The Hustler feels grimy. Not grimy in the way that Midnight Cowboy - a film about a very different type of hustler - feels, but the kind of grimy that you feel when you didn’t get to bed last night and still feel like you’re coasting on the dregs of yesterday. Considering this film has at least three instances of people shooting pool for more than twelve hours at a stretch, that’s hardly surprising. But Rossen and his director of photography,
Eugen Schüfftan, create this feeling of griminess not only through lighting and art direction, but through the way in which they frame the pool games.
Paul Newman plays Fast Eddie Felsen, a man who doesn’t know when to quit in practically every way that matters. He spends the film falling for Sarah Packard, a woman who perfectly embodies that quaint epithet ‘damaged’. Sarah is an alcoholic, almost certainly as a result of her depression, and never gets saved from this because she is surrounded by people too selfish and callous to care. It takes some time for Felsen to realise this, and when he does, the two spend only a brief time holding each other above water before Felsen is drawn back into the world of hustling pool.
This romantic plot is mostly here so that Felsen can have everything good taken away from him abruptly. It also gives us a handy villain in the form of Bert (George C. Scott), who is acting as an agent of sorts for Felsen’s ‘career’.For the first half of the film, the closest character we have to a villain is Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), a portly legend of the pool hall. Gleason plays the role with grace and imperial disdain, watching Felsen quietly and measuredly until he makes a mistake. There’s no outbursts from him, and this makes him hard to believe as a villain - we want him to lose, sure, but we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. Bert’s control over Fast Eddie creeps up and up until, by the time he reaches his most sadistic moments, the film and the viewer are in thrall to him.
Enough about the character arcs, though. Stanley Kauffmann declared the film “full of pseudo-meaning”, and it’s hard to believe he was talking about anything other than the rails the characters stay steadfastly on. The thing that keeps this film riveting is the way the pool sequences are shot, and it’s here that the sordidness becomes textual.
At the highest moments of tension, the camera shifts to a higher angle. It only does this a dozen times or so over the course of the film, and only ever in the poolhall sequences - whenever we’re with Sarah, everything is shot at a neutral angle. The usual reading of this type of shot as signifying the insignificance of a character in the face of destiny, the world, or another character doesn’t help us out here: both Felsen and Minnesota Fats are in this shot, and Fats is in clear control of the situation. However, the shot carries a feeling of claustrophobia, of clutteredness, because the high-angle shot allows Rossen and Schüfftan to pack faces into every inch of the frame if they so desire. If we drop the camera to a neutral angle, we lose Willie Mosconi (real-life pool legend) on the left behind Newman’s shoulder, and Gleason and Myron McCormick are clustered too close on the right. This sort of dynamic can be seen in the film’s neutral-angle shots of crowds watching the game: there are a dozen faces, but they’re all in a row in about a third of the frame. By framing from a higher angle, the scene becomes more tense, more busy. The pool sequences are also highlights because of the way they’re edited by
Dede Allen, who also edited Bonnie and Clyde. As Roger Ebert points out, the story is told through Allen’s editing. We don’t need these sequences to be longer than they are; Allen makes us feel the passage of time through the rhythm of her editing. It’s sequences like this that make her one of the many great female editors whose artistry is often overlooked. I now want to go and watch Dog Day Afternoon again so I can pay closer attention to what she did in it.
The Hustler is a dark film, about the war in Felsen between his better impulses and his worst drives. It’s not a feel good film, and the faces in the film’s long final shot are defeated and tired after another marathon in the poolhall. But it’s honest on an emotional level, even if it’s not always believable on a narrative level.
Oh, and Jake LaMotta has a cameo as a bartender. Yeah, ‘Raging Bull’ Jake LaMotta. So there’s that.