The Hustler is, according to the director's daughter who speaks on the commentary track, a film about winning and losing in America. It's certainly a story that's more about character than it is about pool (which is a good thing!)
The film recounts the story of young pool hustler 'Fast' Eddie Felson (played by Newman) who is desperate to beat another hustler Minesotta Fats (Jackie Gleason). At the start of the film, he essentially does this but, being brash, arrogant, immature and 'lacking in character', this is not enough for him and he feels he has to totally crush his opponent. In trying to do so he loses the match.
The climax of the film, effectively a rematch between the two players, shows how the events shown over the two hour running time, have changed Felson. He ends the film the winner, and one who now has 'character', but it's come at enormous personal cost. He's no longer the hustler from the start of the movie, but an indivdual with strong personal integriy.
George C. Scott gives an excellent performance, and was as the slimy gambler and manager who takes Felson on. He was apparently 'unimpressed' with Newman's performance in the film, which Newman himself says he understands: 'I was just working too hard, showing too much'. But the truth, despite excellent supporting performances from not just Scott and Gleason, but also Piper Laurie as his alcoholic girlfriend, is that it's Newman's performance and sheer on-screen presence that make the film. It's not hard to see why this film is perceived as the one that catapaulted Newman into the big time, marking the start of his best decade in films, but it's also true to say that at times one can't help comparing his performance with that of James Dean or Marlon Brando, and feeling that Newman's impact is lessened by the comparison.
Director Robert Rossen focusses on the actors' performances rather than flash pyrotechnics, although the first half hour of the film, dedicated almost exclusively to the first pool match between the two protagonists, shows some nice visual flourishes and good use of dissolve to heighten the sense of tension whilst also conveying the fatigue that sets in, particularly for Newman's character.
It's not hard to see why this is regarded as a 60's classic. It features an intelligently written script that packs an emotional punch that still has power today, more than 40 yeras after it was originally made. I'm still trying to work out how I could have missed it until now!
Cinema Reserve have set a pretty high standard with their releases to date and this is no different. The digitally restored picture looks fantastic, with only the occasional fleck (and the fact it's black and white) giving away its age. The commentary is fascinating, if something of a cheat given the way it's advertised on the packaging. This is not a 'commentary track by Paul Newman and Carol Rossen' (the director's daughter) as claimed: it's a series of sound interviews with six or seven different people, all spliced together from the accompanying documentaries, and bearing no relation at all to what's being shown on screen. Newman himself speaks for less than 5 minutes in total, which is pretty darned cheeky given the way the commentary's billed on the packaging. The included booklet is also somewhat disappointing, being a small, triangle-shaped fold-out booklet that really just equates to a single-sheet insert of marketing fluff.
Happily the other extra's help to restore confidence in the Cinema Reserve branding, and of course there's the usual rather plush 'plastic inside tin' case to justify the slightly increased asking price that Cinema Reserve titles demand. Four different features cover the making of the film and the history behind it. In truth these could have been made into one very long documentary, and the artificial splitting into four separarate documentaries means that there's more repetition than there should be, and rather too much reliance on the same film clips. Oddly, two of the features are presented in anamorphic widescreen, with the others being presented in 4:3 full screen, despite featuring clips mostly from the same sets of interviews.
The stand-out documentary is a 45 minute one on Paul Newman's career, which covers his life from before he entered acting right up to his most recent performance in The Road to Perdition. There are some wonderful old clips included in this, including some out-takes from East of Eden try-outs with James Dean begging Newman to 'Kiss me'!
This is a package that you're more likely to want to own and dip into occasionally than rent, and comes, like all the titles in the Cinema Reserve series, highly recommended.