Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Hustler (1961) and The Color of Money (1986)

No one will ever accuse CrazyFilmGuy of imitating a pool hustler. Having played several games of pool over the recent holiday on a friend's new pool table, I was reminded that one has to practice and practice and play consistently to be a good pool player. Yes, I can occasionally hit a good shot or even consecutive shots but then I evolve back to the terrible pool player that I am. One time at a San Fernando Valley Cowboy bar, I became a pool hustler by accident for about an hour. It was a quarter to play the previous winner. He knocked the eight ball into the side pocket during the match. That's a scratch and he lost. I took over the table and won three more matches because each challenger hit the eight ball into the pocket prematurely. Skill had nothing to do with my pool hustling at the Cowboy Saloon. It was all luck that night.

But actor Paul Newman did practice and practice to play pool hustler "Fast" Eddie Felson in THE HUSTLER (1961). It adds to the believability for his character. Director Robert Rossen makes sure to shoot the billiard game in wide shots so we can see that Newman, Jackie Gleason,  and the other actors are really playing pool and playing pretty darned well. My first encounter with "Fast" Eddie Felson was the sequel to THE HUSTLER called THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986) directed by Martin Scorsese with Paul Newman back as the older and maybe wiser Eddie Felson and Tom Cruise as the young hotshot pool phenom who reminds Felson of himself. It had some nice camerawork by Scorsese and a good soundtrack but I probably should have watched THE HUSTLER first to learn Eddie's backstory. Now that I'm older and wiser (but still a terrible pool player), CrazyFilmGuy is going to do just that and watch the definitive story THE HUSTLER (which I've never seen) first and then revisit THE COLOR OF MONEY.

Directed by Robert Rossen (ALL THE KING'S MEN) with a screenplay by Sydney Carroll and Rossen based on the novel by Walter S. Tevis, THE HUSTLER open with "Fast" Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) and his partner Charlie Burns (Myron McCormick) pulling up to a local bar/pool hall outside of Pittsburgh. Eddie and Charlie are pool hustlers. The opening sequence quickly introduces the audience to the pool hustle as Eddie and Charlie hustle the local patrons and even the bartender (a young Vincent Gardenia) out of a couple hundred dollars.

Eddie may be a pool hustler but he's also a very good pool player. His ultimate goal is to beat the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Eddie and Charlie arrive at Ames Hall in New York where Fats frequents. Fats hasn't lost in 15 years according to one of the locals Big John (Michael Constantine). Eddie gets his chance when Fats arrives at his usual 8pm. Eddie and Fats play an epic game spanning over 24 hours, drawing a large crowd at times including gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) who bankrolls Fats. Both men are up and down with the money. At one point, Eddie has won $11,400 dollars. But he can't walk away and Fats crushes him. Eddie and Charlie end up at a fleabag hotel and Eddie ditches Charlie, taking a bus to another town, hoping for a fresh start.

Eddie encounters Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), an young alcoholic woman, at the bus station then again in a nearby bar. Eddie moves in with Sarah and they become lovers. Charlie tracks Eddie down to Sarah's apartment. Charlie wants to get back out and hustle pool with Eddie. For Eddie, their partnership is over. Eddie runs into the gambler Bert at a poker game. Bert offers to put up some money for Eddie to hustle pool again but Bert's cut is too steep and Eddie spurns him. Eddie tries to hustle some local toughs at a bar near the docks. The thugs, led by the Turk (Cliff Pellow) break both of Eddie's thumbs because he's a "pool shark." Did Bert put out the word to hurt Eddie?

Eddie stumbles back into the Sarah's arms.  Sarah nurses him back to health. Eddie becomes human again. Sarah falls in love with him. When Eddie recovers, he hooks back up with Bert and his 75/25 split. Bert has a mark in Louisville that he wants Eddie to play. Eddie brings Sarah with them. Bert and Sarah don't like each other. Bert sees her as a distraction for Eddie. Sarah believes Bert is using Eddie. Eddie plays a southern gentleman named Findley (Murray Hamilton). Findley wants to play billiards not straight pool. In typical Eddie Felson fashion, he falls behind in the money but then rallies to beat Findley. But in beating Findley, he loses Sarah who commits suicide by pills.

Eddie returns to Ames Hall for one final match against Minnesota Fats. Eddie brings the remaining $3000 that he won for Bert but cost him Sarah's life. Eddie's a different person in this game. He beats Fats but he beats him with character. Bert still wants his cut but Eddie reminds him, "I loved her Bert. I traded her in on a pool game." Eddie walks out of the Ames Hall a changed man.

