We may never understand why Paul Newman had to wait nearly three decades to receive his Oscar for playing “Fast Eddie” Felson in The Hustler. The Oscar went to Maximillian Schell that year – a strong performance that really should have been in the Supporting Actor category – and Schell didn’t create an icon the way Newman did. His belated Oscar for Scorsese’s not-quite-a-sequel The Color of Money felt almost like an apology, and with The Hustler now available in glorious Blu-ray, it only confirms just how terrific he was. Hit the jump for my full review.
Felson lives life as a small-time pool shark, dwelling in the grey area where dodgy behavior gives way to the flat-out criminal. He’s the best in the world, but he doesn’t know how to parlay that into anything meaningful. When he challenges the great Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) to a match, he wins every battle but still finds a way to lose the war. Other figures see his potential – his girl Sarah (Piper Laurie), his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick), his ultimate stakehorse Bert (George C. Scott) – but also sense his capacity for self-destruction. The smart ones cut loose of him early; the others pay a terrible price.
Director Robert Rossen renders his tragedy in sweaty, exhaustive terms: pulling us into those dingy pool halls and giving us nowhere to escape. We sense how this world can get into someone’s blood, and how the ecstasy of taking someone for all they’re worth trumps everything that makes life worth living. Newman’s natural charm, his youth, and his vigorous good looks put the essential pathos of his character in sharp contrast. He gets a away with a lot because he can flash that smile and twinkle those famous blue eyes; someday that’s going to fade and Felson will have nothing left to back it up. The film’s older characters understand that and seek to either exploit him or save him from himself. The sharks he swims with will never let him go until he’s all used up; he’s just too blinded by his own perceived infallibility to see it.
Newman might never have been better – and considering his career, that’s saying a lot – but The Hustler’s supporting cast also delivers career highs. Though definitely a product of its time, the film feels timeless in ways that The Color of Money just can’t, as well as reminding us that the censorship of the era couldn’t prevent the emergence of movies with real grit. For film lovers, the result is all but irresistible, but the Blu-ray really makes the experience sparkle. Eugene Shuftan’s Oscar-winning cinematography conjures atmosphere so smoky you could cut it with a knife, as well as highlighting the contrast between the seedy halls where Felson plies his trade, and the well-heeled games rooms of his supposed betters.
As is becoming typical for its classic films, Fox delivers it in a classy case/book with gorgeous pictures and great trivia. The extra features are very sexy as well: ported over from the two-disc DVD released in 2007. They include an extensive look at Newman’s career, an examination of real-life hustlers, a pair of awesome shorts about making trick shots, and the expected trailers from the film. The high point is the terrific audio commentary containing comments from Newman, Rossen, film critic Richard Schickel and historian Jeff Young among others. It’s a fitting package for one of the true greats… and a reminder that real stars like Newman never truly die.