Monday, May 11, 2009

Overshadowed: A Sport Enjoyed by All


As always with Overshadowed, spoilers are in effect.

Go into just about any pool hall in the country, especially those frequented by casual players, and I'll bet you that you'll see the above image, enlarged, framed and hanging on the wall. That's because in 1961, Paul Newman played Fast Eddie Felson in Robert Rossen's film The Hustler, and by virtue of being Paul Newman (which is not, by any means, to say Newman is the only thing the film has going for it) every man of a certain age across America who wasn't already devoted to the game of pool suddenly decided that maybe picking up a cue stick could be worth their time. If you learned how to play pool, and could play it well, you could make money. You could show your superiority over other men. You could take on a pose of world-weariness. You could be a man. The culture of pool hustling obviously already existed, but Rossen's film, and Newman's incredibly skilled and seductive performance, turned it into a fad. Of course, most fads -- frisbees, Pokemon -- don't require the level of practice and accomplishment that a person needs to really take part in serious pool, so the vast majority of the people who put their quarters on the table after seeing The Hustler suddenly found themselves not living the life of Eddie Felson or Minnesota Fats, but, instead, merely discovered that they were the owner of a brand new hobby. Because once you've picked up the habit of shooting pool, you don't just drop it. You don't leave it behind when the next fad comes along. You might not be any good, but it's a damn good game to play. Even at the level of rank amateur, when shooting good pool -- good for them, anyway -- a person can still feel that "Nothing could be so clear or so simple or so excellent to do."
.
That line's not from the film, and Paul Newman and Robert Rossen didn't create Felson or the film from scratch. The line is from the 1959 novel of the same name, by Walter Tevis. The Hustler was Tevis's first novel, and he would only publish five more, and one collection of stories, before he passed away in 1984 at the age of 56. Curiously, four of his seven books are science fiction (including the collection), and three were adapted to the screen: The Hustler, The Color of Money, and, of all things, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Focusing only on the first two, then it goes without saying that Tevis created not one, but two of the most enduring and iconic characters in post-War American fiction. There's Fast Eddie, of course, but also Minnesota Fats, a character given such presence by Jackie Gleason in the film that a professional pool hustler by the name of Rudolf Wanderone claimed, disingenuously but with the apparent aid of Willie Mosconi -- pool great and technical adviser on the film -- that the character was based on him (of course, this claim was made not after the novel came out, but in 1961, after the film was released). But the character of Fast Eddie Felson casts a big enough shadow over our culture that Tevis should be remembered for that alone. Yet, back where I'm from, there's a pool hall (two now, actually) called "Fast Eddie's", and I feel confident that if you were to walk in there and ask any ten people if they're a fan of Walter Tevis, ten out of ten times the response would be "Walter Who-vis?" Such is the power of cinema.
.
Another odd facet of the Hustler phenomenon is how the the story seems to want to dissuade the fakers, those who don't come by the lifestyle honestly. Actually, the film seems to want to dissuade everybody -- more on that later -- but even the novel, in delineating what it says are the two kinds of hustlers, says: "The small-time men -- the scufflers, musclers, dollar jumpers -- prey in nibbles: on unwary but seldom wealthy drunks; schoolboys who aspire to what they take to be manhood; middle-aged men who aspire to what they take to be youthfulness... In other words, that means you. Still, everybody wants to be the best at something.
.
Not that I need to tell you this, but the basic story of both the novel and the film is as follows: Eddie Felson, from Oakland, has just arrived in Chicago with his friend and financial backer Charlie (Myron McCormick in the film). Charlie is content with the profitable hustles they've been pulling up to this point, an example of which is beautifully illustrated in the first scene of the film, and the third chapter of the novel: pretending to be two traveling salesman, Charlie and Eddie go into a bar and start shooting pool. Eddie's no good sober, and even worse drunk, which is what he's steadily becoming. But he makes one amazing shot to win a game, and bets a skeptical Charlie that he can do it again. He fails, and wants to bet again. Charlie tells him to save his money, but the bartender wants in, even when the bet has been greatly increased. And, what do you know, Eddie makes the shot. Back in the car, Charlie takes his cut, and off they go. That's what Charlie wants. But Eddie believes that he's the best hustler in the country, or good enough to be though of as one of the best, and he wants to go to Chicago to prove it. Specifically, he wants to go to a particular pool hall (called Bennington's in the novel, and Ames in the film, which is just one of a number of apparently meaningless small changes) where many of the best hustlers congregate. In both versions of the story, he winds up playing Minnesota Fats at straight pool. He loses at first, but then he finds his groove, and at one point he finds himself ahead $18,000. Charlie wants him to quit now, but Eddie says the game isn't over until Fats says it is. From the novel:
.
He said it very slowly, tasting the words thickly as they came on. "I'm the best you ever seen, Fats." That was it. It was very simple... He had known it, of course, all along, for years. But now it was clear, so simple that no one...could mistake it. "I'm the best. Even if you beat me, I'm the best."...