THE HUSTLER examines the human condition. Director Rossen is more interested in a story about losers than winners. Eddie, Charlie, Sarah, even Bert and Minnesota Fats to some degree are losers in life. Bert calls Eddie "a born loser." He tells Eddie that he doesn't have "character" like Minnesota Fats. Rossen uses cripples as a metaphor for these self-destructive souls and their struggles. Sarah has a lame leg, weakened from polio when she was a child. Eddie has both his thumbs broken, making him a cripple, keeping him away from pool briefly. Even the black pool hall attendant Henry (Blue Washington) has a deformity that makes him limp when he walks. Life is hard for the people of THE HUSTLER.

The dynamics between all the characters is fascinating. Early in THE HUSTLER, there is the father/son relationship between Charlie and Eddie. Eddie breaks it off. The relationship between Eddie and Minnesota Fats is like a father/son relationship too. The young Eddie (son) trying to topple the older Fats (father) in straight pool. What son hasn't felt the elation when he finally beats his father at a game of basketball or a sprint. Gambler Bert takes a fatherly interest in Eddie even if it's for purely financial reasons. Eddie asks why Bert suddenly wants to "adopt" him. Bert may think Eddie's a "born loser" but he does recognize Eddie has "talent" meaning he can make Bert some money. Eddie doesn't recognize Bert will use him. But Sarah does.

Eddie and Sarah hustle each other in their relationship. Sarah tries to build Eddie up. She tells him he's a "winner" and that she loves him. Eddie supports Sarah's drinking habit and provides physical comfort for her. But they are using each other to get by. Sarah will make the ultimate sacrifice to save Eddie's soul from Bert. She scrawls with lipstick on a hotel bathroom mirror the words PERVERTED. TWISTED. CRIPPLED. This is her vision of her and Eddie's relationship. Earlier, she had written that she and Eddie had a "contract of depravity." They drink and make love but never show their true feelings or behave like normal human beings.

Bert is the devil and Eddie is willing to sell his soul to Bert to get back into the pool game. Bert tells Eddie that "character overcomes talent." Eddie had Fats on the ropes in their first encounter but Eddie gets overwhelmed by the moment, getting drunk and losing his cool while he was ahead. Fats just puts baby powder on his hands and calmly waits for Eddie to crumble. Sarah will become the angel who saves  Eddie's soul from Bert but at a terrible price. And Minnesota Fats is neither devil nor angel. He's a well-dressed, dapper Buddha, a Zen Master of Pool, unshakable whether he's winning or losing. He's cool and calm. He never raises his voice, never puts his opponent down. He just plays pool and he plays it very well. He is God in the pool hall, almost mythical. When Fats and Eddie play pool it's like two knights jousting with pool sticks and chalk.

THE HUSTLER would solidify Paul Newman as a movie superstar. Newman's portrayal of Eddie Felson would also define the type of characters Newman would play for the next 10 years - the antihero. He's not bad but he's not a good person either. HUD (1963), HARPER (1966), COOL HAND LUKE (1967), and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) are all antihero roles that Newman would excel in. Newman was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award as Eddie Felson and he should have won but he didn't (he lost to Maximilian Schell for JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG). Newman's performance is nothing short of magnificent. But the movie gods would reward Newman for that oversight by awarding Newman the Best Actor Academy Award for THE HUSTLER sequel THE COLOR OF MONEY. But don't be fooled. His 1986 Oscar is an apology for Newman's not winning in 1961 as Felson in THE HUSTLER.

Newman excels because he has three incredible costars to feed off. The scenes between Newman and Jackie Gleason, Newman and George C. Scott, and Newman and Piper Laurie are Oscar worthy, every one of them. There is not a wasted scene in THE HUSTLER. Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats is only in two scenes but he dominates those two scenes. Gleason was famous for his comedic character Ralph Cramden in the TV comedy show THE HONEYMOONERS but he demonstrates he could play dramatic parts equally as well. George C. Scott as gambler Bert Gordon reminds me why Scott's early film career was so electric. Watch Scott in THE HUSTLER or DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) and be awe struck by his intensity and delivery. Scott would win the Best Actor Academy Award in 1970 for his role as General George S. Patton in PATTON.  Piper Laurie may not be a household name or star which makes her character Sarah Packard all the more real and tragic. We don't have any preconceived opinions of her. Laurie would gain more fame as Sissy Spacek's fanatically religious mother in Brian DePalma's CARRIE (1976) and later costarred on the cult TV show TWIN PEAKS.

Even the smaller supporting cast in THE HUSTLER is uniformly good. Myron McCormick as Charlie Burns, Eddie's surrogate father and partner in pool hustling and Murray Hamilton as the salaciously pleasant Southern gentleman and billiard player Findley stand out. Other familiar faces to look for in THE HUSTLER include Michael Constantine (TV's ROOM 222) as Big John, another pool hustler/gambler; the real boxer Jake LaMotta (for which Martin Scorsese's 1980 film RAGING BULL is about) as a bartender, and World Champion pool player Willie Mosconi (who trained Newman and did some of the film's trick shots) as a pool hall regular.

