Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Film Appreciation - 50 Years of Winning and Losing

Film Appreciation racks 'em up and Cody Hamman breaks for the 50th anniversary of The Hustler.

Eddie and Charlie, a couple of druggist supply salesmen nearing the end of a long road trip to a convention in Pittsbugh, stop in a small town bar & grill for some drinks and rest. Since they're only a few hours outside of the 'Burgh, Eddie figures he's got time to play some games on the bar's pool table.

Eddie and Charlie play against each other for money, Eddie proving to be not very good at the game, losing and gradually getting drunk. Eddie finally wins a game by sinking a lucky trick shot. Charlie bets him that he can't make that shot again... and he doesn't. Eddie isn't done trying, but Charlie doesn't want to take any more of his money. But the bartender, who's been watching all this play out, is willing to, so he lays down a bet of his own. The shot is set up, Eddie sinks it with ease and joins Charlie in the car with a wallet full of fresh cash. Eddie and Charlie are no salesmen, they're pool hustlers, and they're not headed to a convention. They're making their way from California to New York so Eddie can play against one specific person.

The studio, uneasy about the film's 134 minute running time, wanted director Robert Rossen to cut this 6 minute pre-title sequence, but Rossen refused to. It's a good scene for introducing us to "Fast" Eddie Felson, and without it Eddie could come off as a total rube when he walks in to the Ames, New York pool hall to challenge a legendary player. Without the opening scene, we'd have no idea if the rumors of Eddie being a hustler were true, and there'd be no reason to believe that Eddie might be able to pull off what he claims he's going to - that he's going to leave this pool hall having won $10,000. 

Eddie manages to set up a game with the player he's come to challenge, a man called Minnesota Fats, who has gone undefeated for fifteen years. Eddie is going to beat him, there's no doubt in his mind about that. The challenge goes on for a long time, the men playing pool against each other for forty straight hours. They start at $200 a game, then Eddie bumps it up to $1000 a game. The differences between the men are clear - Fats is calm, quiet and graceful, Eddie is loud and cocky. Fats drinks from a glass with ice, Eddie drinks straight from the bottle. Eddie runs himself ragged, getting exhausted, drunk, disheveled, cracking up. Fats takes a break to freshen up, wash his hands, powder. His hair is perfect. When Eddie has gone beyond his goal of winning $10,000, he refuses to take Charlie's advice and walk away. "The game isn't over until Fats says it's over." He hasn't gotten Fats to admit defeat yet. Eddie ultimately loses, not because he lacks talent but because he doesn't have class or character.

I've previously shown an affinity for extended sequences in movies, like the Huggies chase in Raising Arizona, the crime scene clean-up in Blood Simple, the home invasion in Martin, etc., and the Eddie vs. Fats sequence in The Hustler is one of the greats. It's almost thirty minutes from the time that we first enter the Ames pool hall to the end of the game.

Post-defeat, Eddie stays in the city, has a falling out with Charlie, and starts building himself back up, through hustling, for a rematch with Fats. After some chance encounters, he hooks up with an alcoholic college girl named Sarah - she says she goes to school two days a week and drinks the rest of the week away. Sarah senses that she and Eddie probably shouldn't be together, they're both troubled souls, but he persists, and it's their doomed relationship that's the most important part of the rest of the film.

Eddie gets into another unhealthy relationship when he agrees to take on the unscrupulous Bert Gordon - the man who earlier advised Fats to keep playing against Eddie because "the kid's a loser" - as his manager.

While pool is the center of Eddie's life and quite a bit of the running time involves games of pool, the game is not what the film is about. The film is about Eddie's character, how he gains character. As Robert Rossen said, it's about Eddie becoming a self-aware human being.

It's a great dramatic film and has endured for nearly fifty years now, the fiftieth anniversary of its release coming up on September 25th. It was nominated for nine Oscars at the 1962 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (a novel by Walter S. Tevis).

The cast is fantastic, with Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott, and Piper Laurie all receiving Oscar nominations for their roles as Eddie, Fats, Bert, and Sarah respectively. Scott saw no point in the Oscars and rejected his nomination, just as he refused to accept the Oscar that he won for Patton in the next decade.

The film did walk away from the ceremony with two Academy Awards, for Eugene Schufftan's cinematography and Harry Horner and Gene Callahan's art/set decoration.

I was aware of The Hustler for years, both due to its classic status and the fact that Paul Newman returned to the role of Fast Eddie Felson in the Martin Scorsese-directed sequel The Color of Money twenty-five years later. I had seen both of the movies - Hustler probably on Turner Classic, Color of Money on VHS - before they were both released on DVD on the same day, June 4th, 2002. I bought both that June because I had enjoyed them, also due to the fact that I'm a big fan of Newman's Money co-star Tom Cruise, which hasn't really been mentioned on the blog yet, and hey, they were a classy addition to my collection. I was spending Julys at my paternal grandmother's then, so I took the DVDs to her house and watched them there. It was those viewings of the films when I fully became a fan of them. An element of The Color of Money inspired the base of an idea that will hopefully become a big part of the blog soon, and I was blown away by The Hustler.

If you haven't seen The Hustler yet, or even if you already have, I highly recommend giving it an anniversary viewing this weekend.

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