Somewhere in Eddie, deep in him, a weight was being lifted away. And, deeper still, there was a tiny, distant voice, a thin, anguished cry that said to him, sighing, You don't have to win. For hours there had been the weight, pressing on him, trying to break him and now these words, this fine and deep and true revelation, had come and were taking the weight from him. The weight of responsibility. And the small steel knife of fear.

So, naturally, Eddie -- who is by now also quite drunk on JTS Brown bourbon -- winds up losing. Same thing in both the novel and the film, but the film has already, at this point, made one very big change. When Fats starts losing, he tells one of the on-lookers to get him some whiskey, and, specifically, to get it from Johnny's. In the film, that's a signal to bring back Bert Gordon (George C. Scott, to my mind every bit as good here as Newman, though no one ever seems to talk about him). In the novel, Fats is his own financial backer, but in the film, when he's losing badly, he needs Bert to come in and stake him, which he does. This is where Bert and Eddie first meet, while in the book, though we learn Bert was watching them play, he doesn't actually appear in the book until almost halfway through..

After losing, a beaten-down Eddie leaves Charlie and meets Sarah (Piper Laurie in the film), an alcoholic student for whom Eddie feels an odd attraction. They end up living together, and quietly and gloomily fall in love, although maybe not in so many words. And Sarah and Bert are at the heart of the differences between the novel in the film. First, in the novel, Bert is a pretty unlikable guy, but in the film he's positively Satanic, and in the novel Sarah is...Sarah is what? In the film, she tells Eddie stories: she says she got the money she lives off from a former rich lover, and has a limp due to an injury sustained in a car accident, before later coming clean and admitting that the money comes from her father, and the limp comes from childhood polio. In the novel, she's up-front -- because why wouldn't she be? -- about both right from the beginning. On screen, she also wants to be Eddie's conscience. When Eddie has taken Bert on as his backer, she travels with them to Louisville, where Bert wants to set him up in a high stakes game against a rich loser named Findlay (Murray Hamilton).
.
In the book, she doesn't go with them to Louisville. She never even meets Bert. Which, if you're familiar with the story, should tell you something else about where the film goes its own way, but first, here's what happens in the novel when Sarah finds out how Eddie earns his living:
.
"But why pool? Couldn't you do something else?"
.
"Like what?"
.
...
.
"Don't be cute about it," she said. "You know what I'm driving at. You could...sell insurance, something like that."
.
He looked at her for a moment, wondering whether he should take her to bed, work up a little action. "No," he said. "What I do I like fine."
.
...
.
"I've heard that pool can be a dirty game," she said.
.
...
.
He walked back into the living room and, not looking at Sarah, looked instead at the [clown painting in the living room]. The clown looked back, sad and mean, holding the wooden staff. His fingers were painted in only sketchily, but they were graceful and sure of themselves. The clown was, apparently, unhappy, but was not to be pushed around a good, solid clown and a figure to be respected. Eddie stretched again, his back to Sarah, still looking at the picture. "Yes, it's dirty...Anyway you look at it, it's dirty."
.
Sarah, in the novel, doesn't understand why Eddie does what he does. It seems frivolous to her, and, after he gets his thumbs broken by some guys who catch him hustling them, dangerous. And, when he tells her he's going to Louisville for a week, she sees it as a wedge between them. She's a desperatly, unhappy woman, and Eddie has raised her hopes, but maybe he doesn't care the way she thinks he does.
.

