Paul Newman, 1925-2008.

Not to be overlooked amidst all the election and bailout coverage, Paul Newman passed away this weekend. In my mind, he was the 2nd-most iconic actor of his generation, trailing only Clint Eastwood, despite the fact that I've only seen five of Newman's two dozen or so films, and only three from his prime. That alone speaks volumes about his cinematic presence and abilities. In addition to The Sting (an underrated Best Picture winner, if that's possible) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (one of the first and best buddy flicks), the other classic Newman movie I have seen is The Hustler, the best parts of which still resonate with me three years later. Here's my original review...

The Hustler
is a classic 1961 film about the shady pool halls of the post-WWII era. Anyone of the three main characters could fill the titular role, whether it be Paul Newman's up-and-comer, Jackie Gleason's man-to-beat, or George C. Scott's behind-the-scenes angle-shooter.

These three stars (all-Oscar nominated) carry the picture, both individually and collectively. The thirty-ish Newman is simply a revelation to anyone (me) who hasn't seen him act much in his prime. He perfectly captures the smooth, in control but on the edge persona of Fast Eddie, who has the physical tools, but not necessarily the mental skills to be a champion. Gleason likewise perfectly fills the body and clothes of Minnesota Fats, with a graceful elegance uncommon to a man of his size. Scott (who declined his Oscar nomination) could easily have been overshadowed in his role, but his subtle and shifty eyes and movements create a character that occasionally outshines his two huge co-stars.

The Hustler reaches its zeniths when at least two of these men are on the screen. The dialogue exchanges of Newman and Scott as they feel each other out crackle with intensity. Gleason and Scott ooze wary respect for each other; and Newman and Gleason combine admiration and competitiveness into one neat package from which the entire film derives its energy.

A film about pool sharks seems to demand brilliant representation of its colorful world. But French cinematographer Eugene Shuftan instead opts for black-and-white, which surprisingly works wonderfully. His Oscar-winning imagery particularly excels in displaying light and shadows, such as the sun streaming into smoke-filled billiards halls. Shuftan accomplishes an exceptional feat, using a monotone style to effectively paint vivid pictures.

Despite high achievement in so many areas, The Hustler suffers from Doughnut Syndrome: there's a hole in the middle. The pool scenes that bracket the story are very good, and one middle scene between Newman and Scott is the best of the film, but the romantic portion of the story flounders. The drifter Newman falls for a fellow drifter (Piper Laurie) for no apparent reason, other than alcohol and the fact that they're both alone. To their credit, they do acknowledge that their relationship is flimsy and depraved, but the movie squanders too much times on this wafer-thin story arc, rather than stick with what works.

Those parts succeed wildly, about as enjoyable as any scenes ever shot, but without adequate buttressing material, the film as a whole falls short of the high watermark left by its parts.

Bottom Line: Phenomenal at times, but subpar at others, the male performances carry the film. Seven of ten, but definitely worth viewing if you haven't seen it yet.

Edit: In my memory, I'd bump this up a notch, because parts were off-the-charts good. But I don't recall the weaker portions, which means they were probably as mediocre as I originally thought.