20TH CENTURY FOX
Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, Myron McCormick, Murray Hamilton
Sidney Carroll, Robert Rossen, based on the novel by Walter Tevis
They Called Him "Fast Eddie"
Won for Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration.
Nominated for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor-Paul Newman; Best Actress-Piper Laurie; Best Supporting Actor-Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott; Best Screenplay.
English Dolby Stereo
English Digital Mono
Runtime: 135 min.
Release Date: 6/4/2002
• Audio Commentary from Actors Paul Newman and Stefan Gierasch, Carol Rossen (Daughter of Director Robert Rossen), Editor Dede Allen, Assistant Director Ulu Grosbard, Time Magazine Critic Richard Schickel, and Film Historian Jeff Young
• “The Inside Story” Documentary
• Still Gallery
Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
The Hustler (1961)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Because I tend to do things backwards, I saw 1986’s The Color of Money well before I watched 1961’s The Hustler. The former is the sequel to the latter, which meant I checked them out in the reverse order.
Because I am ass-backwards, for quite some time I strongly preferred Money to The Hustler. I thought the 1986 piece offered a terrific experience, what with its go-go pool scenes and Eighties high drama. The original flick, on the other hand, seemed boring and plodding, and it lacked the high-flying spirit of the sequel.
Some will claim I’m still an idiot, but this discussions proves that I was even more of a moron 15 years ago. I rewatched Money a few years back and felt quite disappointed by it. Essentially, Martin Scorsese created a two-hour beer commercial that lacked any real connection to the original film. The Eighties Eddie Felson bore no resemblance whatsoever to the Sixties one, other than the fact both looked a lot like Paul Newman. Anti-heroes weren’t allowed in mid-Eighties Reagan-era America, so everything was sunny and shallow.
I can’t recall when I last saw The Hustler, so I really didn’t know if I’d like it more than I did back when I preferred Money. Now that I’ve watched it again, I can definitely state that it offers a vastly superior experience. Though not without some of its own dated elements, The Hustler generally provides a rich and rewarding drama.
As noted, Newman plays “Fast” Eddie Felson, an exceedingly cocky pool shark. After a quick scene in we he establishes his credentials with some suckers, Eddie and his financial partner Charlie Burns (Myron McCormick) head to Ames Pool Hall in New York to challenge the best of the best, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Although he crushes Fats for a while, Eddie doesn’t know when to quit, and he eventually leaves Ames as a beaten man.
This sends him into a downward spiral of aimlessness, but he eventually meets Sarah (Piper Laurie), a boozehound who haunts the local bus station as she waits for the bars to open. These two emotionally flawed people latch onto each other and start their very own co-dependent relationship well before the term became popular. However, it does seem to benefit them after a fashion, especially when Felson takes an involuntary leave of absence from hustling after some toughs bust his thumbs.
However, his walk down the straight-and-narrow doesn’t last, as he soon gets tempted back into the pool racket. Con man Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) offers Eddie a deal to be his backer, and though Felson doesn’t like the 75/25 split that strongly favors Gordon, he knows he must take it to get back into the swing of things. Sarah fears this means the end of her relationship with Eddie, so he brings her with them down to New Orleans, where they plan to scam a wealthy man named Findley (Murray Hamilton). For reasons I’ll leave vague, things don’t go so well in the Big Easy. In the end, Eddie returns to Ames to challenge Fats once again, but don’t expect a rollicking slam-bang happy ending.
The Hustler isn’t that kind of film, and thank God it doesn’t take the easy path. The Color of Money tried to remake Hustler as a happy flick. That defeats the whole purpose, really. It’s like having Ilsa miss the plane, or keeping Rhett with Scarlet - some movies work best when they don’t give the audience the easy out, and The Hustler falls into that category.
Newman wouldn’t win an Oscar until Money, but he deserved one for his supple and powerful performance as Felson. After I watched the film, I cued up the start again so I could tape the audio commentary. (I put these on cassettes and listen to them in the car.) I briefly watched a little of the opening and felt stunned to see that Felson came across as a totally different person at each end of the film. Newman makes the transition seamlessly. It never feels like he actively pushes the character toward something else. Instead, the progression moves effortlessly and naturally. From the cocky and smug pool shark of the opening scenes to the bitter and angry “winner” of the ending, Newman covers all the bases and does so remarkably well.