Director Robert Rossen may be one of the most talented filmmakers you never heard of. I thought he was a French director (but he's not). Rossen started out as an accomplished screenwriter (THE SEA WOLF). Then, Rossen directed BODY AND SOUL (1947) and ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949) which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. But between 1949 and 1961 when he directed THE HUSTLER, Rossen was dogged by the House Committee for Un-American Activities (HUAC). Rossen ended up naming Communists to save his career and then went to Europe where he made a few mediocre films until he returned to New York to make his masterpiece THE HUSTLER. His next film LILITH (1964) with Warren Beatty would not do well and Rossen died in 1966, much too soon.

But what a masterpiece he left us with THE HUSTLER. Story, acting, photography, set design, and editing (the great Dede Allen) all come together. The film is about winners and losers not pool but Rossen spreads the story out over 5 different pool games, each match serving as a chapter or act for the story. Eddie is a loner and Rossen often frames Eddie by himself in doorways and windows, isolating him. Before I watched THE HUSTLER, I figured Eddie and Fats would play at the finale of the movie, the big match between the two best pool players. But Rossen has Eddie and Fats play early in the movie when Eddie loses and then again in the finale as he climbs from the lowest depths to transform into a wiser Eddie Felson.

Rossen wanted authenticity for THE HUSTLER. Most of the film was shot in New York in real pool halls, bus stations, and diners. THE HUSTLER oozes smoke and booze and sweat. Look at the characters seated around the fringe of the pool table when Eddie and Fats play with their slicked back hair, cigarettes, and dark glasses. They all look like hustlers and gamblers.

Martin Scorsese's sequel to THE HUSTLER called THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986) attempts to stand on its own while showing reverence for the original. The easiest distinction is THE COLOR OF MONEY is shot in color and not black and white like THE HUSTLER. Scorsese makes this clear at the very beginning with gaudy red title credits and deep, thick colors for the pool halls. THE COLOR OF MONEY'S music is more blues oriented with music by Willie Dixon, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters. THE HUSTLER had a jazzy score. 9 ball is the game in THE COLOR OF MONEY. It was straight pool in THE HUSTLER.

I had seen THE COLOR OF MONEY first back in college but I had not seen THE HUSTLER so I didn't have any context about Eddie's past. Now that I've seen the two films in chronological order, how does THE COLOR OF MONEY stand up to THE HUSTLER? COLOR is a worthy sequel to THE HUSTLER. It's not as dark or as powerful as the first film but it's exciting to watch Paul Newman resume the "Fast" Eddie Felson character as a middle-aged man and show us what Felson has been up to since he walked out of Ames Hall after beating Minnesota Fats. Scorsese and screenwriter Richard Price adroitly focus on the older Felson's relationship with a young hotshot pool player played by the hottest young actor in the 80's Tom Cruise. Eddie has become a combination of Bert Gordon and Minnesota Fats and Cruise's Vincent is now the young Eddie Felson we saw in THE HUSTLER.

The film opens with an older "Fast" Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), white haired and with a moustache sitting at a bar chatting with his bartender/owner girlfriend Janelle (Helen Shaver). Felson is a liquor salesman now. Behind him, a young, naïve hotshot pool player Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise) is taking Eddie's protégé Julian (John Turturro) to the cleaners while Vincent's girlfriend/manager Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) keeps an ever watchful eye. Eddie likes what he sees in Vincent, reminding Eddie of himself. Eddie tells Vincent "you are a natural character; you're an incredible flake. But I'll tell you something kiddo. You couldn't find Big Time if you had a road map."  Eddie takes the two of them under his wing. Eddie wants to take Vincent to a 9 ball tournament in Atlantic City. But he wants to take five or six weeks to get there, show Vincent and Carmen how to hustle in smaller pool halls and college bars (the film was also shot in Chicago). He wants Vincent to sometimes lose on purpose so when they get to Atlantic City, they can take everyone to the cleaners.

The trip starts out badly at first. Eddie's a little rusty getting back into the pool hustle. But Vincent's potential lights a fire in Eddie that has been extinct for some time. Vincent and Carmen test Eddie's patience. Eddie has a hard time controlling Vincent. Eddie needs Carmen to work with him not against him. It's tough for Vincent to "lay down" and lose on purpose. Eddie runs one hustle with Vincent in which Eddie and Carmen play boyfriend/girlfriend which makes Vincent jealous. When Vincent goes out after hours and beats a good local player named Moselle (Bruce A. Young) against Eddie's wishes, Eddie cuts his ties with Vincent and Carmen, giving them their stake (money) and wishing them the best in Atlantic City.

