I’m kicking myself. Martin Scorcese’s The Color of Money has long been a favorite of mine, but for some reason I never knew it was a sequel to The Hustler, a film 25 years older and three times better.
Starring a young Paul Newman (Road to Perdition) in a role that earned him his second Oscar nomination, The Hustler is about a cocky pool player hustling his way to the top. When “Fast Eddie” Felson (Newman) challenges undefeated straight-pool champ Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason,…Requiem for a Heavyweight) to a high stakes game, the talented young hustler shows he has the skills to be the best, but self-destructs toward the end of the 25-hour marathon match. Left near-penniless and without the managing partner who helped him get started in the seedy world of pool hustling, Eddie faces an uphill struggle to regain his confidence. Shacking up with smart, attractive and similarly self-destructive Sarah (Piper Laurie, Carrie) proves to be a decent diversion while Eddie wallows in misery, but while he uses her as a crutch, he becomes the cause of her destruction when he agrees to play for Bert Gordon (George C. Scott, Patton), a ruthless, greedy manager, and brings her along when they hit the road.
When working with Gordon only makes things much, much worse, Eddie realizes that if he’s to succeed, he’ll have to do it alone. Putting all his chips on the line, he heads back to the pool hall where his personal hell began, to challenge Minnesota Fats one last time.
This film is all about the character journey of Fast Eddie Felson, and it’s handled masterfully, from a crackling script to gorgeous cinematography and emotionally rich performances. Paul Newman is riveting, and I’m convinced it was this performance that lead to his eventual Oscar for the same role in Scorcese’s sequel, not his turn in that film. I’ve always known Newman to be a great actor, but it’s impressive to see him so good so early in his career. The supporting cast of Gleason, Scott and Laurie are also all standouts, creating characters and delivering lines that stay in your memory long after the credits roll.
I can’t imagine this film being made today, at least not anywhere near Hollywood. These days, a film about someone extremely talented at anything plays out in a very predictable fashion, with nowhere near the depth of character or thematic range of The Hustler. All of the characters in this film are flawed and deplorable in their own way, and the result is Eddie’s final redemption feeling all the more real because it grew from a truly dark place.
The Hustler is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. I don’t know whether this film has been restored since the previous Fox release, but either way it looks very good for a picture from 1961. Issues with the source film are consistently minor, with little more than the occasional shimmer effect drawing attention away from the story. The transfer brings out the rich detail of Eugene Shuftan’s Oscar-winning cinematography, with fairly deep blacks and good contrast in what is a very shadowy film. Even on shots with rapid motion, such as close-ups of pool shots, things stay strong. Overall, this is an impressive presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is everything you want in this classic. There isn’t much going on in The Hustler on the aural front, other than the film’s impeccable dialog, a smattering of pool sound effects and a jazzy but oft-absent score. Everything here is perfectly audible, which is about all you can ask of a film this old.
- Audio commentary: This is the same track offered on the last DVD release. It’s a great commentary, though, assembled from interviews and actual commentary recordings, and the well-balanced perspective draws from Paul Newman, Carol Rossen, Ulu Grosbard, film critic Richard Schickel, Dede Allen, and producer Jeff Young.
- Trick Shot Analysis: another holdover, this little feature offers some insight from pool expert Mike Massey on the film’s key pool shots. You can watch these individually, or activate them to pop up picture-in-picture style during the film. Neat concept, but terrible in execution. Massey spends way more time telling us what the characters are saying and doing, pointing out the big obvious stuff, rather than actually letting us in on the trick shots.
Hustler: The Inside Story: At about 25 minutes, this piece is very talky, but it offers a nice perspective on the background story, and how the film came together.
Life in the Fast Lane: Fast Eddie and the Search For Greatness: About 12 minutes on one of Newman’s finest characters. With new interviews from cast and crew, we learn a few new things, but also hear a lot of praise for Newman. Rightfully so, I suppose.
Milestones in Cinema History: The Hustler: 28 minutes, and with more of those new interviews. Here there’s more insight into director Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men), who wrote and directed the film. Definitely worth watching.
Swimming with Sharks: The Art of the Hustle: Much shorter at about nine minutes, this piece talks about the real world of pool hustling, with interviews from a couple of real-life pool sharks. Sometimes interesting, sometimes cheesy, it’s at least worth a look.
Paul Newman Biography: The full episode from A&E’s famed series, this is a welcome addition to the set. I wonder, will it appear on any other special editions of Newman films?
Paul Newman At Fox: This half-hour feature provides a ton of Hollywood writers and other folks who offer their thoughts on Newman and his career.
Jackie Gleason – The Big Man: The same folks turn their attention on Jackie Gleason.
The Real Hustler – Walter Tevis: This 19 minute radio interview is from 1984.
If you haven’t seen The Hustler, you simply must track it down to experience a truly great film, the likes of which we so seldom see from Hollywood studios constantly shooting for the next big blockbuster franchise. If you already know and love The Hustler, perhaps it’s time to experience it again with this high-definition release.
Includes material by Gino Sassani.