Sunday, September 28, 2008

Don't Make a Scene: The Hustler

The Set-Up: It's a bit like a western--the cocky kid taking on the old pro for a show-down. And the stakes in The Hustler are the same: life. But the difference is the story in between the two pool-games between Eddie--"Fast Eddie"--Felson and "Minnesota" Fats. Eddie's ambition, for which he willingly subjugates himself to the crooked gambler, Bert, dooms his girl-friend Sarah as well. When he comes back, nothing has changed for Fats or Bert. Everything's changed for Eddie. And the life lessons that he's racked up, make him a more focussed, determined player.

But Rossen makes this final confrontation between Eddie and Bert triangulated, as important for "Minnesota" Fats as the particulars. Rossen keeps cutting back to Fats for a reaction to the drama unfolding. Perhaps, it's because he had Jackie Gleason ("The Great One") on set and didn't want to waste him. But, the set-up is different for a critical shot, after Bert, in a rare moment of sympathy, lets Eddie go (while simultaneously threatening him, of course). Eddie looks over at Fats, and in the shot, the Big Man is no longer the most prominent thing in the shot--the pool-hall is, weighing down on him, the upper level looking a bit like a prison.

He's obviously made choices, too. And he lives with them, covering them up in fine suits, and a genial, business-like air.

This is a Great Scene. Scott and Newman are young turks, finding their moments to underplay, and then to take the material and make it theirs forever. Scott's "You owe me money!!" probably made the studio lights ring. And when Newman is center-stage talking about Sarah--he won't even mention her name in this scene in front of Bert--you can almost hear the enamel in his teeth grind.

All four main actors--Newman, Laurie, Gleason and Scott--were nominated for Academy awards. Newman won later, playing the same part--older, maybe wiser--in Martin Scorsese's follow-up, The Color of Money...when "Fast Eddie" finally walks into "a big-time pool-hall" again. Maybe it was the Academy paying penance.

Paul Newman died Friday at the age of 83. He once expressed the fear that his tombstone would read: "One of America's most respected actors...until his eyes turned brown."

The Story: "Fast" Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is a pool hustler who's his own worst enemy in a hall. In a show-down with his idol, "Minnesota" Fats (Jackie Gleason), he drinks too much and loses control of the game. He's told by a gambler, Bert (George C. Scott), that it's "character" that defeated him, but Bert takes Eddie on as client, anyway. Bert takes him around the country hustling pigeons that Bert has lined up. But then the girl, Sarah, (Piper Laurie) enters the picture, and for Bert, louses everything up. While Eddie is knocking down a rich pigeon, Bert works on Sarah's weaknesses, plying her with booze and seducing her. Ultimately, Sarah kills herself, leaving Eddie broken.

At the end of the film, having learned too much about "character," Eddie returns to the pool-hall where it all began to take on his hero one more time. The scene opens at 6 am. It's dawn. For a whole lot of things.


Minnesota Fats: I quit, Eddie. I can't beat you. Willie,* give him the stake (To Bert) You've got yourself a pool player.

Eddie: Preacher, gimme my coat, will ya?

Bert: Where d'ya think you're goin'?

Bert: Eddie?

Bert: You owe me MONEY!

Eddie: And just how do you figure that, Bert? What do you figure I owe you?
Bert: Half.
Eddie: In Louisville,it was 75%.

Bert: Well, here it's half.

Eddie: What if I don't pay ya, Bert?

Bert: (Laughs) You don't pay me?

Bert: You're gonna get your thumbs broken again.

Bert: And your fingers. If I want 'em to, they're gonna break your right arm in three or four places.

Minnesota Fats: You better pay him, Eddie.

Eddie: So you figure you're still my manager,huh?
Bert: I'm a businessman, kid.

Eddie: Why, you gotta lotta games lined up for me?
Bert: We'll make a lot of money.
Eddie: 50%.
Bert: Nah, it doesn't have to be 50. It could be 30, 25.

Eddie: We really stuck the knife in her, didn't we, Bert?
Bert: Aaah...
Eddie: Oh, we really gave it to her good.

Bert: And if it didn't happen in Louisville, it'd happen someplace else. If it didn't happen now, it'd happen in six months. That's the kind of dame she was!

Eddie: But we twisted it, didn't we, Bert? 'Course, maybe that doesn't stick in your throat...

Eddie: ...'cause ya spit it out just the way you spit out everything else! But it sticks in mine.

Eddie: I loved her, Bert. I traded her in on a pool game.

Eddie: But that wouldn't mean anything to you, because who did you ever care about? Just win. "Win", you said. You don't know what winning is, Bert.

Eddie: You're a loser! 'Cause you're dead inside. And ya can't live unless you make everything else dead around ya!

Eddie: Too high, Bert.

Eddie: The price is too high. If I take it, she never lived, she never died. We both know that's not true, Bert, don't we, huh? She lived. She died.

Eddie: Boy, you tell your boys they better kill me, Bert. They better go all the way with me.

Eddie: 'Cause if they just bust me up, I'll put all those pieces back together, and then, so help me, God, Bert, I'll come back here and I'll kill you.

(Bert's bulls get nervous and advance, but Bert waves them off)Bert: No, no.

Bert: All right. All right.

Bert: Only, uh...don't ever walk into a big-time pool hall again.

Eddie: Fat man...

Eddie: shoot a great game of pool.

Minnesota Fats: So do you, Fast Eddie.

(Eddie picks up his cue, then taking one last look, walks out of the pool-hall forever. Bert watches him leave, then returns to his chair in the middle of the room. "Minnesota" Fats is helped into his jacket and coat and exits the hall. Freeze-frame.)

"The Hustler"

Words by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen

Pictures by Eugen Schüfftan and Robert Rossen

"The Hustler" is available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

* "Willie" is played by pool-great Willie Mosconi. Jake "Raging Bull" LaMotta plays a bartender.

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