by TOM NIXON
In the wake of Paul Newman’s death it seems appropriate to revisit one of his most lasting performances, a devastating depiction of self-destruction by a man who always seemed to avoid the glamorous roles. Newman’s “fast Eddie” can be seen as a milestone ushering in the emergence of character-centric films about flawed heroes – his handsome cocky grin naught but a mask thinly veiling a wealth of insecurities. The Hustler is not a film about pool but a film about human frailty and foolishness, a love story doomed by the defective nature of its constituents.
Our first encounter with Eddie sees him strutting about the pool table like a born winner. In a world of greedy animals he would appear to be king, successfully hustling with all the charm, confidence and exaggerated drunkenness required. Newman is pure screen presence, he has us fooled as badly as his opponents. But Eddie’s problem, as soon becomes apparent in his match against “best player in the country” Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), is that he never knows when to quit. $18000 dollars ahead, he squanders it all with stubbornness clearly symptomatic of deeper issues – he’s just looking for an excuse to lose. The dim filtered lighting adds an inimitable authenticity and sleazy intimacy to every pool scene, while Gleason (described by Eddie as moving “like a dancer”) brings unexpected grace and calm wisdom to proceedings, methodically keeping himself neat as though impossible to ruffle. The contrast with an increasingly drunk, imploding Newman could not be clearer.
Depressed by his self-inflicted failure, Eddie meets an off-kilter alcoholic named Sarah (Piper Laurie) whilst sulking at a bus station, and in desperation to flee their respective pains they quickly become attached. He finally has the companionship he so clearly covets, but his mind remains fixated on a rematch with Fats, and he continues hustling with the intention of winning enough money to launch another challenge. He repeatedly encounters Bert Gordon (George C. Scott, brilliantly eyeing his surroundings like a hungry shark), a wealthy gambler and the sly, unscrupulous villain of the piece. Gordon sees himself as a genuine born winner, and it soon becomes clear that he’s out to crush the wallet and the spirit of “born losers” like Eddie. He offers to manage Eddie, telling him he has unrivalled talent but he’s lacking in character.
Eddie initially refuses, but after getting his thumbs broken by men who can’t abide pool sharks, there’s a crucial picnic scene where Eddie admits to Sarah he is troubled by Gordon’s words. He speaks of the pool cue as though it is an extension of his manhood – only at the top of his game does he really feel alive. Sarah tries to convince him that he’s a winner because most men never feel so alive – she professes her love for him – but infuriatingly none of these warnings sink in. Eddie goes back to Gordon, and the events which result are made all the more tragic by their inevitability. It’s clear to the viewer that Sarah is the highest stake of all, but Eddie is too focused on a hollow victory against Fats to embrace what he has already won, and so he loses everything all over again. The overwhelmingly bleak conclusion suggests that we can truly learn only from the mistakes that cripple us, and by then it’s too late.
The two-disc collector’s edition DVD boasts an array of features, including around 2 hours of documentary footage, a commentary (involving 7 people including Newman), trick shot analysis by expert Mike Massey, a number of trailers and some stills.
New releases this week: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, The Flight of the Red Balloon, The Incredible Hulk, The Strangers