Thursday, October 31, 2013

1961 - The Hustler

Well, this current year of review is certainly taking its time. At this rate, I'll never finish this project. But as long as I review more films in 2013 than are nominated next January, I'll take that as a win...

To be fair, it's been a busy few months. In July, I went to Baltimore to guest star in an episode of the second season of House of Cards. Look out for that on Netflix early next year. In September, Kat's and my theatre company produced (and she starred in and I directed) a successful run of an Aussie musical called Once We Lived Here. And I'm currently starring as Puck in a crazy production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which all the other actors draw their characters from a hat at the beginning of each performance. (I get to play Puck every night, though.) But the biggest news of all is that Kat and I are expecting our first child in March, so I'll be trying to get as many reviews in before then. In fact, the due date is right around the Oscar ceremony this year, so I may finally find something that trumps my viewing of the Academy Awards.

Let's move on now to another Best Picture nominee from 1961...

The Hustler
Robert Rossen
Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen
(based on the novel by Walter Tevis)
Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, Myron McCormick, Murray Hamilton
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
2 wins, for Black-and-White Cinematography and Art Direction

Fast Eddie Felson (Newman) is a brash pool hustler, excited to take on nationally renowned Minnesota Fats (Gleason). After initially winning over $10,000, Eddie's inability to quit while he's ahead combined with his alcoholism result in him finishing the day-and-a-half pool marathon with only $200 to his name. Scrounging around for more games to play, Eddie eventually strikes up a relationship with fellow alcoholic Sarah Packard (Laurie), but the romance struggles as Eddie's focus remains on figuring out a way to raise the stakes to challenge Fats to a rematch.

The Hustler is the kind of movie that makes aspiring filmmakers sick. Everything just falls into place so expertly that it hardly seems fair. It's riveting and tension-filled, yet it delivers all of this with a wry smile throughout. In fact, it's almost as if there are two movies happening at the same time. One is a pseudo sports film, complete with tense game-play and surprising outcomes. The other is a gritty relationship drama, full of emotion and struggle. Together, they are story-telling at its most brilliant.

Indeed, the very first scene is so well-structured and clever that it's hard not to smile as you watch it. It's only a shame that the film's title gives away what's going to happen. However, despite this knowledge, it's still enjoyable to watch it unfold. And in a way, it sets up a sort of fake-out for the rest of the movie. There were several scenes in which I wasn't entirely sure whether Eddie was genuinely losing or just waiting for the right moment to reveal the hustle. I suppose you could say that the film hustled me.

Most of the performances are small and noir-like, which hits the spot for my liking. Paul Newman (pictured) is ahead of his time with a superbly natural portrayal of this issues-riddled man. Jackie Gleason, too, is surprisingly subtle for a man known for his histrionic comedy. And both possess impressive pool-playing skills. It's actually them making most of those shots. Piper Laurie is a much-needed shot of estrogen in an otherwise testosterone-heavy movie, overcoming the occasional 1960s sexist caricatures of her character by presenting an interesting and flawed woman. It's always a pleasure watching George C. Scott, and his performance as the charming yet ruthless manager is fantastic. The main cast receives wonderful support from seasoned character man Murray Hamilton (previously seen on this blog in The Graduate and Jaws) as an eccentric millionaire, who almost seems like a Bond villain with his calm demeanour and unique way of holding cigarettes. And yep, that's boxing champion (and Raging Bull subject) Jake LaMotta as the bartender in the opening scene.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations to you and Kate on your upcoming parenthood. That's wonderful news. Now lets see...if my math is correct, sometime between reporting on Fanny and West Side Story....

    The Hustler is a riveting, moody tale of a young man with loads of talent but little character. It is only through emotional and physical tragedy that he develops character. This was the first film I saw that convinced me that Paul Newman was quite an actor. It was a significant improvement over Somebody Up There Likes Me. I was pulling for him at the Oscars. George C. Scott was absolutley chilling and nine years before he refused his Best Actor Oscar for Patton, he tried to withdraw his name from the nomination list for Best Supporting Actor. The Academy issued a statement something to the effect that it was his performance, not him personally, that was under consideration, and thus denied his request. When he lost to George Chakiris, it probably reinforced his disdain for awards.

    An interesting bit of trivia from IMDB was that The Hustler was one of the first films to use a pre-credit sequence. I enjoyed watching this movie again. It captured the mood of the time period so well.