By Leo Racicot
The Hustler – dir. Robert Rossen – 1961
Paul Newman did not take Hollywood by storm with his first film, The Silver Chalice. In fact, in characteristic joking mode (he was a great kidder!), he actually took out an ad in the trades apologizing profusely to filmgoers for that cinematic travesty. Following in the footsteps of such giants as Brando, Clift, James Dean, Newman chopped a huge chunk off the pedestal of stylized acting, making his performances and acting in general seem real and accessible. Human beings. Unlike Brando, whose characters always seemed unreal, even freakish, Newman’s natural accessibility as a person as well as an actor made you think that here was a guy you could sit down and have a beer with and shoot the breeze with. He became one of Hollywood’s most-loved stars, in part, because though there was no way he (or anyone!) could ever have subsumed those Olympian good looks, that choirboy’s smile, the eyes bluer than all the Seven Seas put together, the body Adonis would have been jealous of (those pelvic “davids”!!!), filled with sexiness and swagger, he focused all his working energies AWAY from them; he cared nothing for being a pretty boy of the movies; his aim was higher and truer and it showed.
The Hustler is beautiful and brilliant in its simplicity, and Newman and cast are brilliant in it. Everything about it is solid and good — the script, the characters, the situations. A lot of the best movies ever made (and Hustler is one of them) are about not winners but losers. This is a movie about people going down fast because they are trying too hard to rise. This is especially true of Newman’s Eddie Felson, a down-on-his-luck pool shark wannabe. The film hits us hard with the delicious clatter of one poolhall ball hitting another. The slinky, jazzy soundtrack straight away snakes its way up our spine. We care about these characters because they seem like people we COULD know, or DO know, people always two or three steps away from success and one step away from falling down the dark ladder.
Newman is a marvel; he owns scene after scene because even as a young actor, he KNEW who he was — watch how he works a cigarette; the way he cocks his head or tilts it to the side to create a fake arrogance; his shy, downcast eyes revealing (perhaps?) the soul that sulks underneath; the way he utilizes his pulpy mouth to sneer, or seduce.
The great Piper Laurie had come from Broadway theater to play the part of Sarah. Her crippled, alcoholic wreck is a revelation and her Academy Award for Best Actress is richly deserved. Look for the “I’m not drunk; I’m lame” scene. Adding to the luster of this wonderful duo is Jackie Gleason’s “Minnesota Fats”. Gleason, who was already well-known to television audiences as a great clown and star, brings the needed static balance to Newman’s fast-moving, fast-talking con. Notice how the more Newman moves, the more Gleason DOESN’T, creating the tension and nail-biting their scenes together need (one beautiful piece of Gleason trivia: it was HIS idea to make “Minnesota Fats” such a classy act that he wore a flower in the lapel of his overcoat. When the overcoat is removed, voila! There is a flower in the lapel of his suit and Gleason says he pictured that if “Fats” ever took off his shirt, he would have a flower pinned to his skin!)
Director Robert Rossen, whose reputation rested on making powerful, searing dramas (All the King’s Men), chose deliberately to shoot in black-and-white. He wanted to achieve a look of social realism and felt color could not give him what he desired. His films are stark and dirty. You can almost feel and smell the stink of real New York City poolhalls and streets. Co-star Mico Kaufman said he “wanted to go home and take a bath” after the day’s shooting was through. From the start, Rossen wants us to feel that way too, to feel how real this story and its people are. Notice the freeze-frame openings credits — they contribute beautifully to the action that is to come. Most of all, Rossen sought to use the little cripples of the world as metaphor FOR the world. People fall down, get up, fall down again. Note how Sarah does not limp in every scene; Rossen felt if she did, she would become too much of a caricature. He wants to keep us in the dark as to whether his characters will win. Eddie and Sarah are bruised individuals, both self-destructive, pipe-dreaming, weak, frightened people. The movie breaks our hearts watching their attempts to rescue each other
“Only the angel who falls knows the depths of Hell” says the poster slogan for “The Hustler”. It remains one of the best examples of film realism the movies have. And Paul Newman! The world is less of a world without him. A great actor. A fine human being. Films like The Hustler ensure that his star will always shine in cinematic Paradise.