Eddie can also be fairly cruel. Interestingly, in the film, she asks a question of Eddie when she first invites him back to her place -- "Why me?" -- that she doesn't ask in the novel, but the novel may actually provide the answer, or at least actually say the answer, that the film doesn't. Towards the end, Eddie and Sarah have a blow-out about his trip to Louisville, and he calls her a "born loser". Which is what Bert calls him when he first broaches to Eddie the idea of becoming his backer. At the time Bert says that, and when Eddie and Sarah first meet, that's what Eddie is. But in the novel, he's about to go to Louisville to beat Findlay and make enough money to get a new game with Fats, which Eddie will also win. He's not a loser anymore, so he's going to leave Sarah behind (although he does say she can come along, he doesn't make the offer until he sees how upset she is). It's also interesting that in this argument, Eddie essentially calls Sarah a whore, which is what Bert calls her (also essentially) in the film. And many of Sarah's retorts in this scene in the novel are, in the film, actually delivered by her to Bert -- the idea that he wants to take his opponents' pride as well as their money, and so on. The climactic showdown between Piper Laurie's Sarah and George C. Scott's Bert in the film is, in the novel, actually had by Sarah and Eddie. And this is the argument that, in the film, leads to Sarah's suicide!
.
Which, in the novel, never happens. The above argument, cruel as it is, is the evidence we need to know that these two kids will never be able to make it work. In the novel, after winning in Kentucky, Eddie goes back to her and buys her a very nice watch. He tells her -- again, rather cruelly, but at least unintentionally so, this time -- that he almost bought her a ring ("What kind of ring?" "What kind do you think?"). They have an expensive but melancholy dinner, and part ways. Then he goes to Bennington's to beat Minnesota Fats.
.
Meanwhile, over in the film, Sarah is in Louisville, trying to be Eddie's conscience, and get him to pick the right side in the class war she sees waging around her. Not just a class-war, I suppose, although notice the way Murray Hamilton, the rich Mr. Findlay, looks at her with amused contempt when he sees her passing through his opulent home during a cocktail party. Everyone treats her like a whore, like trash, and she begs Eddie to rise above it. Eddie can't walk away from his past defeats, and snaps at her, talks to her like she means nothing. So she decides that, if everyone is going to treat her like a whore, then that's what she'll be. Bert, who has made it clear that he doesn't want her around, unless she's willing to have sex with him (then she should go, of course), pays her off from the money Eddie just won off of Findlay. They're in her hotel room, and she says, "Leave it on the dresser. Isn't that how it's usually done?" Bert agrees that it is. Then she agrees to have sex with Bert, and afterwards goes into the bathroom and kills herself.
.

(I think this is a great film, but watching it again, I really don't believe that Sarah would have sex with Bert. I believe that, under the circumstances, she would kill herself -- she was really bad off before Eddie met her, and now she's been stomped and spit on -- but I don't think she'd lower herself to have sex with a roach like Bert, even if she did only do it to make a point.)

Anyway, after all that, the novel's final pool game seems like a bit of an anticlimax, or it does if you come to the novel after being very familiar with the film, as I've done. The stakes just seem so much lower. I think the essence of these differences lie in the different approaches Tevis and Rossen take to pool itself. I've heard it said of the film that it isn't really "about" pool, that pool is incidental. And at one point, Newman's Felson, in describing his love of the game to Sarah, says that "anything can be great". Maybe Rossen felt that way, and that's why Sarah's character goes in such a different direction in his version. He wanted to expose what Sarah refers to as the "perverted, twisted, crippled" side of this kind of lifestyle, the disregard for basic humanity that is necessary to hustle someone, the pursuit of money at almost any cost. So maybe Rossen doesn't care about pool, and as far as he's concerned it could have been any game or sport. But The Hustler is about pool because Tevis's novel is about pool, and Tevis did care about that game. He couldn't have just slid poker in there as a substitute. His love of the game, reserved as it might be, is stamped on every page. The book is about a game and a unique lifestyle and the people who inhabit that lifestyle. And that translates to the film, whether Rossen or anyone else wants it or cares that it's there. Rossen wants the story to be universal, but Tevis knows that not everything worth talking about applies to everybody. In its way, Rossen's film is as good as Tevis's novel, which is very good indeed, but he should know that there's no shame in making a movie that's actually about what it pretends to be about. After all, when Eddie finally beats Fats, he doesn't beat him at tennis:

And Fats' one victory did not affect Eddie, for Eddie was in a place now where he could not be affected, where he felt that nothing Fats could do could touch him... Eddie Felson, with the ball bearings in his elbow, with eyes for the green and the colored balls...with geometrical rolls and falling, lovely spinning, with whiffs and clicks and tap-tap-taps, with scraping of chalk, and the fingers embracing the polished shaft, fingers on felt, the ever and always ready arena, the long, bright rectangle. The rectangle of lovely, mystical green, the color of money.

10 comments:

Greg said...

(George C. Scott, to my mind every bit as good here as Newman, though no one ever seems to talk about him)....

Well then you've never talked to me about it. I think Paul Newman was a solid, good, dependable actor until the seventies when, with age and then later tragedy, he began to transform into a great actor. By the time of The Verdict audiences were witnessing an actor in awe-inspiring control of his craft (seriously, The Verdict is one of the great performances out there).

But in 1961 he was still employing a lot of the Brando/Clift/Dean poses that so many young actors used at that time. Oh and he was good at it, don't get me wrong, but watching it again recently (ironically enough) I found of the whole cast he was the one I could notice acting.

George C. Scott on the other hand - he was a formidable actor from the beginning. I mean, really, from Anatomy of a Murder on that son of a bitch commanded the screen when he was on it. It's Scott and Gleason that truly impress me with their performances in that film, then Newman and then Laurie who doesn't quite work that well in it for me.

