Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Art of the Hustle

 The Also Rans (Post #1)

This post is part of an ongoing series that will cover movies that were nominated for Oscars in all five of what is affectionately known as the "Big Five" (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay), but failed to win any of those awards.

Years ago, there were thousands of pool halls across America.  These weren't the glitzy, yuppie-infused hangouts of today, where college students go to drink and pick up potential sexual liaisons, with pool being just a side attraction.   These were low-lit halls where working men went to play pool and relax.  As one of the proprietors says to Eddie Felson early in The Hustler, there's "no bar, no pinball machines, no bowling alley.  Just pool."

The aura of The Hustler is one that will either attract you or repulse you.  The grittiness of the movie and the seedier sections of the towns where these pool halls are located seems to have an effect on the viewer.  Personally, I would find such an atmosphere intimidating at first, but once I got adjusted to it, I think I would start to appreciate the lack of pretense.  It's too bad I was a little late coming into the world because I would dearly love to find such places.  You however, may feel like you want to go wash your hands after seeing this movie, and that's OK.

One of the things that makes this movie work so well was the decision to film it in black and white.  Of course, Robert Rossen, the director of the film, preferred to work in black and white anyway, but the darkness of the story works much better in this medium.  I refer you to the sequel, The Color of Money, which was made some 25 years later, and was filmed in color.   Although that movie, directed by Martin Scorcese, is very good, it just doesn't have the zing of the original.

Paul Newman was not the first choice of Rossen.  He wanted Frank Sinatra, whom he expected would have made an extension in portrayal jumping off from his character in The Man with the Golden Arm (a movie about a heroin addict).  But Sinatra was not available.  Other actors were sought after and auditioned, including Jack Lemmon and Cliff Robertson, but Newman got the nod for the role and history was made.

Piper Laurie was a relative newcomer when this movie was made.  She had been in a few movies, but nothing really substantial until The Hustler.  Her performance as an alcoholic and part-time college student was a bravura portrayal.  Unfortunately, nothing came her way after her Oscar nominated performance and she decided to marry and retire from acting.  Her next role didn't come for 15 years when she was again nominated for an Oscar for her role as the evil mom in Carrie.

Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott were also nominated for Oscars in the Best Supporting Actor category.  Gleason, in particular, stands out because he manages to essay the role of Minnesota Fats with a minimum of dialogue but a maximum of body language.  The cool pool wizard (Gleason was a prety good pool player in his own right, BTW) manages to be a presence in the movie just by being on camera.  Scott also puts forth a grand performance, as described by one writer I read, "a devil in sunglasses".

The fantastic part of this movie is it never drags, not even once.  The scenes in which the action primarily involves playing the game of pool are especially entrancing.  The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies by Ray Didinger and Glen Macnow rank this movie as #8, and the website digitaldreamdoor ranks it as #2.  While you may wonder how pool is considered a sport, ranked with football, basketball and baseball and the like, I remind you that quite often ESPN has broadcast pool tournaments, and I personally think pool is more exciting to watch than tennis.  I won't even discuss how uninteresting it is to watch people play poker.

The Hustler (1961)

"Fast Eddie" Felson (Paul Newman) and is partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) arrive in a town, claiming to be on their way to a convention.  Felson hustles some money from the locals and they continue on their way.  Eddie has plans to meet with the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) and challenge him to play pool for big money. Eddie is the up and coming wizard and already has a legend following him.  But he is a victim of his own making because he is an alcoholic and sometimes lets his drinking get in the way of his playing.

When he finally meets up with Fats he manages to beat the pool legend for a total of  $18,000, but his ego and his drinking get in the way and he loses all but $200 of it right back to the fat man.  He is hampered by the fact that Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) has insulted his ego by calling him a "loser" and encouraging Fats to keep playing him.  A falling out occurs between Eddie and Charlie and Eddie leaves the hotel room in which he and Charlie are staying, leaving half of the $200 with him.

 At a bus terminal Eddie meets Sarah (Piper Laurie).  They chat for a while and Eddie tries to put the make on her, but she becomes nervous and dismisses him.  Eddie meets up again with Bert who again calls him a "born loser", saying that he has talent but that he lacks character.  Bert tells him he will stake Eddie to play Fats again, but he wants a 75-25 split of the winnings, with bert getting the lion's share.  Eddie scoffs at this prospect.

Eddie and Sarah meet up again, and the relationship begins to blossom.  He moves in with her.  He wonders where she gets her money, since she seems to have no job, and she is not very forthright in revealing her situation, but these are two people who know where they stand in society and he accepts her ruse.

Eddie hustles a local shark and in revenge the shark and his buddies break Eddie's thumbs.  Unable to play pool for the time being he becomes entirely dependent on Sarah.  After he heals from his injuries, Bert reappears with his offer and Eddie decides that "25% of something is better than 100% of nothing" and agrees to the deal.  Bert takes Eddie to Louisville here Bert has a prospect for Eddie, a rich man who loves to play and gamble.  But the game turns out to be carom billiards instead of pocket pool, which Eddie had never played, and he promptly loses.

Telling Bert that he knows he can win, he continues to play and manages to win a substantial amount which nets Eddie the $3000 stake he needs to play Fats again.  Bert  and Eddie have a falling out after Sarah commits suicide, a result of her humiliation from having a sexual encounter with the evil Bert. 

The final encounter, between Eddie and Fats is one to see.  Once again Eddie is on his game.  It plays out just as you would probably expect from a 60's movie, but it is well worth seeing.

As stated in the prologue, The Hustler was nominated for all five categories of the "Big Five".  In case you were wondering, here are the winners who actually got to go home with those statuettes:

Best Picture:  West Side Story
Best Director: Robert Wise for West Side Story
Best Actor: Maximillian  Schell for Judgement at Nuremberg
Best Actress: Sophia Loren for Two Women
Best Screenplay: Abby Mann for Judgement at Nuremberg

As an added note, The Hustler did take home two Oscars, on for Best Art Direction and one for Best Cinematography, both in the "Black and White category.

That's it for this first entry.  Hope you enjoyed it.




  1. Ohhhhhhhhhhh, it has been way too long since I watched this movie. It entrances me, and I'm not entirely sure why, but... it does. Probably because Newman is just on fire in it, and I do enjoy playing pool (even though I'm pretty lousy at it).

    1. I'm not very good at pool. I won a 4th place trophy in college once, but I maneuvered to play my first round against a guy I knew I could beat and the second round I won because the guy accidentally pocket the 8 ball too early. Got my ass kicked in the third and the fourth rounds (the last being to determine who would get third and fourth place.) Thanks for reading.

  2. Terrific article on a very important would have definitely won some of those key Oscars had it not been for Judgment at Nuremberg, which I love but is much more of a meta-history-important-social-commentary film that alwys claims the big awards.

    This is one of Newman's very best, and I too admire the talented Piper Laurie but it is always the intense performance of funnyman Jackie Gleason that gets me here. He never did anything quite so dramatic again.

    Love your theme, Quiggy, you are obviously inspired and on fire!!!

    1. The theme came as a result of reading a review of Atlantic City in a movie book. I don't have it and my library doesn't either or it would have been my first entry in the series. Glad you like the idea, Chris. Keep an eye out for the next one (probably in December at the rate I keep signing up for blogathons.


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