The Hustler

The Hustler (1964)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Picture-in-picture Commentary, Theatrical Trailer

Paul Newman – that steely gaze, his sinewy cool – the guy’s smooth, no doubt. Coupled with his iconic, almost "beat" physical presence, Newman’s keen sense to only choose fascinating parts to play elevated him far above the "here today, gone tomorrow" Saturday picture-show pinup beauty many excepted him to become. He’s never been a goof; Newman approached his work seriously, with a determined weight that few other silver screen stars have – or were ever – able to duplicate.

Newman has dozens of equally staggering screen portrayals under his belt, one of which is undoubtedly "Fast Eddie" Felson in Robert Rossen’s "The Hustler," a character so strong and empathetic it hasn’t been duplicated. I remember watching this film when I was younger and wanting to be Fast Eddie – he’s funny, cool, and plays pool like nobody else. The way he walks into a room, he owns it and everybody in it. There’s a power to Newman here, a wide-eyed, talented cockiness that you can help but respond to.

It’s by pure coincidence that I’ve recently been rereading what is arguably my favorite novel, Kerouac’s On The Road, and there’s more than a little similarity between "Fast Eddie’s" charming asshole and the inspired looniness of Dean Moriarty, the famous, lionized character in Kerouac’s mythic book.
Both exude the power, the prowess of the mid-century American male, but more importantly, there’s an undeniable dedication to form, to professionalism present in both characters. Moriarty’s church is the road, the unpredictable mobius strip of the American highway where the journey is the destination. But while his zany actions seem to those who don’t understand him as being infantile and irresponsible, he has a self-mandate on how to approach life on the road. He’s a beatnik bum, but one with a serious, altruistic sense of honor.

Fast Eddie has a similar relationship to the pool halls of "The Hustler." To many, these are seedy dives – holes in the walls of otherwise "nice" neighborhoods. But to Eddie, the halls are havens for a certain diversity, a smorgasbord of both professional pool hustlers and the 9 to 5 working man looking for a small respite from his redundant everyday life. Like Moriarty’s ties to the road, there is a sacred mystique to these smoky bars. Sure, "Fast Eddie" hustles everybody – no one knows (or, for that matter can ever know) who he really is – but he approaches his job (and yes, hustling is his career) with the sincerity and heft of an artist. When he hustles in the "wrong" pool hall and thugs approach him from all sides filled with violence in their eyes, Eddie knows what’s coming – he has no choice but to follow the code of the lifestyle he’s created for himself. And it’s marvelous to watch.

I haven’t mentioned the extraordinary performance Piper Laurie turns in as Eddie’s main squeeze or the impeccable, quintessential appearance of Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. Nor have I mentioned the stunning cinematography by Eugene Shuftan, given a true applause-worthy transfer here on this new DVD. But for those who share my wonder of Fast Eddie and all his pool hall cronies, this film remains, 41 years after the fact, a stunning, unparalleled allegory of the dark days of the postwar 1950s. And metaphorical musings aside, this is a slam-bang pool movie, one with enough cool trick shots and involving power plays to keep even novice viewers engaged.

Presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, this is a wonderful <$THX,THX>-certified transfer of "The Hustler." Its striking black and white cinematography by Eugene Shuftan is represented with very nice blacks and generally excellent contrast. And the print still looks pretty good – sure, there are a couple of blemishes, but this looks really quite stunning. Edge enhancement is kept to a minimum and the level of detail and sharpness is impressive for a film of this vintage.
Alas, my one major gripe is that since there’s so much material squeezed on just one disc, there’s a bit of artifacting noticeable. With a 136-minute film and tons of extras, this really should have been a two-disc set. It’s a shame, because this may be (at least for now) the definitive edition of the film. In any case, a solid transfer, albeit frustrating due to the artifacting.

This edition of "The Hustler" features a THX-approved soundtrack, but presented in 2.0 Dolby Stereo only. The sound design of the film is shockingly sparse – only when the frenzied jazz score kicks in does the film really take on any real personality. But this minimalism and simplicity is represented pretty well, sure, separation of the effects is poor and dynamic range is extraordinarily limited, but the music is well integrated into the mix and the overall feel of the track is nice and polished.

Surprisingly feature-packed, perhaps the big draw here is the new star-studded <$commentary,audio commentary>. The format is one I wholly approve of: Instead of just the usual, director, writer, actor trio discussing elements of the film, this film assembles interviews and screen-specific discussions and creates one very fascinating audio documentary. Film historian Jeff Young corrals the troops, so to speak, and has scored interviews with Paul Newman himself (listen to that grizzled voice!), director Robert Rossen’s daughter Carol, editor DeDe Allen, Stefan Gierasch (who played Preacher in the film), assistant director Ulu Grosbard and Time Magazine film critic Richard Schickel. Each are given ample time to discuss all sorts of facets involved in the film – Allen’s comments are especially notable – and it’s nicely spread out so the commentary itself doesn’t drag or get bogged down by gaps of silence or useless information. A marvelous commentary!

We’re also treated to a new 30-minute featurette, "The Hustler: The Inside Story," a fascinating look at the history of the sport and the effect the film had on the pool world. We hear stories of the "real" Minnesota Fats (both Fast Eddie and Fats were fictional characters, but one pool player identified so heavily with Jackie Gleason that he legally changed his name to Minnesota Fats!), how pool professionals taught Paul Newman to play, and what kind of reaction the studio had to the picture. It’s a great doc.

Also interesting are the How to Make the Shot and Trick Shot Analysis vignettes with world champion trick shot artist, Mike Massey. The first has Mike setting up the infamous shots Fast Eddie makes in the film and showing us how they were done. The picture-in-picture commentary over footage from the film is also cool, informing us which shots were legal and which weren’t, what kind of player would take what kind of shot, and more. I have to admit I was hoping for more of a lesson on how to actually make the shots myself, e.g., the geometry and physics of pulling off the shot, how hard to hit the cue, etc., nut these shorts do offer some nice perspective on the game of pool.

Rounding out the extras are a short behind-the-scenes still gallery, as well as theatrical trailers in both English and Spanish for not only "The Hustler," but also other Newman gems including "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Hombre" and "The Verdict." Rounding it out is a nice THX optimizer to get your system looking and sounding just right.

The movie is awesome, this edition is awesome. While I would have preferred for it to have been a two-disc set, it’s still a wonderful presentation for a film that continues to grow more interesting and entertaining every time I watch it. The extras are topnotch (and they don’t overdo it), so for a list price of only $19.95, this one’s a keeper. Highly recommended.