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The Hustler (DVD)

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With "no bar, no pinball machines, no bowling," and even some posted prohibitions against gambling, New York's Ames Billiards (a real location) doesn't immediately seem like the sort of place to sell a soul. Its high ceilings and air of hushed concentration make it obvious why, in The Hustler, Paul Newman compares Ames to a church when he first walks in. Ames takes on a more sinister cast by the end of Robert Rossen's 1961 film, in which Newman enters as an innocent con man and leaves with a taste of what the world can do. Having traveled to New York with the dream of taking on pool legend Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), he learns that talent alone will only get him so far. A lack of "character," as near-silent, milk-sipping observer George C. Scott puts it, trips up the match as it stretches from early one evening to past sunrise on the following day. Left with nothing, Newman begins to plan a comeback, finding comfort with similarly down-and-out Piper Laurie, a lonely part-time student with a drinking problem, a bad limp, and a tendency to reinvent her own past. Her need for Newman nearly matches his own need to get back in the game, a conflict that turns dangerous when Scott, a man unwilling to share control, makes plans to manage Newman's comeback. Like the best sports films, The Hustler makes the game look exciting even to outsiders, but Rossen's film is ultimately about a more universal subject than impossible breaks and the heavy spin of masse shots. Adapting Walter Tevis' novel, Rossen made a morality tale without the moralizing. As the figure attempting to force Newman to trade on his talent for a life of compromise, servitude, and easy money, Scott may act the part of the devil incarnate, but the film gives the devil his due, even suggesting his course might be more pragmatic than diabolic. It's a world not that far removed from that of Rossen's great 1947 boxing movie Body And Soul, but the blacks and whites have faded into grays, and the strong politics have turned into disillusionment. What happened in the meantime? HUAC, for one thing—Rossen's decision to testify to save his career may inform some of the bitterness here—and age, for another. Newman appears to put on decades as the film progresses, as he takes on the posture of someone whose callowness has begun to ossify. Newman would revisit the character years later, chipping away some of the hardness in 1986's worthy Martin Scorsese-directed sequel The Color Of Money. Here, Newman gives a great performance as a man learning hard lessons too fast. Late in the film, Gleason and Newman share a moment of mutual admiration. It lasts little longer than a glance and a short exchange, while suggesting that in a world purely about the game they both love, it could have lasted much longer. By the time it arrives, Newman knows, as Gleason has all along, that neither of them will ever see that world.