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Blu-ray Review: The Hustler (1961)

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Over the course of his long career, Paul Newman played a number of great characters.  Watch enough of Newman’s films and you’ll end up falling in love with Butch Cassidy or Henry Gondorff or Reggie Dunlop or Luke Jackson or Brick Pollitt or Hud Bannon or… well, maybe Fast Eddie Felson.  Newman played Felson twice, once in 1961’s The Hustler and then again in 1986’s The Color of Money.  The former of these has just hit blu-ray in a truly impressive-looking release.

The Hustler, directed by Robert Rossen, is based on Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name.  Newman’s Felson is a pool hustler, a man who goes from town to town with his partner, Charlie (Myron McCormick), looking to make lots of money from people who don’t know any better.  Felson and Charlie though are looking for something more than taking down small timers, they want to play Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), the biggest pool shark around.

That is really just the movie’s jumping off point however, the majority of the film takes place in the aftermath of the epic pool bout with Fats.  Felson, after the match, completely falls apart and then manages to fall in love.  The girl in question is Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), a women just as damaged, although in different ways, as Eddie.  Eddie does his best to leave big time pool behind, but in the end finds that he can’t, that he and the game are one, and that’s something that Sarah has a lot of trouble reconciling.

The story in The Hustler is that of a pool player, but it exists by and large outside of the game of pool.  Unquestionably the pool sequences are what many will walk away from the film remembering, but at its core, the film is a truly emotional one about two broken people trying to lean on one another for support.  

What you end up with is in fact almost, but not quite, two separate movies – the pool film which is adrenaline-pumping, enjoyable, and heartbreaking; and the love story between these two people who both need more than the other can possibly ever deliver.  The second story is depressing, sad, and terribly emotional.

Of course, the two stories are incredibly intertwined, you can’t possibly have one without the other.  Eddie is a man trying to find something to fill a void in his life, and while he initially thinks its pool, he then decides that it may be love. 

Backing these stories is some truly wonderful acting led by Newman who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role (he’d win an Oscar for playing Felson in The Color of Money).  George C. Scott, who plays the stakehorse, the man who backs Eddie upon his return to big time pool and he was also nominated for an Academy Award as were both Gleason and Laurie.  The film is full of great characters played by great actors at the top of their game. 

The Hustler itself was also nominated for Best Picture, as well as director and screenplay and took home awards for cinematography and art direction.  It is a powerful story which has been brilliantly and completely realized on film.

The technical aspects of the new Blu-ray release of the film, much like the movie itself, have both incredible highs and lows.  On the plus side, it looks absolutely stunning.  You will find nothing to complain about with anything you see.  There is nary a scratch nor a bit of dirt to distract from the huge amounts of detail present.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track isn’t perhaps fully immersive in the way a modern blockbuster is (the track was initially a mono one and that is available on the disc), but it is completely free of hiss, pops, and noise.  In short, the restoration work done to give this movie a high definition release is truly wonderful.  What then is the downside?  Seeing what a tremendous job was done on this 50 year old movie you’ll end up wondering why studios can’t do such work every time they release a classic to Blu-ray.

The extras on this release are on par with the audio and video.  There is some previously released material including an edited together commentary track featuring Rossen’s daughter, Carol; Newman; the editor, Dede Allen; film historian Jeff Young; and others.  The old material also includes a few behind the scenes pieces on the making of the film and its influence.  There is also an episode of Biography about Newman.  Those are all relatively interesting, but truly disappointing are a couple of featurettes with pool expert Mike Massey.  In one he describes in excruciating detail what is happening in pool scenes in the film without adding much beyond a play-by-play.  In the other, he performs some of the trick shots in the film, again, without really going in depth on how anything happens.  New to video are three pieces:  one on Newman’s work at Fox, another on Gleason, and one on Tevis.  They are all completely engrossing.  Save for the Massey featurettes, everything included provides some nice insight into the film and the actors while remaining interesting.  There is also a 24 page booklet detailing the movie, the main actors, and Rossen.

The Hustler is a great movie, well worthy of the accolades it was given at the time of its original release.  It features a set of superb performances by actors at the top of their craft and deftly handles both the pool game and emotional aspects of the tale.  It is a film well worth owning and this particular release of it is as good as the movie itself.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.