He also receives support from a roster of solid actors. Scott brings the right level of smarmy arrogance to Bert. A character totally devoid of merit, Scott nonetheless avoids creating a cartoon villain, and he brings strength and depth to the role. As the self-loathing Sarah, Laurie skips the showiness many actresses would bring to the part. She makes Sarah quietly jaded and lacks the overt bitterness one might expect.
On the surface, The Hustler looks like a movie about pool. No, that’s The Color of Money. The Hustler really concerns a tragic love story, and the relationship between Eddie and Sarah remains at the heart of the film. When I first saw - and disliked - The Hustler all those years ago, the love story caused much of my dissatisfaction. I wanted more pool, man!
Now I see what a crucial component the Eddie/Sarah relationship offers. The film deals with Felson’s development in both positive and negative ways, and his interaction with Sarah prompts much of that. A movie with more pool and less romantic drama might have been more fun, but it would have lacked this flick’s effectiveness.
I felt pleased that director Robert Rossen avoided the easy way out during The Hustler. Not only did he skip the peppy and happy ending, but he also told the tale in a way I’m not sure a studio would allow these days. For example, the first 36 or so minute of The Hustler provide exposition that takes place in pool halls! The initial battle between Felson and Fats goes on much longer than I’d expect, and I seriously doubt many directors would now be willing or able to devote so much time to that endeavor. It’s crucial, however, and not a moment of it seems wasted.
Rossen also used the widescreen frame to terrific advantage. Fox should have provided a comparison between the widescreen and pan and scan transfers, as The Hustler offers one of the all-time great comparisons of why original aspect ratio should be king. Rossen totally packed the frame with information; the composition seemed sublime. Perhaps part of my original dislike for The Hustler stemmed from the fact I saw in on videotape in the pan and scan transfer; I imagine the movie would make much less sense, since so many characters and elements would disappear!
Whatever the case may be, obviously I changed my mind about The Hustler. The film showed some dated elements, but the rich storytelling and superb acting helped make it a terrific experience. Feh on the crummy sequel - The Hustler is the real deal.
The DVD Grades: Picture B+ / Audio C- / Bonus B
The Hustler appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. A few problems kept the picture from greatness, but overall I found the image to appear almost shockingly excellent.
Sharpness seemed virtually immaculate. Throughout the film, the picture remained precise and rock-solid. The only noticeable examples of mild softness occurred during the credits, as the shots lost a little tightness due to the superimposed text. Otherwise, the movie came across as crisp and detailed. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, and print flaws seemed extremely minor. Some light edge enhancement marred the image at times, and I saw a few examples of speckles and grit. However, the various defects seemed exceedingly minor given the age of the film; this was a very clean print.
Black levels came across as terrific as well. They appeared nicely deep and rich throughout the movie, and contrast was absolutely perfect. The DVD provided a very satisfying black and white tone that showed no faltering. Shadow detail looked clear and appropriately opaque, with no issues related to excessive darkness. I badly wanted to give The Hustler an “A” grade, for it looked so amazing, especially given its age. However, I regard edge enhancement as a major problem. Even though The Hustler didn’t suffer from much of that concern, it still appeared significant enough for me to lower my grade to a “B+”. Despite that, this remained a stunning transfer.
Unfortunately, the stereo soundtrack didn’t live up to the high standards set by the picture. Some studios do good multichannel remixes of monaural source material, but Fox doesn’t seem to get it. I disliked the stereo tracks heard on the recent Marilyn Monroe “Diamond Collection 2” releases and also found problems within the remix of The Hustler.
The soundfield itself wasn’t an issue. For the most part, it offered broad mono. The audio spread modestly to the side channels but remained fairly heavily anchored in the center. A few scenes worked better than others did; for example, a rainstorm demonstrated moderate breadth across the front. However, overall this remained a pretty centered track.
That didn’t bother me, but the method in which the audio has been altered did cause concerns. As also marred many of the Monroe tracks, the sound of the stereo mix displayed an excessive sense of reverb. Everything gets a layer of echo that made the whole track sound artificial.
