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The Hustler

(1961) **** Unrated
134 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Robert Rossen. Cast: Piper Laurie, Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason, Myron McCormick.

/content/films/4039/1.jpgFilmmaker Robert Rossen once said, "Even if I never make another picture, I've got The Hustler on my record. I'm content to let that one stand for me." And so it has: Rossen directed, produced, and co-wrote with Sidney Carroll the film adaptation of Walter Tevis' novel, and it remains a classic. As played by Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, and George C. Scott (all of whom scored Oscar nominations), The Hustler's theatricality works in its favor, with heartfelt speeches and dialogues that disturb hidden depths and allow the truth to rise to the surface.

In a towering star performance made of charisma and fearsome void-staring, Newman plays "Fast" Eddie Felson, a cock-of-the-walk pool hustler who has honed his craft traveling the country by car with his partner in cons, Charlie (Myron McCormick). Believing he's ready to challenge the best, Eddie takes his winnings to the home turf of Minnesota Fats (a superbly sly Gleason) and sets into motion an impromptu high-stakes, two-man pool tournament that Eddie says will be "over when Fats says it's over...I came after him and I'm gonna get him. I'm going with him all the way." More than twenty-five hours later, Fats remains (outwardly) cool as a cucumber while Eddie's a wreck, drunk and lost in his head. After a bravura opening sequence depicting Eddie and Charlie's perfected con routine, the battle with Fats locates the vulnerable mindset of the sportsman and the gambler, two fragile personality types that are often found in the same person. The sequence also announces The Hustler as, in large part, a study in ego and psychological warfare that will inevitably climax in a rematch.

The Hustler's long midsection deals with the forced contemplation Eddie faces as—tail between his legs—he explores a relationship with another damaged soul, licks his wounds, and works himself back into a position where he can prove himself by beating Fats. At a bus terminal, he happens upon Sarah Packard (Laurie, positively searing), who's also skilled at playing her cards close to the vest. Once Eddie gets past her initial defenses, he discovers Sarah to be a barely functional, limping lush with no interest in rehabilitation; they wordlessly agree to what she later calls "a contract of depravity," but gradually, as the two plumb deeper into each other's secret selves, she begins to hope for an escape from vicious cycles, setting a stage for a conflict between Eddie's potential happiness with Sarah (and knowing the satisfaction of a skill developed to perfection) and his compulsion to prove himself a winner in the eyes of others.

If Sarah turns out to be the compromised angel on Eddie's shoulder, Bert Gordon (a never-sharkier George C. Scott) is the devil. A black-hearted leech who makes his living by studying the odds and playing them, Bert decides to ride Eddie for all he's worth, all the way to the potentially lucrative rematch with Fats. Because he needs Bert's bankroll, Eddie endures the passive-agressive verbal abuse (which also finds its way to Sarah) and, on some level, believs he deserves and needs the flagellation to keep him hungry for the fight. Sarah and Eddie's out-of-sync development (Sarah: "I love you." Eddie: "Do you need the words?") contributes to the sinking feeling that the people in this universe will never be able to achieve the happiness they pine after like a lost love. With its surprising capacity for darkness (hard-learned by Rossen partly in his disspiriting bout with HUAC) and razor-sharp performances, The Hustler is compelling from start to finish.

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Aspect ratios: 2.34:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; Dolby Digital 2.0

Street date: 5/17/2011

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The Blu-ray debut of The Hustler is something of a mixed bag, though it's a winner in that it's clearly the best available version of the film on home video, with hi-def A/V and a great collection of bonus features. To my eye, the image at times has an unfortunate digital sheen or blur to it—is it a softness due to focus issues in the original element or a sign of digital noise reduction (given the inconspicuous film grain)? I'm not sure, and one could ask the same of the inconsistent black level, with blacks often running to the grey. These problems aside, the film source is clean, and there's much to be said in favor of the improved sharpness in the image, which unequivocally improves over the DVDs. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 mono options both sound quite fine: it's great to have both, and the 5.1 mix does a great job of separating the sound field into modern surround.

The Blu-ray has probably the best bonus feature package since the last classic Fox title: there's a wealth of new and archival documentaries here, as well as an elegantly pieced-together commentary by Paul Newman, Carol Rossen, Dede Allen, Stefan Gierasch, assistant director Ulu Grosbard, film critic Richard Schickel & Jeff Young that covers the bases of the film's history and import.

The brand-new “Paul Newman at Fox” (27:11, HD) is a terrific overview of Newman's Fox films with Newman: A Celebration author Eric Lax, USC professor Rick Jewell, author/film historian Tom Schatz, UCLA film professor Jonathan Kuntz, film critic Gene Shalit, and actor/Paul Newman’s script analyst Scott Klavan.

Also new, “Jackie Gleason: The Big Man” (12:04, HD) profiles Gleason with film clips and comments from Jewell, writer/comedian Michael Preminger, literary editor/author Patrick LoBrutto, writer/actor/director Rick Podell, and Schatz.

The last of the new featurettes, “The Real Hustler: Walter Tevis” (18:55, HD), is an utterly fascinating look at the ups and downs of the novelist, with comments by Tevis (1984 radio interview), son Will Tevis, daughter Julie Tevis McGory, wife Eleanora Tevis, LoBrutto, and writer Ross Klavan.

The previously released material includes “Life in the Fast Lane: Fast Eddie Felson and the Search for Greatness” (11:49, SD), a making-of retrospective with Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Michael Constantine, USC School of Cinema-Television Dr. Drew Casper, and editor Dede Allen. “Milestones in Cinema History: The Hustler(28:04, SD) pursues the same goal at greater length, with Newman, Allen, Constantine, Laurie, and Casper.

“Swimming with Sharks: The Art of the Hustle”
(9:38, SD) examines the real world of pool hustlers with Hustler Days author R.A. Dyer and IPT pro player Max Eberle.

The Hustler: The Inside Story” (24:32, SD) is a doc that gathers the thoughts of Robert Rossen’s daughter Carol Eve Rossen, Richard Schickel, pocket billiards historian Charles J. Ursitti, Willie’s Game author Stanley Cohen, Jerry Orbach, Grosbard, and world champion trick shot artist Mike Massey.

A&E Biography “Paul Newman: Hollywood’s Cool Hand” (43:44, SD) includes comments from Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Tom Bosley, childhood friend James Stotter, biographer Elena Oumano, wife Joanne Woodward, director Robert Wise, Angela Lansbury, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross, Susan Blakely, race car driver/instructor Bob Bondurant, and Susan Sarandon, as well as a wealth of archival footage and photos.

Also included are “Trick Shot Analysis by Mike Massey” (13:51, SD), “How to Make the Shot with Mike Massey” (3:41, SD), and the “Theatrical Trailer” (3:20, SD) and “Spanish Theatrical Trailer” (3:21, SD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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