Still a great film. And Murray Hamilton was really good in his small role too. I haven't read the book but it sounds like they have the same problem for me and that problem is the middle section with Sarah which doesn't engage me in the story. Part of it is I don't find her and Eddie very convincing together and that may not be the case in the book. But Piper Laurie leaves me cold in the film and that definitely brings that whole section down for me.

bill r. said...

But in 1961 he was still employing a lot of the Brando/Clift/Dean poses that so many young actors used at that time. Oh and he was good at it, don't get me wrong, but watching it again recently (ironically enough) I found of the whole cast he was the one I could notice acting...

I don't disagree about the poses, really, but I still think he was pretty amazing in the film. I think that first scene, when he's hustling with Charlie, is just about perfect, and he's a big part of it. His anger -- which is fake, but still -- at Vincent Gardenia, the smile when he's setting up to make the shot, his cockiness. I don't know, I just think he's superb, really, even though I know what you're talking about.

I'd be curious, though, what other films from the 70s and 80s you'd rank as having his best performances, since it's generally believed that, outside of The Verdict and Nobody's Fool a lot of his best films were done in the 60s.

I also think Laurie's not that great. She has her moments, but she overdoes the drunk act. But Scott was a force of nature. It's impossible to take your eyes off that guy. One of the all-time greats, in the Brando/De Niro/Pacino realm as far as I'm concerned.

And I love watching Gleason shoot pool in the movie, because in those shots, he's clearly just shooting pool. I'm sure you know that he was a great player in real life, and you can tell by the way he's looking at the table, and moving around it, that he's not acting.

Greg said...

a lot of his best films were done in the 60s. Oh he did so many great films in the sixties I agree, and instead of saying the seventies I should have said starting in 1967 with Cool Hand Luke which is where he really takes off as an actor I think. His performances in things like The Sting, Slapshot and Absence of Malice have a more restrained maturity to them, a cool ease that he now has with himself that wasn't there as much before.

And watching Scott is what I like best about the whole thing because he is so wonderful. But I do think Newman is very good as well, just not as good as Scott who I agree was an all-time great actor.

bill r. said...

And watching Scott is what I like best about the whole thing because he is so wonderful...

And often it's the little things. I love when he tells Newman that the cut will be 75% and 25%, and Newman says, "Who's the 75 for?" and Scott says, "For me." Just the casual way he says it. I can't describe it, really, but it's one of my favorite moments in the whole film.

Marilyn said...

Wonderful post, Bill. It has been a very long time since I saw The Hustler - I barely remember some of the scenes you describe, but you're so right about the cachet of pool and what this film did for it (repeated again when The Color of Money was released).

bill r. said...

Thanks, Marilyn. I know this film is a big part of why I got into pool (and, for the record, even though I used to play a lot, I never got better than "okay", and that's "okay" in the amateur sense, which is very different from being "okay" in the hustler sense), but it still seems odd. I mean, obviously it worked on me, and I get it, since the game just looks so wonderful when played by Newman and Gleason, but the film pretty heavily damns the whole culture, and Eddie is kind of an asshole. How odd that people would latch on anyway...

Brian Doan said...

Beautiful post, Bill-- it's been a good long while since I've seen THE HUSTLER, but your rich descriptions and smooth flow are a real pleasure to read.

I think Newman is very good in the film, but Gleason is the star for me-- he's so underrated as a dramatic actor, and the moment when he walks to the bathroom, cools down, and calmly walks back into the room-- ready to destroy Newman-- is so chillingly underplayed.

bill r. said...

Thanks very much, Brian, I really appreciate that.

Gleason is fantastic in the film. He says so little, but man do you ever believe that he's The Guy. As I said, he's his own man in the novel, not part of Bert's stable, and frankly it makes sense to me that he wouldn't need a guy like Bert. But even so, I like the way the relationship is handled in the film, and the way, at the end, Gleason delivers the line, "You better pay him, Eddie." Gleason shows that, in the film, Fats may live well and command respect, but he feels a fair amount of guilt about how he got there.

11 said...

I love it ! Very creative ! That's actually really cool Thanks.

11 said...

AV,無碼,a片免費看,自拍貼圖,伊莉,微風論壇,成人聊天室,成人電影,成人文學,成人貼圖區,成人網站,一葉情貼圖片區,色情漫畫,言情小說,情色論壇,臺灣情色網,色情影片,色情,成人影城,080視訊聊天室,a片,A漫,h漫,麗的色遊戲,同志色教館,AV女優,SEX,咆哮小老鼠,85cc免費影片,正妹牆,ut聊天室,豆豆聊天室,聊天室,情色小說,aio,成人,微風成人,做愛,成人貼圖,18成人,嘟嘟成人網,aio交友愛情館,情色文學,色情小說,色情網站,情色,A片下載,嘟嘟情人色網,成人影片,成人圖片,成人文章,成人小說,成人漫畫,視訊聊天室,性愛,聊天室,情色,a片,AV女優

Followers