06 July 2012

"The Hustler" (1961, dir. Robert Rossen): "The Ability of Character to Triumph Over Talent"

Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman lag for the break in The Hustler

Paul Newman and Piper Laurie Share a Cigarette,
as well as Their Hopes and Insecurities

O so much more than a fine film about the life of a professional pool hustler who wants to prove he's the best player Straight pool player there ever was, Robert Rossen's film also explores the fragile, easily shatterable, relationship between Fast Eddie Nelson (Newman) and the woman he becomes involved with, Sarah (Piper Laurie). This relationship is further strained when professional gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) enters the picture, taking over as the quite Machiavellian manager for Fast Eddie. To reveal more of the plot here would simply spoil the subtle and powerful developments throughout this fine drama, based on Sidney Carroll's 1959 novel of the same name.

(left to right) George C. Scott and Paul Newman

Jackie Gleason's performance as "Minnesota Fats", the Man, the best there is in the game, is truly inspiring. So much so that as a youngster growing up the 60's, I thought, incorrectly, that "Minnesota Fats" was in fact the best pool player in world. I learned recently that, at that time, another player was ranked number one back then. A heavy set fellow by another name, adopted the name "Minnesota Fats" to embellish his own reputation, drawing of Gleason's stellar performance here. And the trick worked.

But that alludes to the most important aspects of competitive sports, making the other player or team think you are the best, as well as having the well-honed skill to back that up. What makes this film even more engrossing than a good sports drama is the tragic psychological triangle that develops when the Newman/Laurie couple encounter George C. Scott's tragic meddling in both their lives. But as I note in the title of this post, character, strength of will, ultimately prevail.

Rossen's film is not only a great sports drama, but also an exploration of human frailty and the ultimate survival of those strong enough to weather the storm of life.

(Note: Check out part of the soundtrack, with more great stills from the film, in the jukebox atop the left column.)

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