Eddie decides to compete again. But he gets schooled by another young hustler Amos (Forrest Whittaker) and begins to doubt his skills. Eddie gets his eyes checked and begins to wear glasses.  He plays again and starts to have some success even beating Moselle. Eddie enters the Atlantic City 9 ball tournament. He runs into Vincent and Carmen. Eddie and Vincent meet in the semi-finals where Eddie beats Vincent. But later, Eddie finds out that Vincent lost on purpose, winning a lot of money on a side wager. The next day, Eddie forfeits his championship match. He waits for Vincent. He wants Vincent's "best game." They rack them up to face each other as the film ends.

The fun of THE COLOR OF MONEY is watching how Eddie Felson has evolved. Eddie is part Bert Gordon, the gambler that almost destroyed Eddie in THE HUSTLER and forced him to retire. Eddie sees potential (and money) in Vincent just like Bert saw an opportunity to make money with Eddie. But Eddie is also part Minnesota Fats. Eddie's the wily veteran who wants to show the young Vincent he's still king of the pool table. Watching Eddie and Vincent square off in the finale is a little deja vu when the younger, cockier Eddie competed against the best in Minnesota Fats in THE HUSTLER.

Paul Newman doesn't miss a beat as he picks up his Eddie Felson character 25 years later. But THE COLOR OF MONEY'S Eddie Felson priorities have changed since THE HUSTLER. He doesn't play pool, instead bankrolling younger players like Julian and Vincent. The game has passed him by. It's 9 ball that they're playing not straight pool. Eddie chides Julian for taking drugs like cocaine and amphetamines. In Eddie's day, it was just alcohol. But as Eddie deals with Vincent and Carmen, he realizes it's like taking care of kids, kids that Eddie never had. When Vincent fails to follow Eddie's advice, Eddie finds that desire to win, to dominate in pool again. He gets his fire to be the best back.

The passing of the mantle from Eddie to Vincent is also the case of Paul Newman passing the baton to a young Tom Cruise. Newman made a career out of playing anti-heroes, cocky guys bucking the system. Cruise's early career was definitely playing cocky characters although I never thought of Cruise as an anti-hero. I have to admit Cruise is better in THE COLOR OF MONEY than I remember. Yes he's cocky but not in his annoying TOP GUN or DAYS OF THUNDER way. His Vincent displays a conscience and a heart. Vincent doesn't know how good he is like young Eddie Felson did. But older Eddie will harden Vincent, teach him the ropes.

The other revelation in THE COLOR OF MONEY is rediscovering one of the better actresses of the 1980's in Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. I forgot how good she was.  She's not a crippled, damaged soul like Piper Laurie in THE HUSTLER. In fact, Mastrantonio's Carmen is a female version of Bert and Eddie. She sees Vincent's talent but just isn't sure how to utilize it until Eddie teaches her the ropes. She's slightly older than Vincent, more mature, nurturing. Mastrantonio had a good run in the 80's besides MONEY with SCARFACE (1983), THE ABYSS (1989), and ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (1991). Forrest Whittaker also stands out as the young pool hustler Amos who catches Eddie off guard, taking Eddie's money and sending Eddie into a deep funk. And look for 80's professional pool players in the film including Steve Mizerak (you might remember him from a few Miller Lite Beer commercials) and Keith McCready who plays the vulgar player Grady Seasons.

Although Rossen moved his camera at times in THE HUSTLER, Scorsese uses his usual bag of cinematic tricks, having the camera swirl around Eddie or Vincent or the pool table or using fast pans as the players break, making the game more visually interesting. THE COLOR OF MONEY even uses some trick photography like an extreme close up as the camera follows a giant pool ball into a pocket. One of Vincent's matches set against Warren Zevon's Werewolves of London is Scorsese at his best, Vincent strutting around the table like a rooster. Long time Scorsese collaborators Michael Ballhaus (Director of Photography) and Thelma Schoonmaker (Editor) make it all look so effortless. Besides this sequel to THE HUSTLER, Scorsese would also remake the 1962 thriller CAPE FEAR in 1991. My only real knock on THE COLOR OF MONEY is the cheesy poster. It just seems a film with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise should have a classier poster than what Touchstone came up with.

In anyone else's hands THE COLOR OF MONEY could have been a disaster and ruined the legacy of THE HUSTLER. But Scorsese, knowing that he can't top the classic THE HUSTLER, chooses to make a more character driven sequel, showing the audience what has happened to Eddie Felson 25 years later. And having Paul Newman return to play the pivotal "Fast" Eddie is key. THE COLOR OF MONEY has talent but it's THE HUSTLER that has the character that still resounds even today. What a great double bill those two films would be.

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