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On Sept. 25, 1961, 20th Century Fox premiered Paul Newman’s The Hustler in Washington, D.C. The film went on to be nominated for nine Oscars at the 34th Academy Awards, winning in the art direction and cinematography categories. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review, headlined “‘The Hustler’ Provocative, Powerful Offbeat Picture,” is below.
Provocative and powerful, The Hustler is an odd and serious picture that will have some fanatical admirers — as it should, because the Robert Rossen production is an important and, in its way, satisfying experience. It is, however, well outside the usual Hollywood story, and 20th-Fox will have to do some strenuous and sustained promotion if it is to be a general success.
Rossen has returned to his original genre in The Hustler, the black-and-white actuality of life, including some of its seamier and more brutal aspects. Paul Newman plays the title role, a crack pool player who makes his living hustling unsuspecting locals. It is his ambition to beat the uncrowned champion, Jackie Gleason. In his first match with him he loses, because — according to Gleason’s shadowy entrepreneur, George C. Scott — he is a compulsive loser. Scott, in a frightfully brutalizing education, makes him a murderous winner. He beats Gleason and discovers the prize is not worth the race.
That is the plot, all the rest is incident. Rossen, of course, is not interested in trying to popularize pool or show that it can be an intriguing spectator sport. His theme is success and the degrading, demoralizing effects it can have when the glitter of the goal so dazzles the eyes of the contestant that he becomes morally blind.
Except for a couple very brief transitional scenes, almost the whole third of the picture (about 45 minutes) is made up of two pool games, one brief, one very long. The structure is daring, but Rossen, who directed as well as co-authoring the screenplay with Sidney Carroll, brings it off. The sequences crackle with vitality as well as setting subtly the characterizations and packing the explosives to be detonated later.
Newman gives a restrained, modulated performance, an unusual one in that character development is sought and achieved with utilization only of voice, gesture, intensity. Piper Laurie, as another “loser,” in Scott’s terminology, is destroyed in the process of Newman’s toughening. Miss Laurie, with economy of vocal inflection and physical reaction, gives a heartbreaking portrayal. Gleason’s studied intensity and dapper force marks him an actor who should be seen far more in pictures. Scott is ferocious in understatement. Myron McCormick and Murray Hamilton are very good. Others helpful include Michael Constantine, Stefan Gierasch and Jake LaMotta, later in a color bit.
Gene Shufton’s camera work, done on fine locations found by art directors Harry Horner and Albert Brenner, catches perfectly the mood Rossen had in mind. The pool shots, particularly, are completely authentic, and the cutting by Dede Allen makes them seem to be the work of the principals. Newman and Gleason display a better than passing familiarity with the game, for added authenticity.
The screenplay by Rossen and Carroll has its moments of poetry amid the ugly surroundings, and it is meaningful and apt throughout. — James Powers, originally published on Sept. 25, 1961
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