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Featured Blu-ray Review: The Hustler

May 16th, 2011

The Hustler - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

The second 50th anniversary edition Blu-ray release I've reviewed this weekend. Unlike the last one, The Hustler is not second-tier in any regard. It earned amazing reviews when it first came out, and while it wasn't the big winner at the Oscars the following year (West Side Story was), it earned two Oscars from nine nominations. But how well does it stand up? Pool halls are mostly a thing of the past. They are about as common today as pinball machines.

The Movie

Eddie Felson and his partner, Charlie, are traveling to Pittsburgh for a sales convention where Eddie is set to pick up an award. They stop by a bar while their car is checked and Eddie and Charlie get to drinking and start playing pool, since they have plenty time to finish their trip. As the evening progresses, Eddie gets drunker and loses more and more money before finally winning a game on a lucky shot. However, Eddie's upset Charlie would call that a lucky shot and demands a $20 bet to prove he could do it again. And when he fails, he demands another shot, at much higher stakes. Charlie refuses, but the bar patrons are more than willing to get into the action. Eddie makes a $105 bet with the bartender, and wins.

Eddie and Charlie are not on their way to any convention, they are pool sharks traveling the country looking to build up a bankroll large enough to take on Minnesota Fats, and he finally gets his wish.

Here's where things get a little difficult when it comes to discussing the plot in a spoiler free way. We are about 15 minutes into a two-hour movie and from here on out, almost every detail is a spoiler, either minor or major. Little details like the interactions between characters, the dynamics, need to be seen first hand. The larger story arc of the rise, fall, and redemption of Fast Eddie is a much larger spoiler, especially how it plays out. We don't actually see his rise, for instance, as when we meet Eddie Felson, he is at the top of his game. Meanwhile, his redemption comes at such a high price, one could argue he never gained what he was looking for.

So while the plot is nearly impossible to discuss without spoilers, I can heap praise onto nearly all aspects of the film. The writing, the directing, and especially the acting are all amazing. It's no surprise that the four main leads all earned Oscar nominations, while it also picked up nods for script, directing, and best picture. Even if you have no idea how to play pool, you will still be drawn in by the character study. The dynamic between Eddie and Charlie clearly shows a relationship that has been built up over years on the road, even if we don't see that in the film. The rivalry between Eddie and Minnesota Fats shows the difference between raw talent and talent refined with emotional control. Eddie and Sarah Packard's romance is one between two wounded people, which produces just the right amount of melodrama without souring. George C. Scott plays Bert Gordon, Minnesota Fats' manager who later becomes Eddie's manager, with the right level of calculating cool. The Faustian deal he corners Eddie into taking makes sense at the time, even if you know it will turn out poorly.

Overall, The Hustler is a movie that transcends pool, gambling, the con, and becomes a dramatic character study between several people with varying degrees of flaws. Even if you have no interest in pool, this film will captivate you.

The Extras

There are a trio of featurettes are are new, starting with Paul Newman at Fox which is a 27-minute long retrospective of Paul Newman's career. Jackie Gleason: The Big Man looks at Jackie Gleason, who is best known for his comedic work, but he was multitalented, as this film proves. The Real Hustler is a 19-minute featurette on Walter Tevis, who wrote the original novel that the film is based on.

Holdovers start with an audio commentary track with Stuart Galbraith, who acts as host for such people as Paul Newman, Carol Rossen, Dede Allen, Stefan Gierasch, Ulu Grosbard, Richard Schickel, and Jeff Young. It's wall-to-wall information. Other featurettes can be divided into interview featurettes, retrospectives, and a couple that are about real-life pool hustlers / trick shot artists. There's even an A&E Biography episode on Paul New Man.

The digibook has images, plot synopsis, and essays on the cast and director.

Good lord this movie looks amazing. The level of detail is incredible. There's a part early in the movie where Minnesota Fats sends for his manager, Bert Gordon. Looking around the pool table, I was stunned how much detail you could see. "You can count the hairs on that guy's head. Which is impressive, considering how much Brylcreem he uses." The Oscar-winning production design and cinematography are fully on display here. The audio is less impressive; however, that's to be expected since the film was originally shot in mono more than 50 years ago. There's simply no way the studio could overcome the weaknesses in the source material. That said, they do an excellent job trying. I can almost guarantee it's never sounded better. It's certainly never sounded better on the home market.

The Verdict

The Hustler makes its Blu-ray debut this week and it is everything fans could hope for. The film is arguably the best from 1961, the extras on the Blu-ray include several new featurettes, as well as plenty of extras ported over from the DVD. Its technical presentation is amazing, especially for a film that's 50 years old. It is absolutely worth picking up and contender for Pick of the Week.

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