"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, May 19, 2011

My Favorite Movies - The Hustler

I have watched hundreds of movies in my life, perhaps more since my Netflix history record of the past few years is almost 200.  I watch fewer now because I am concentrating on Shakespeare, and watch film versions of the plays, and I comment on these in my Literature blog.

In any case, I have my all-time favorites, most of which I have watched many times and never get tired of them.  They are movies that never get old.  Many when watched the second time many years later look dated.  These do not and never will.

The Hustler ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054997/) made in 1961 is perhaps my all-time favorite, with a moving, understated performance by Piper Laurie, a high-energy early role for Paul Newman, and uncanny casting of a young George C. Scott.  It is a story of ambition, love, good and evil, and redemption; and that is why it falls into my category of “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Any More”.

Laurie is so vulnerable but so loving, trusting, and innocent.  She knows that she shouldn’t fall for Fast Eddie (Newman, playing a pool hustler of talent and weakness); but has been so lonely that she can’t help it.  Lame, alcoholic, and desperate, she has a moral compass that none of the others in the film have.  Fast Eddie doesn’t because he is too hungry for success.  Bert (George C. Scott) doesn’t and never did.  His ambition and hunger for money and his guiltless manipulation of all those around him are guided only by his own greed.  Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason as “the greatest pool player of all time”) is only a pool player.  He exhibits only talent and practicality – “Pay the man, Fast Eddie”, he says at the end of the film when Bert is threatening Eddie, but refusal to pay means his redemption.  “If I pay you, Bert, she never lived and never died”, says Eddie finally guided by a moral compass.

Everything is perfect in the film – the performances are spot on perfect.  Newman is riveting with his animal energy and drive.  Scott for his malevolent intelligence.  Gleason for his physical grace and presence; and for me Laurie is at the center of the film.  We know she will be abused, taken advantage of, and discarded and because of the sensitivity of her performance, we love her, want to protect her, but cannot. 

The movie is stagey to be sure.  Mostly interior shots of the Ames Pool Room, Sarah’s apartment, and a few other shots of pool halls.  The exteriors are limited to a few shots of the wharves.  The last shot of the film, when everyone at Ames who has been riveted by the drama taking place between Bert and Eddie and when it is resolved, returns to normal is a beautiful example of choreographed staging.  There is never a moment when you feel closed in or claustrophobic as can happen in a staged movie.  Shot in 1961, it was made in black and white, but the lack of color makes no difference at all.  While no Citizen Kane or Potemkin or Joan of Arc – masterpieces of light, dark, and shadow and using them dramatically as central features of the films – The Hustler simply understands the medium and frames the action and the setting accordingly.

For years I had puzzled over the seeming capitulation of Sarah to Bert at the end of the film and then her suicide.  Why did she fuck him, I wondered?  Why with her moral compass intact did she give in to the character who embodies evil?  She writes on the mirror in the bathroom where she kills herself “Perverted, Twisted, Crippled” which gives some insight but not all; and I only figured it out after reading Richard III. Lady Anne whose husband and her father (Henry VI) were killed by Richard accepts his proposal of marriage.  Why would she choose to marry a killer and a monster?  One simple reason is that she wants and needs protection, and who better than a king? Perhaps she is just as ambitious as the rest of Shakespeare’s courts; or just afraid of Richard.  The one critical interpretation, however, that made any sense was that she was the one person in the play with a moral compass, and she saw how low human beings could descend.  She knew that Richard was evil – just like Sarah knows Bert is – and she gives in to him as an acknowledgement that the world is and will always be evil.

The Hustler is a fine movie and a must-see. 

As a postscript, I used to watch the movie as a TV rerun with my little children.  I of course knew the script by heart and would say the lines before the actors.  My kids were impressed.

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