The Hustler: A Moody Must See Masterpiece of Cinema

Posted by Michael Pinto on Sep 25, 2009 in Cinema |

The Hustler: Title Screen

Paul NewmanOn this day in 1961 the classic film The Hustler opened to both critical and popular success. Frankly before this film Paul Newman had an amazing body of work behind him, but this was the film that made him a star for years to come. The reason is that in this film Newman fine tunes his anti-establishment personality on the screen which would resinate with audiences in the 60s and 70s with films like Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This trait allowed his career to continue after the 50s while many other actors from that decade fell out of style. Sadly as of tomorrow (September 26th) Paul Newman passed away exactly a year ago — but this film is a treasure worth revisiting for every fanboy of the cinema.

The Hustler

Although there’s much more than just a great performance by Paul Newman to see in this film. For starters the first thing you’ll notice is that the film is in glorious black-and-white! To me given that and the downtrodden world of pool hustling that places this film in the film noir genre even if it’s on the edge of the criminal world. And as with all film noir The Hustler is a real painting of America — not the promised land of JFK’s New Frontier but the ugly underside of urban life.

The Hustler: George C. Scott as Bert Gordon

As with most great films the novel by Walter Tevis and the screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen is stunning but wonderfully understated and cynical. Here’s a little gem:

Bert Gordon: I don’t think there’s a pool player alive shoots better pool than I saw you shoot the other night at Ames. You got talent.
Fast Eddie: So I got talent. So what beat me?
Bert Gordon: Character.

Robert Rossen

Robert Rossen

Not only did Robert Rossen co-write the film but he also produced and directed the film as well. He did this film after the McCarthy witch trials in the early 50s, and when he was first called to testify he didn’t name any names and the studio bosses blacklisted him. Later he went back and named names and you can see from the tone in this film how that experience disillusioned him. In fact after this film he made one more film Lilith (1964) and then left the industry. So while this film represented a sort of redemption, you can taste the bitterness.

The Hustler: Gleason and Newman

The film also features some amazing performances by Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott. As a child who grew up watching Gleason in the Honeymooners this film is a bit of a shocking revelation. Gleason who you just look at and think “comedy” is a character of a very different color — his dramatic performance is wonderful. In fact as good as his comedy was it’s hard to look at this film and not regret that Gleason didn’t do more roles like this on the big screen instead of being typecast.

The Hustler: 1961

Another thing that makes this film work so well is that it was shot on location in New York City and not on some sound stage in Hollywood. Add to this the dark brooding cinematography of Eugen Schüfftan who worked on Metropolis and you get an amazing looking bit of film. The critics noticed the craftsmanship and the film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and took home two.

Below: Trailer and the poster for The Hustler.

Poster for The Hustler


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