The Hustler (1961)
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced),
Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and Mono
20th Century Fox, $19.98

In The Hustler, the American obsession with winning is examined through three classic archetypes who battle for supremacy in a New York pool hall: the young, cocky, prodigiously talented "Fast Eddie" Felson (Paul Newman); the smooth, established pro Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason); and the quietly menacing string-puller (George C. Scott) who exploits both men’s abilities for his own gain. At the start of the film, the näive Felson believes he can rely solely upon his raw talent to reach the top, but he learns the hard way that in pool, as in life, character is always the deciding factor. This might make The Hustler sound as though it has a feel-good Hollywood ending, but the film actually concludes on a profoundly cynical note: the bruised Felson ends up with his integrity intact, but his future as a professional pool player is cast into question.

Based on Walter Tevis’ acclaimed novel, The Hustler was bandied about as a film project for years before director/co-screenwriter Robert Rossen – a street-smart type who had hustled pool in his youth – came aboard with a way to make the story come alive onscreen. With the help of cinematographer Eugen Schufftan (whose work won an Oscar), Rossen took what seemed like a stagebound plot (set mainly in real New York City pool halls and cheap hotel rooms) and used dramatic hard light, formal compositions and razor-sharp editing to make The Hustler a textbook example of virtuoso filmmaking. The film has been given a suitably royal treatment by 20th Century Fox in this DVD; the evocative black-and-white images are beautifully sharp and have rich blacks, and the transfer is remarkably devoid of the distracting dirt and scratches that are usually common in older films.

The disc has been lavished with fun extras, but one wonders what Rossen would think of the emphasis they place on the game of pool itself – after all, he always insisted that The Hustler was about the characters, not the pastime. Regardless, viewers who love billiards will certainly get a kick out of seeing how Newman (and his teacher and "stunt man," pool legend Willie Mosconi) achieved the hellishly difficult shots featured in the film. (You can even program the DVD to offer a picture-in-picture commentary from pool expert Mike Massey whenever one of those trick shots appears in the film.)

Included on the disc is an original documentary, The Hustler: The Inside Story, which offers reflections on the film by various commentators, including the film’s assistant director, Ulu Grosbard; Time film critic Richard Schickel, and billiards historian Charles Ursitti. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit in this 20-minute documentary concerns how an opportunistic and not particularly talented professional pool player named Rudolph Wanderone decided to capitalize on the success of the film by legally changing his name to "Minnesota Fats," thus hoodwinking many casual sports fans into believing that the film’s character was actually based upon him. Pool hustlers the world over would have to admire this bit of chutzpah, but it always deeply annoyed author Tevis and Mosconi, a vastly superior pool player who nevertheless lacked Wanderone’s showmanship.

The DVD also features an audio commentary with many contributors, including Rossen’s daughter, Carol, who is an actress and a writer; the typically taciturn Newman; Grosbard, and film editor Dede Allen. Unfortunately, the commentary is a bit of a snooze because the speakers’ remarks are never screen-specific. (It’s like listening to a panel discussion about The Hustler while the film happens to run in the background.) The most perceptive comments are supplied by Rossen, who posits that the film’s dingy milieu is nothing less than a metaphor for winning and losing in America; she notes that the pool room resembles a corporate entity, with its strict rules and regulations and formally dressed participants.

Rossen further explores the metaphorical subtext of The Hustler by making a worthy comparison between the pool hustlers portrayed in the film and other American "confidence artists," such as politicians or film-studio executives. Gleason’s Minnesota Fats, like all tools of the establishment, surrenders when he knows he can’t win – he understands that the ruling class will always be back.

– Chris Pizzello

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.