The Hustler is out now on a two-disc Collector’s Edition. Just three years ago, a one-disc Special Edition was released. Is it worth the upgrade? Movies about winning and losing typically follow a strict formula. The protagonist overcomes some sort of adversity to win the big game. The other team is bad, over funded, or under appreciative of the joys of their sport and receive their comeuppance in the final reel. In a few cases, our hero doesn’t win but is recognized for the valiant effort despite their defeat (Rocky, Bad News Bears).
The Hustler, Robert Rossen’s 1961 movie about a pool player trying to prove he’s the best follows none of these conventions. “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) is, let’s face it, kind of a dick. He’s self destructive, arrogant, and unsympathetic. He seems to obtain everything he wants 20 minutes into the movie and, ignoring the advice of his longtime partner Charlie (Myron McCormick,) proceeds to throw it away because, as gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) notes, he’s a “born loser.”
The rest of the movie is Eddie’s long search to get another game with Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) and prove he’s the best pool player in the world. He meets Sarah (Piper Laurie), a drunk cripple who loves him with a pathetic fearfulness. She’s amazing as someone so full of loathing but willing to give happiness one more hopeless chance. Rather than listening to Charlie and Sarah, Eddie throws in with Bert, who tries to teach him the importance of character in becoming a winner. It’s a battle for Eddie’s soul and Scott with his dangerous smile lays waste to the competition.
Although all the supporting performances are top shelf, the picture is Newman’s. He’s the ultimate anti-hero. The audience hopes for his salvation despite his continued efforts to sabotage himself. The dialogue is that late 50s early 60s too fast, too hip patter that often makes people sound like particularly annoying characters on “The West Wing.” It doesn’t ring true but everything else about the characters does. This is a movie more about looks and feelings rather than words, though. Shot in beautiful black and white with long scenes and few words, the cinematography is a noirphiles wet dream. The entire movie was filmed on location so everything feels authentic.
This movie solidified a rising Newman as a major star and boasts three other Oscar nominated performances. This isn't really a pool movie, but just one that uses competition as a commentary on what it means to be a winner and the need to put character in front of greed and self. It’s a classic that doesn’t confuse you as to why it is considered one after you finally sit down and watch it all the way through. This is the type of DVD that is worth picking up regardless of the quality of the extras. The movie itself is a classic and the transfer is amazingly clear and crisp. The wide screen black and white look is sharp and the sound of everything from the dialogue to the thwack of the pool balls cracks out of the speakers. This is actually a good thing since the rest of the voluminous extras spread out over two discs are so-so.
The audio commentary is a holdover from the Special Edition released in 2004. It features Paul Newman, historian Jeff Young, critic Richard Schickel, editor Dede Allen, actor Stefan Gierasch (who played the minor role of Preacher), assistant director Ulu Grosbard, and Robert Rossen’s daughter, Carol Rossen. The commentary wasn’t recorded while watching the film; rather, bits of interviews from each contributor are played over the film. The comments don’t always relate, even indirectly, to what is happening on screen and in a few unintentionally funny sequences, it directly contradicts what we are seeing. Young and Rossen are both insufferable blowhards, but Allen provides some interesting comments about why certain scenes were put together as they were. It would have been far more interesting to hear Allen as she was watching the film rather than the grab bag comments presented.
The Collector’s Edition provides three new featurettes. The first two, “Life in the Fast Lane: Fast Eddie Felson and the Search for Greatness” and “Milestones in Cinema History: The Hustler”, are very similar. The first is shorter by about half (12 minutes versus 27 minutes) but the interviews are very similar and they cover the same ground. In fact, some of the comments made in the featurettes are identical to those made in the commentary. The third new featurette about the art of pool hustling is actually somewhat interesting as a pool pro shows how to do a few easy trick shots that you can use to take hard earned money from your sucker friends.
The other two featurettes include a holdover from the Special Edition called “The Hustler: The Inside Story.” Although it interviews a different set of people than the other two featurettes, it covers much of the same ground. The final featurette is one of those A&E Biographies about Paul Newman. It doesn’t focus on The Hustler but gives a good overview of Newman’s life and career.
There is a feature which allows you to have a pop up picture play during some of the pool shots with trick shot professional Mike Massey explaining how the shots are made. There is also a separate featurette where he performs some of the trick shots from the film. Unfortunately, he doesn’t actually explain how any of the shots are done or show how a person should try to do it themselves. It basically ends up with a guy making the same shot you just saw in the movie.
The last few extras include a still gallery, the original trailer, and trailers of eight other Newman films that are all probably from 20th Century Fox. So nothing really knocks your socks off with the DVD, but it’s the movie itself in a great format that you should really want. The rest is just a nice, but unsubstantial, addition.
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