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott, Myron McCormick, Michael Constantine, Murray Hamilton and Vincent Gardenia.

Credits: Directed by Robert Rossen, scripted by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen, based on the novel by Walter Tevis. A 20th Century Fox release.

Running time: 2:14

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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