Happily, however, the DVD also included the original monaural mix, which offered a much more satisfying experience. It didn’t seem like a stellar piece of work, but the audio sounded good for its era. Speech was reasonably natural and distinct, and I heard no problems related to edginess or intelligibility. Music seemed clear and acceptably bright, while effects were clean and accurate. The track lacked much depth, but it still remained adequate for the period. I heard a little background noise at times, but this never became a distraction. It’s my policy to only formally grade the “most multichannel” mix on a DVD, which is why The Hustler got a “C-“ above. However, the mono track earned a solid “B-“ and is the one to play.
For this special edition release of The Hustler, we find a moderate collection of extras. Most significant is an audio commentary that features a variety of participants. We hear from actors Paul Newman and Stefan Gierasch, Carol Rossen (daughter of director Robert Rossen), editor Dede Allen, assistant director Ulu Grosbard, Time Magazine critic Richard Schickel, and film historian Jeff Young. Hosted by Stuart Galbraith, this edited program uses an interview format that makes it unusual. Galbraith asks the questions, which we hear; many commentaries feature interviewers, but few become audible during the track.
I know some folks don’t like this kind of commentary, but I enjoy them, and the piece for The Hustler worked very well. One warning, however: the track often digresses onto topics not directly about the film. In particular, we learn a lot about the career of director Rossen and his involvement in the “red scare” of the era. No mention of this appears anywhere else on the DVD, so these elements become particularly compelling. Otherwise, we learn some good notes about the movie and other elements, as the commentary offers an entertaining and well-developed piece.
After this we get some video extras. The Hustler: The Inside Story provides a new featurette about the film. It lasts 24 minutes and 30 seconds as it combines scenes from the film, production and behind the scenes stills, some newsreel footage and new interviews. In the latter category, we hear from Carol Rossen, Richard Schickel, Ulu Grosbard, world artistic pool champion Mike Massey, actor Jerry Orbach, pocket billiards historian Charles J. Ursitti, and Stanley Cohen, author of Willie’s Game.
“Inside Story” offers a reasonably compelling discussion of the film. It starts with a quick bio of director Rossen and then moves through casting, the history of pool, a look at Willie Mosconi, a chat about hustling, and some material about Mosconi and Minnesota Fats. It provides a look at the movie’s premiere in Washington, DC. The show ends somewhat abruptly, and it spends surprisingly little time on the movie itself; don’t expect a full examination of the production. However, the commentary covers most of those issues, and not much repeats between the two. Instead, “Inside Story” gives us an engaging look at some other elements related to the film, and it does so well.
Although How to Make the Shot and Trick Shot Analysis By World Champion Trick Shot Artist Mike Massey appear to be two different pieces, they really offer different ways to access the same footage. Go with the latter route and video pops up during the movie, while the former method lets you watch the material on its own.
What this gives us is five different clips that demonstrate how some of the movie’s trick shots were accomplished. The segments last between 25 seconds and 84 seconds for a total of three minutes and 25 seconds of footage. Unfortunately, this piece seems more “show” than “tell”. Massey doesn’t really let us know how to make the shots ourselves; we watch him do it but never quite learn the secret. That makes the piece less than useful.
We get a small Behind the Scenes Gallery as well. This includes a whopping nine photos that mix production stills, candid shots from the set, and advertisements. The DVD also provides trailers for a number of Newman flicks. We find both the US and Spanish-subtitled theatrical trailers for The Hustler as well as clips for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hombre and The Verdict.
Lastly, The Hustler features the THX Optimizer. Also found on many other DVDs, this purports to help you set up your system for the best reproduction of both picture and sound, ala stand-alone programs such as Video Essentials. I’ve never tried the Optimizer since I’m happy with my settings, but if you don’t own something such as Essentials, the Optimizer may help you improve picture and audio quality.
Despite my much-earlier dislike for The Hustler, I now find it to offer a pretty terrific piece of work. Buoyed by some daring storytelling and excellent acting, the film holds up well after four decades. The DVD offers surprisingly strong picture quality along with erratic sound. The stereo mix is a mess, but the original monaural track works fine. In addition, the disc provides a smattering of good extras. With a low list price of $19.98, The Hustler comes strongly recommended.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3888 Stars|| Number of Votes: 36|