Once you’ve stomached enough bone-crunching football this Thanksgiving, treat yourself to an American sports tale of the smokier, more reflective kind. Robert Rossen’s stylish black-and-white melodrama follows pool-shark “Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman, cannily over-confident) as he tries to best unrivaled champ “Minnesota” Fats (Jackie Gleason, seasoned pro at his career-best). After foolishly blowing a huge lead against Fats, Felson hits rock-bottom and the word gets out: he’s a has-been, a drunk, a two-bit hustler. His fed-up manager cheats him, he takes up with a tragic floozy (Piper Laurie), and a milk-chugging pro-gambler (George C. Scott) wants to exploit his talent. To watch Newman scrounge up the pieces of his seedy professional life is both melancholic and uniquely inspiring. You won’t find any twinkly music or uplifting speeches in this sports flick. Just a cold, hard look at what makes a winner and what makes a loser.
The pool matches are expertly blocked, and the unbelievable trick shots–despite Newman’s natural charm–are the real star of the show. But there’s some keenly observed philosophy running throughout. Rossen’s camera gracefully captures dingy Midwestern pool halls and vacant bus depots, back-room poker games and after-hours bars. He casts a sad beauty upon the droopy-eyed men who lurk in the background of these scenes, scraggly bar-flys and -tenders. They have every reason to admire Felson, who’s all skill and swindle, but our hero’s stubborn ego keeps him at arm’s length of fame and fortune.
The film taps a somber vein of Americana that only could have come from its director’s own experiences in and out of Hollywood. A Communist at the mercy of Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, Rossen named names to save face and ended up blacklisted in his own right, exiled to Europe for many years. He then was forced to change his views after witnessing the rise of the violent Soviet dictatorship. That idealistic guilt is all over “Fast” Eddie Felson, as he learns that, yes, winning isn’t everything. Sometimes, it’s best to know when to quit.
The Bodies and Souls of Robert Rossen – THE HUSTLER
Sunday, November 29, 7:00pm
Harvard Film Archive (Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, MA 02138)