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The Hustler: Collector's Edition

As the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance goes, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." And truer words probably could never be said about legendary pool player Minnesota Fats. Born Rudolf Wanderone Jr., Fats became the most famous player in the history of pocket billiards, thanks to some shrewd self-promotion, entertaining television appearances on "The Tonight Show" and "ABC's Wide World of Sports," and a witty banter around the table. Of course, he also was a mercurial pool artist. And like many professionals in their early days, he was a proficient "hustler" — a stick-man who plays beneath his abilities to raise friendly bets in pool halls, only to unleash his A-game when high stakes are finally on the table. When Minnesota Fats died in 1996, many considered him to be the most talented pool player the game had seen — which isn't exactly true. Willie Mosconi, Fats' longtime rival, beat him regularly in exhibition games, and experts often claim that Mosconi, in fact, was the best. But then again, wasn't there a character in Robert Rossen's 1961 The Hustler based on Fats? Again, not exactly. Wanderone had a few nicknames before 1961, including New York Fats, but he only adopted his famous moniker after the film became an overnight sensation. With the name, he gave pocket billiards a recognizable celebrity that the sport lacked up to that time, which says something both for his showmanship and the immense success of The Hustler. Few people knew the difference, or cared. After all, when the legend becomes fact…

Based on the novel by Walter Tevis (who has insisted that all of the characters are entirely fictitious), The Hustler tells the huge-ego, hard-luck story of ace pool shark "Fast Eddie" Felson (Paul Newman), a young guy who's so good at hustling games he figures he must be the best player in the world. But there's only one way to find out — travel with his manager Charlie (Myron McCormick) to New York's famous Ames Billiard Hall, where Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) regularly plays. Fats is the best, and Eddie figures he'll seal his reputation if he can take $10,000 off the old man in straight pool. And he does — almost. After several hours Eddie finds himself up more than ten large, but he won't quit betting until Fats does. And when Fats plays him into the next morning, Eddie winds up with just $200 for his efforts. Unsure how to cope with the failure, Eddie stays in New York, where he meets the beautiful Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), a young alcoholic and part-time college student who appears to be drifting through life, just as Eddie is. The two fall in love, but it isn't long before Eddie is drawn back to pool — this time by high-roller Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), who offers to finance a trip to Louisville during Derby Week so Eddie can hustle gamblers with deep pockets. Eddie accepts, and when Sarah objects he offers to take her along — but nobody is aware of what Louisville holds in store for them.

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For a 1961 film, The Hustler occupies an unusual place in Hollywood history. The lifting of the Hays Code and the New Hollywood aesthetic would not arrive until the end of the decade, but The Hustler seems to have more in common with a later generation of movies, particularly with its raw subject-matter (and it's interesting to note that the surprise success of this small picture helped bail Fox out of its Cleopatra debacle at a time when epic costume productions were over-financed and on the decline). Central to The Hustler are four performances from four very different actors. Paul Newman's career had already been established with such pictures as The Long Hot Summer (1958) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and the Actors Studio-trained thespian is given latitude by director Robert Rossen to display his well-known "method" style here. In the pivotal supporting role of Minnesota Fats, Jackie Gleason is wonderfully charismatic, recalling the curt, polished exterior of actors such as Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney — the perfect gentleman gangster. Piper Laurie evokes a heartwrenching pain as the troubled, withdrawn Sarah, who loves Eddie despite his pool hustling. And George C. Scott as the devious Bert Gordon brings a lot of subtle mannerisms to his intimidating part, thanks to his experience on the New York stage — like Newman, The Hustler was a harbinger of more great performances to come. Throughout it all, Rossen focuses not just on the pool playing, but on the script's central themes of redemption and growth. But those poolroom scenes have a lot to do with why The Hustler is a legendary movie. Willie Mosconi served as the technical advisor, teaching Newman how to stand and shoot like a pool artist (two weeks prior to filming, Newman had never even held a pool cue). And Mosconi can be seen in the film as "Willie," the silent fellow in the Ames Billiard Hall who holds the stakes, while many close-ups of Fast Eddie's amazing shots are in fact Mosconi's hands. But watch closely, and you'll see that the camera almost never cuts away when Gleason shoots. Rossen didn't have to — Jackie Gleason in fact was an accomplished hustler in his own right who could have made a living on the pool table if he wasn't an actor.

Fox's two-disc The Hustler: Collector's Edition DVD marks the title's second digital release, features a strong anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) of the CinemaScope film from a black-and-white source-print that's in remarkable shape. Audio comes in the original mono as well as a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix, and a French track and English and Spanish subtitles are included. Disc One includes an edited commentary with Paul Newman, assistant director Ulu Grosbard, film critic Richard Shickel, film historian Jeff Young, and others, as well as analysis of five pool matches in the film by World Champion Trick Shot Artist Mike Massey (which also can be viewed during the film itself). Disc Two includes "The Hustler: The Inside Story" (24 min.), a stills gallery, two theatrical trailers for The Hustler (one in Spanish), and trailers for this and other Paul Newman films. Meanwhile, featurettes new to this edition include "Life in the Fast Lane: Fast Eddie Felson and the Search for Greatness" (11 min.), "Milestones in Cinema History: The Hustler" (28 min.), "Swimming with Sharks: The Art of the Hustle" (9 min.), the A&E "Biography" episode "Paul Newman: Hollywood's Cool Hand" (44 min.), "How to Make the Shot" with a look at five pool shots in the film with Mike Massey. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—JJB



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