Judge Daryl Loomis is a scratch pool player, but that doesn't mean the same as it does in golf.
Our review of Paul Newman: The Tribute Collection, published October 12th, 2009, is also available.
It's not enough to have talent. You also have to have character.
For the uninitiated, pool may look like a bunch of colored balls rolling around on felt, but for those who play, the game is pure magic. It is a controlled chaos that, in each game, involves unique combinations of skill, style, calm, and an instinctual knowledge of trigonometry. It is a game of angles, both in the obvious motion of the balls, but also in how the player approaches the game. The game is as simple as shooting straighter than your opponent, but as complex as getting into your opponent's head and waiting for just the right moment to turn your fortunes and separate them from their bankroll. Like the game it so brilliantly represents, The Hustler is a simple movie about con men and their game, but also a complex study of human nature and the drive to succeed. It's a beautiful film that works on many levels, and Fox has given it an equally lovely treatment in their Blu-ray DigiBook series.
Facts of the Case
Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman, The Verdict) hustles pool and does it remarkably well. Having built a tidy nest egg parting fools from their money, it's time for Felson to face his ultimate goal. He travels from Oakland to New York to take on the best, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason, Requiem for a Heavyweight). After an all night match, Felson collapses, a broken loser with no money or hope. That's when he meets Sarah (Piper Laurie, Twin Peaks), a drunk without a prospect in the world. She cares, though, and that's enough for Eddie. With her help and the backing of a ruthless patron (George C. Scott, The Flim-Flam Man), Felson works his way back to that pool hall to give it one more shot.
Forget the smoky billiard hall trappings and the fact that it represents so well a game I truly love, The Hustler is simply a beautifully constructed classical drama about losers and their dreams of winning. Fast Eddie is an everyman; a flawed figure whose inarguable talent is undermined by a hubris that destroys him and takes everything he has. Felson's ideal is Minnesota Fats, a player who is not technically any more skilled than the kid, but over time, Fats has learned that ability is only as important as the character who wields it. Fats has class; that's what separates him from Felson, but the road to that is paved in loss and heartbreak. Only after he's gone on a journey can he return to the pool hall.
Pool may only be a metaphor for the character's search for himself, but what an incredible job director Robert Rossen (All the King's Men) did in showing off the game. The 40 minutes that make up the pre-credit montage and the opening scene is near-perfect cinema, a brilliant encapsulation of the game. The writing, the performances, and the cinematography are in total consonance as they create a seamless study of place and character. From the moment Felson walks into the hall to the moment he collapses, it feels more like I'm a spectator at the hall than a viewer on my couch.
The strength of Rossen's direction and Eugen Schüfftan's (Eyes Without a Face) cinematography are certainly formidable, but they fall into the background by the weight of the performances. While still being his super-cool self, Newman still manages to pull so much pathos out of such a loser as Felton. Gleason is truly one of the best entertainers of his generation, and though most recall little more than The Honeymooners, given the breadth of work during his career, nobody should be surprised at his turn as Minnesota Fats. Plus, the guy could shoot some serious stick. They're both great, and Piper Laurie is more than fine in her role, but the real standout is George C. Scott, who shows incredible assuredness in a very early role. His character is the real hustler of the film, an unscrupulous heel who cares about nothing more than his pocketbook. It's a disgusting character, made great by Scott.
This is the first of Fox's Blu-ray Box editions that I've seen and, from the looks of it, I want to see more. The image transfer is absolutely terrific, with great clarity, a very nice grain structure, and essentially no defects or errors. There are a few very minor defects, but they're hardly noticeable. The detail is a huge improvement over any previous edition and it generally looks great, but the most outstanding aspect is the contrast. Rossen didn't have to shoot The Hustler in black and white, but the decision makes all the difference to the film, and it's never looked so stark as it does here. The blacks are very deep and the whites are very bright. Fox did a good job with their 2007 release, but the upgrade in Hi-Def is pretty big. The sound isn't as big an improvement, but it's still quite good. The 5.1 DTS Master Audio track doesn't add a whole lot to the film, and purists will want to stick with the mono track, which is all that's necessary. Still, there's a wider field of sound in surround sound and, though I'd never choose it over the original, it's pretty good.
The extras are really where the release shines, though. Fox has included all the extras off the '07 release, plus a few extra tidbits that hammer this release home as the definitive edition of The Hustler. We start with an audio commentary with a whole slew of people, including Paul Newman, critic Robert Schickel, editor Dede Allen, and many more. It's extremely informative, but it's moderated; the participants aren't in the room together and it feels disjointed.
The heart of the extras are in the featurettes, though. Starting with the new stuff all of which has been produced in high-def:
Paul Newman at Fox is a half hour documentary on Newman's time at the studio. It's thorough and interesting, detailing most of the films he did for Fox, and is well worth watching.
Jackie Gleason: The Big Man is shorter, only twelve minutes, but is an excellent piece. I love Gleason and I love seeing footage of the guy; he was just such an all around talent. It could have been longer, but it's pretty good.
The Real Hustler: Walter Tevis is a twenty minute look at Tevis, who wrote the novel, as well as that of The Color of Money, awful as that film may be. I didn't know a thing about him, so this was pretty valuable.
The last new piece is the packaging, which includes a 24-page discussion of the film and the actors. It's not quite the quality of Criterion's sets, but it's a classy package.
The features that have been imported over from the previous edition are great, too:
Life in the Fast Lane: Fast Eddie Felson and the Search for Greatness runs 12 minutes and deals with Paul Newman's character, talking fairly in depth about what made Eddie Felson tick. It's good stuff.
Milestones in Cinema: The Hustler is a shorter and more general piece on the film. Not as strong as what we've seen thus far, but still worth watching.
Swimming with Sharks: The Art of the Hustle is exactly what it sounds like. A 10 minute look at hustling in general, this is a lot of fun, if less relevant to the film itself.
The Hustler: The Inside Story is more of the same. There's quite a bit of repeated information by this point, but there's enough here to give it some value.
Paul Newman: Hollywood's Cool Hand is from the long-running Biography series that I can't stand. Not surprisingly, I don't care much for this one.
Finally we get two short pieces with pool legend Mike Massey, Trick Shot Analysis and How to Make the Shot. If you like trick pool, these are worth your time. If you don't, well, they're cool shots anyway. An English and a Spanish trailer round us out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is no doubt that The Hustler is a classic film, but it's not a perfect one. Through the end of the first pool scene, Rossen's film is essentially perfect. The second section, though, goes on too long. The performances are as fantastic as ever, but he stretched the story. The Hustler is about desire, not love, and while the Sarah character is important to the rebuilding of Eddie Felson, they get caught up in their courtship and it feels very long.
Despite the fact that it could be twenty minutes shorter, The Hustler is my favorite sports film. I suppose that's in part because I don't really like sports movies and this is only about its sport in an ancillary way, but the performances, storytelling, and cinematography are so brilliant, that it's hard to really complain that much about an extra few minutes of it. On top of it, the total package of Fox's Blu-ray Box is gorgeous. This is a collector's set that fans of the film will absolutely want to own.
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