Weather in Wisconsin this month has been all over the place. Rainy days with chilly temperatures in the 50s up to high humidity days in the 90 degree range. Here on Cardigan and Cravats, it has been a consistent heat in the "It's Going to be a Scorcher!" Paul Newman film series.
We have been on two trips to Mississippi to experience the lives of rich southern families in The Long, Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. We also made our way down to Florida to see for ourselves what it takes to endure the heat on a prison chain gang in Cool Hand Luke. For the final installment of this series we travel out of the Deep South, to see how a pool player uses the heat to his advantage in The Hustler (1961).
The Hustler might not be your first pick for a summer film, but in the first two minutes you have a bartender advising Eddie Felson (Newman) and his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) to hold off on the last two hours of their drive to Pittsburgh because "Sure is a hot day for driving. Late afternoon is better." They have told a story about being salesmen on a way to a convention. Spoiler Alert! They are actually pool hustlers.
Eddie gets a bit of money off some locals using the ol' "pretending to be drunk" scheme, even scamming the bartender who should know the difference between real and fake drunk. After a jazzy intro title sequence, Eddie, or as he is known in the circuit, "Fast Eddie" and Charlie head to Ames, where the legendary player "Minnesota Fats" (Jackie Gleason) lives. In their game that lasts over 25 hours, you quickly see the two different types of players Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats are and how the outcome of their first meeting was meant to end the way it does, with Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), a local professional gambler, calling Eddie "a loser" and goading him back into the game.
The results of the pool game leads Eddie to leaving Charlie and meeting Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie - and yes a Packard before Twin Peaks!), a college girl drinking in the middle of the day at a local bus terminal bar. She also has a limp, but we do not see that at first. After their second meeting, you think things are hitting that oh so steaming point, but Sarah doesn't just cave in to Eddie. She pushes him away saying "You're too hungry." (For those who have seen the movie Shag, this is the scene Buzz describes to everyone very sensually and Carson admits she "wasn't allowed to see that picture show." This is where I first learned about The Hustler - from a beach dance film made in the 80s).
Despite this interaction, they find their way back to each other again. In addition to the summer heat that starts up the film, you also get their chemistry. There is passion, tension, and turmoil. Their story is not a happy one overall, but it has its moments, like when she helps him after an unfortunate incident with some local pool sharks who use violence to make their point.
Then there is the third type of heat in this film: the competitive heat that lives within Eddie, which is just fueled by his new partner Bert (as Charlie did not have the competitiveness to push Eddie forward). He wants to be the best. He wants to play Minnesota Fats again. He lets Bert come between him and Sarah. The competitive side is a blinding heat that has the ability to destroy.
As you can see there are a lot of layers to this film about pool hustlers and definitely worth checking out, in addition to the previous Newman films in this series. I realize all of the films were originally based on a literature, and The Hustler is no different. The film was based on Walter Tevis's 1959 novel The Hustler and adapted for the screen by the film's director Robert Rossen and Sidney Carroll. The trailer is below for you to watch and see for yourself if this film is right for you.
I hope you have enjoyed this film series, "It's Going to be a Scorcher!" and its focus on all things summer, hot and Paul Newman. I look forward to seeing you back for more future curates series.