February 12, 2014
What is admittedly fascinating about The Hustler is its exploration of damaged, addicted, pathetic people. Eddie--despite all his skill as a pool player and his boyish good looks and his happy-go-lucky charm--is a loser. (He's told as much by any number of the other characters in the film). And what's more, he's in complete denial about it. This makes him a perfect match for Piper Laurie's character, a drunk named Sarah whom he meets at a bus station one morning. They eventually go back to her place, and the world they forge together is one of excesses, a perfect breeding ground for unhappiness that's just drunk enough to pass off as contentment, until it's too late.
The Hustler represents the change Hollywood was undergoing in the 1960s: there's a kind of unmitigated darkness explored in this movie that you wouldn't have likely found--outside of a film noir, maybe--ten or fifteen years earlier. (And in the film noirs, that darkness was always stylized so that it felt fun and thrilling.) Here the darkness is real and pathetic and alarming, and this might explain why I've generally felt a bit detached from the movie. It's a sad film about sad people, yet this makes it quite believable, quite realistic, and what's more, it doesn't attempt to explain its characters or redeem them. We're not supposed to walk out of the movie feeling some kind of happy, chipper last-minute message about humankind being broken but fixable.
Piper Laurie really makes an impression in The Hustler: the minute she speaks--with that husky, deep, billowing yet soft voice--she's a presence, a kind of elixir that not even the charm of Paul Newman can temper. And Newman, who always exuded a kind of laid-back, indomitable likability, keeps up his end of the bargain here: he makes Eddie somehow acceptable, despite his flaws and the beautifully tragic imbalance of his life: he has such masterful control when he's hot, such absolute nothingness when he's not. It's a striking quality, and it's what makes Paul Newman such a noteworthy actor of his or any era.
The film is based on a novel by Walter Tevis, and it was adapted by Sidney Carroll and the director. The lovely jazz score was composed by Kenyon Hopkins. With George C. Scott as a rich businessman who becomes Eddie's manager, Myron McCormick as Eddie's former manager/partner, and Murray Hamilton. Followed by The Color of Money in 1986, which finally afforded Newman a long overdue Academy Award for Best Actor. (I think he should have gotten it for Hud.)