The Hustler (USA, 1961)

hustler_xlgDirected by: Robert Rossen. This was another Netflix find, which was all the more miraculous since Netflix sometimes doesn’t seem to know that there were movies made before 2002. Considering how much I liked that other great billiards movie with Paul Newman, The Color of Money, I figured I’d give this one a go. This is quite a bit different, though—same arc, but rendered differently. They’re both about a young hotshot poolshark who comes up against an older, wiser poolshark, the old poolshark sees potential, takes him under his wing to learn the ropes, but he grows distant from his girlfriend, the moral centre, and basically loses his soul in the process of becoming “great”. We’ve seen this a million times, from Faust onwards, and along the way, a few recent Oscar spikes like Black Swan and Whiplash. And really, if I’m lumping this into that pile, this is quite different. First of all, the romance with Piper Laurie is one of the most robust, sophisticated, grown-up relationships between a man and woman I’ve seen on screen. And not just because they’re dabbling in pick-up culture, alcoholism and depression, and I’m impressed that they’re dealing with that shit in 1961 (although I am!)—it’s also just a really well-developed depiction of a flawed adult relationship. But really, it’s all down to Piper Laurie (the scheming Catherine Martell in Twin Peaks), without whose incredible performance the entire thing would be some generic, knuckle-dragging, man’s-gotta-do baloney. The relationship between them is the actual thing we give a shit about, and when Paul Newman goes toe to toe with Jackie Gleeson, though it’s delightful to see that stuff, and then mentally toe to toe with George C. Scott, lovely as it is to watch him do his thing, that stuff wouldn’t have any heft, any emotional weight to it, without that central relationship to keep it going. The reason we give a shit whether or not “Fast” Eddie sells his soul or not, is because of her. And yes, it adheres to standard gender norms, where the woman is used to represent tenderness and domesticity, but again, it’s infinitely more sophisticated in this film than I would have given them credit for in 1961, considering all of the lacklustre, 2-dimensional women roles we’re still fucking seeing in 2016. The finale, the big resolution, and Paul Newman’s big speech to George C. Scott at the end, where he tells him he has no soul, etc, and implies that thanks to Piper Laurie’s sacrifice, he now has one, that he’s now learned what’s “really important” in life, that whole thing is, predictably, a bit on the nose. And in general, the basic premise was a bit hard to follow—this Minnesota Fats guy just sits around holding court in a pool hall making money off…who? Who would play him if everyone knows he’s the biggest poolshark in this small town? I guess chalk it up to suspension of disbelief. Besides, Jackie Gleeson looks great in that suit.

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One response to “The Hustler (USA, 1961)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2016 | Offhand Reviews·

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