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To those who grew up in the 1980s and 90s, Robert Rossen's THE HUSTLER (1961) is known, if at all, as a distant prequel to Scorsese's The Color Of Money (1986). The relationship between the two movies is interesting but shouldnt obscure the fact that Scorsese's movie is a bit of a drag; a cinematic experience comparable to the cold, damp Midwestern towns where the action is set. The earlier movie is a richer and more engaging way to spend two hours, and indeed its standing among film aficionados deservedly surpasses that of the 'sequel'.
Shot in appropriate black and white, The Hustler tells a fairly compact story of a masterful young pool hustler (Paul Newman) who breaks up with his former financier, meets and moves in with a young woman (Piper Laurie), reluctantly takes on a new financier (George C Scott) and finds himself beset by loyalty clashes, guilt and a need for freedom. Hovering over this character study like a white whale is the number one pool player around, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), who uses his experience to defeat and almost bankrupt the hustler Eddie Felson, in a marathon pool game at the outset of the movie. Felson is haunted by this humiliating loss, flying in the face of his great talent and extrovert arrogance. The Minnesota Fats game is less a subplot than a main theme, thoroughly entwined with the other central theme, relationships, to form a steady backbone.
The strength of the themes helps the movie reduce problems that threaten to arise from an unusual and less than ideal dramatic structure. As mentioned above, the movie starts off, after a thin pre-credit excuse for an exposition, with what is actually its dramatic peak, the 30-hour pool hall challenge between Felson and Minnesota Fats. The sequence is allowed to play out its full potential and is well exploited for tension in both psychology and pool playing, which is all fine and good, but once it's over the spectator may feel like the storyline is about to enter the final act, while the screen so far hasn't shown much beyond an exciting game of 8-ball. For a while it looks like Rossen's bold narrative move is going to work, mainly because of the intriguingly downbeat and urban/modern-style relation struck up between Eddie Felson and Piper Laurie's troubled young lady.
But in the second half of the movie, the price paid for that massive early sequence becomes clear. The action turns rhapsodic and seemingly rushed, in contrast to the first half, and since the psychological interplay between the three main characters (Scott's unsympathetic manager/financier is the third) has yet to be sorted out by the script, they are reduced to rhetoric speeches that 'explains' their predicament, rather than taking the time needed to show it through dialogue and action. Laurie' s young lady in particular suffers from this simplification, discarding her earlier hints of a psychological cluster with material enough for a whole separate movie. Balancing the two entwined themes until the end becomes impossible when the movie's structure is so front-heavy, and ultimately the movie-makers are forced to choose between the Minnesota Fats revenge arc and the three-part psychology arc. On the surface both are allowed to run their course, but only the Fats thread with its theme of maturity and revenge is able to resolve itself within the limited screen time that the third act is awarded.
The relationship theme is forcibly brought home with simplifications, poorly motivated acts, and the aforementioned monologues intended to clarify the inner nature of both speaker and target. Rather than being ahead of its time, The Hustler here reminds one of some of the clumsier attempts at psychological drama from the 1950s. The viewer can witness Rossen's dramatic engine trying to catch up with its timetable during the last half-hour, as the sequences become shorter and shorter, scenes are compressed to become near incomprehensible, and the whole psychodynamic resolution is thrown against a wall in the hope that something will stick as legible closure. This is a disappointing dramatic failure, probably accentuated in the clipping room, with Piper Laurie's character the main victim. Newman's Felson fares a little better as he is given a parallel chance to reveal his full, matured personality via the Minnesota Fats re-match. George C Scotts character is given too little screen time to present any special depth beyond the crooked Svengali that he looks and acts like, and his presence becomes the most consistent of the three, although he is the least important.
So what could Rossen have done instead? Well, since The Hustler is unable to successfully resolve its two parallel arcs despite a very generous running time for a chamber-play (134 minutes), the simplest solution is to give priority to one theme over the other, rather than trying to juggle both. In spite of the many fine relationship scenes with intimate, naturalistic dialogue, it is the Minnesota Fats pool game that defines The Hustler and provides its raison d'etre. Adding the fact that the pool sequences generally display strong, distinct direction, this becomes the natural selection for main theme. The psychological trinity offers substantial room for trimming down, if one is prepared to accept it as a sub-plot that gives Felson and the movie a certain depth, rather than a main thread.
From this decision it is easy to see the option to remove several scenes in the second half where the delicate psychological interplay is sacrificed for overstated neurosis; a cutting back of the only moderately interesting dialogues on moral between Scott and Newman can be effectuated in the same process. Felson is offered not less than three father figures where one (his first financier) would have sufficed, and again it is no great loss to turn Scott's broadly defined portrait of the 'necessary evil' into a less symbolic and more believable exploiter of talent. Finally, making the pool duels and their examination of will-power, maturity, and ego-centricity the dominating theme facilitates an improved division of screen time awarded the two Minnesota Fats games, extending the final game for dramatic effect at no narrative cost.
What should not be excised is the entire introduction of Piper Laurie, a long and terrific sequence that is almost David Lynch-like in its enigmatic psychology and unpredictable dialogue. This finds The Hustler at its most modern, timeless even, and along with the Fats pool game justifies the high rating it is given by movie aficionados. Similarly, Eddie Felson's path to maturity needs a little more exposure, which will come naturally when some of the looser scenes around it are removed. The self-insight and growing up that Felson goes through comes not from his failed relationship with Laurie's neurotic character, but through his attitude towards the pool game and its associated vices of gambling, hustling and violence. This is another sign that Rossen should have elevated Felson the cocky pool player as the movie's main avatar, and kept Felson the free-spirited lover as a psychological extension.
Script rewrite fantasies like the one you just read is a dubious and even provocative pastime, especially for a movie that is 40+ years old and brought home 9 Academy Award nominations (only the scenography and cinematography won; Piper Laurie probably deserved one). But I see this excursion as a testament to the strength of The Hustler at its best; one can only imagine what the entire movie would be like, had it all been as good as its strongest sequences. 7 of 10