Why do we watch a movie more than once? Maybe we were so stunned by the film that, by watching it again, we can study it more deeply and gain more understanding of its riches, (for me, Birdman is a recent example). Then we might decide to see that same film yet again, because now our eyes can visit every part of the screen, pick up every background nuance, squeeze out every drop of meaning.
Other films we see may not stun us or challenge us, but seep into our emotions and go so deep that we well-up, or even weep, either with sorrow, or with a deep joy, and these films we re-watch not for the studying but — well, it’s like visiting a dear friend for the comfort you know you will receive, and you want to feel that again.
For my next example of a film I keep rewatching, and believe I always will, I’ve picked The Hustler, 1961, Starring Paul Newman, George C. Scott and Piper Laurie. This one is a heavyweight, and it goes very deep. If I had to pick one favorite film (I’d hate to have to do that!) it would either be The Hustler, On The Waterfront or The Seven Samurai. (There, I’ve committed myself, and yet I hear dozens of other titles shouting in my ears).
I have seen “The Hustler” at least five or six times over the years, and I’ve used it my teachings. It’s a tough film, but also very tender. It’s a gritty film, but also gives some hope, and it’s a beautiful film – a black and white journey through gray streets, dark pool halls, and a small, grim apartment that makes Newman’s character (and makes the viewer) feel caged, but the direction by Robert Rossen and the photography by Eugen Schufftan somehow find the poetry in these settings, without ever calling attention to their choices.
Paul Newman’s character, an iconic figure to me, is Fast Eddie Felson, a pool hustler who has the charm to con women into bed and men into shooting a friendly game of pool with him. He plays them along until they want to raise the bet, and then, when the stake is at its highest, beats them at the game without ever, ever revealing just how good he is.
Because Eddie Felson is not just good -- he’s great. He may be a con artist, he may have little schooling and rough edges, but at pocket pool, he’s an artist. He and his partner-manager have conned their way across half the country to end up in Ames, Iowa, to play another master at the game, in fact, the ruling master, whose name is Minnesota Fats, and who is played with a very believable and very delicate edge by Jackie Gleason.
Gleason had one of the most successful comedy shows on early TV and created icons like his bus driver husband in the Honeymooners, yet when he accepted the rare role in a serious film, he showed just how flat-out good he could be, moving around that pool table, with all his girth, like a dancer, and with the solid believability of a guy who had grown up in halls like this dark and smoky pool room – because he, in fact, did and had the chops to play the role for real.
You might think that that what I’ve described so far is enough to make a fine movie, and it is, but I’ve just started. One of most sharply-etched film characters ever is also in this pool room. He’s not a player. He’s a gambler, a quiet, well-dressed man-who-watches, and gauges people and seems to know their worth, and he’s a user, not so much "played" byGeorge C. Scott – but "owned" by this fine and powerful actor.
Okay, now we have a full ensemble of fine characters to — wait a minute - there’s one more. We can’t leave out Piper Laurie, a memorable and distinctive actress who plays the hapless Sarah. She’s an alcoholic wanting to be a writer, and she falls hard for Eddie Felson, who comes to share her apartment, first in a miasma of drink and sex, but then…the deeper feelings come.
There’s a memorable scene among many great scenes in this film where Eddie and Sarah walk to a park on what is probably the movie’s only shot of a true sunny day. Eddie has lost a major game and is wondering if he is what George C. Scott said he was, a born loser. Sarah asks the right questions – what IS a loser and, Eddie, how do you FEEL about the game?
Newman has a wonderful monologue here, showing that he’s so much more than a hustler, and that when he’s moving around that table he feels like the pool cue is part of him, an extension of his arm with nerves and muscles – and Sarah looks at him deeply and knowingly and says – you’re not a loser. Most people never get to feel the way about anything. You’re a Winner, Eddie.
Now the cast is complete, and we begin to see that The Hustler is the story of a man who has an angel, a half-broken angel named Sarah, on one shoulder and a devil on the other shoulder, the malevolent user that Scott plays, and the heart and soul of Eddie Felson is in the middle, pulled one way, pulled the other.
No, I won’t tell you how this plays out. I love this film far too much to rob you of the deep, wrenching and loving struggle that takes place here. It’s a powerhouse, and I’ll watch it and live it again right with you.
I envy those of you who will see it for the first time.