The Hustler, True Grit, Rio Bravo

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Fox, Paramount, Warner, Universal

Paul Newman has been around so long and is so extended as a personality -- we see him most frequently on salad dressing labels -- that there's a danger of forgetting his genius.

Comes now the news that he's out of the acting game at age 82. Ponder this: If there's anyone close to being a new Paul Newman, he's probably in the cast of "Ocean's Thirteen." Yikes.

Anyone in need of a refresher should cue up for Fox's double-disc rerelease of "The Hustler" (retail $19.98). This was Newman's breakthrough film, a startling piece of lowlife lit built around the fictional pool-shooting punk Fast Eddy Felson. George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason and Piper Laurie turned this 1961 drama into an actors showcase. Every other line found its way into the nation's pool halls and stayed there for decades.

Robert Rossen directed with style, daring and street smarts, in striking black and white.

This DVD appears to have the same video and audio as the last Fox release, in 2002. No big deal -- there is almost no apparent wear and the widescreen images look handsome overall, a little pale here or murky there. The DVD also ports over the extras from '02, including a group commentary in which Newman participates.

New to the set are three featurettes about the movie, actors and pool shots. Newman is interviewed on camera, sharp but hunched over and hoarsely whispering a lot. The heavy lifting is done by Piper Laurie, who has excellent recall of the New York production. (Newman and Laurie both were in their mid-30s. Rossen called them "kids.")

Newman pays tribute to Gleason, who played Minnesota Fats: "He was on time, he knew what he was doing. Jackie Gleason is about as good as it gets." The TV comic already was an ace pool player. Newman claimed he'd never held a stick, but was coached up in no time by billiards legend Willie Mosconi, who often provided the hands and the trick shots for the actor.

Two decades later, of course, Newman won the Oscar for reprising the role of Fast Eddie in "The Color of Money." Score that one a career makegood, in large part for this brash, run-the-rack performance.

Fox deserves credit for upgrading the title at a fair price, but owners of the previous disc probably should wait for rerack on the A/V. There is a fair amount of repetition in the shotgun marriage of old and new extras.

Fox also brings to market a similar treatment of "The Verdict" (1982).

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John Wayne's belated Oscar came for 1969's "True Grit," a rousing entertainment that didn't stand quite as tall as, say, "Red River" or "The Searchers." Paramount released the double-disc set as part of the studio's 100th-year Wayne promotion with Warner (retail $19.99).

The Duke plays one-eyed bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn. Valley girl Kim Darby plays a teen bent on avenging her father's death. Darby, who gives a sensational performance, stood toe-to-toe with Wayne onscreen and off, the bonus features note.

The extras aren't deep, but the docu "Working With the Duke" does a decent job of positioning "True Grit" in Wayne's sunsetting career. Perhaps mellowing with age, right-winger Wayne went to bat for the hiring of blacklisted screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, who was "weaned on stories about gunfighters."

The images of Colorado (2.35:1) are suitably sweeping and majestic. An extra feature returns to some of the "True Grit" locations, such as the graphic triple hanging.

Warner's revival of the Wayne-Howard Hawks collaboration "Rio Bravo" comes on strong as well, with versions on DVD, Blu-ray and HD DVD (retail $20.98-$28.99). The remastered Technicolor images (1.78:1) are faithfully on the dark side -- everything feels like it's shot in a red-booth restaurant. The high-def versions add a lot of contrast and some sharpness, but there's a whiff of colorization that might unsettle purists. The mono sound is gunshot-ready.

Don't miss the oddball jam session with Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan, a welcome breather in this lengthy western.

Disc 2's hourlong 1973 documentary on Hawks is the best film in the set, built around an expansive poolside interview with the old director. Hawks vents about "High Noon," whose depiction of a shaky lawman he rebutted with "Rio Bravo." The docu's director, the critic Richard Schickel, shares the commentary track with John Carpenter, whose "Assault on Precinct 13" was a "Rio Bravo" spawn.

Also of note in the recent swarm of DVD westerns is Jacques Tourneur's "Canyon Passage," the highlight of Universal's "Classic Westerns Round-Up Vol. 1." The smooth, unusual 1946 movie about love and community stars Dana Andrews, Susan Hayward and the lute-totting minstrel Hoagy Carmichael.

Glenn Abel's DVD blog can be found at dvdspindoctor.com.

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