“The Hustler” was Paul Newman’s breakthrough film, a startling piece of lowlife lit built around the fictional pool-shark punk Fast Eddie Felson.
George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason and Piper Laurie turned this 1961 drama into an actors showcase. All four were nominated for Oscars.
Newman, it could be argued, didn’t get his Oscar for his work in “The Hustler” until a half century later, via the inferior sequel “The Color of Money.”
Robert Rossen (“Body and Soul”) directed with style, daring and street smarts, in striking black and white.
Fox Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray book edition of “The Hustler” reracks the visuals from the DVD versions, with the high-def upgrades noticeable but unspectacular. There remain some paleness, indifferent blacks and the occasional murk to quibble over. There’s persistent light grain but no obvious age-related damage. Images are hard horizontal in the original Cinemascope ratio of 2:35:1.
Audio comes in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0. Some hiss remains. The 5.1 soundstage comes into play but as with most older films the front speakers do the heavy lifting.
The handsome Blu-ray “book” packaging (digipack) is consistent with Fox’s recent classy presentations of “All About Eve” and “An Affair to Remember.” It includes a 24-page booklet.
New supplements to the title include the documentaries “Paul Newman at Fox,” “Jackie Gleason: The Big Man” and “The Real Hustler: Walter Tevis.” They are in high-def with subtitles. The other extra features date back to the 2002 and 2007 DVD releases, and are in standard def.
“Paul Newman at Fox” notes that he came up through the studio system, starting with Warner Bros., but always saw himself as a serious Actor, a method man. “He could have been a Troy Donahue,” says biographer Eric Lax. “He could have been a pretty boy, but you could tell from the beginning that he had greater ambitions.”
In 1958, Newman was on loan to Fox when he made “The Long, Hot Summer.” He was cast opposite Joanne Woodward, already a major star. Their fling led to marriage, followed by a quick trio of films starring the duo. Some critics wondered if Newman could succeed without his wife’s patronage — “the Joanne Woodward thing.”
Having bought out his WB contract, Newman went solo. He made money in the Arab-Israeli war movie “Exodus” and made art in “The Hustler.”
The Blu-ray docu “The Real Hustler: Walter Tevis” profiles “one of the great unsung writers,” a creator of spare, emotional books. He wrote “The Hustler” as well as the 1984 follow-up novel “The Color of Money.” (Newman finally won his Oscar for reprising the role of Felson in “Color of Money,” of course. Score that one as a career make-good.)
Tevis put a lot of himself into Fast Eddie: “(Tevis) was a really high wire person,” his daughter recalls. “He spent a lot of his life drunk,” his son says.
“Jackie Gleason: The Big Man” is the least of the three new docus, a puff piece that celebrates the TV comic. It offers some great clips, however.
The comic got the role in part because he was an ace pool player. Newman claimed he’d never held a stick but was coached up in no time by pocket billiards legend Willie Mosconi, who often provided the hands and the trick shots for the actor. The Mike Massey trick-shot shorts from the DVDs are repeated on the Blu-ray.
“The Hustler” brought the game of pool up from the underground. Every other line from the film found its way into the nation’s pool halls and stayed there for decades. (“This is my table, man, I own it.”)
The Blu-ray also ports from DVD a group commentary in which Newman participates, sparingly.
The heavy lifting in the older extras is done by actress Laurie, who has excellent recall of the New York production. (Newman and Laurie both were in their mid-30s. Director Rossen called them “kids.”)
A 43-minute “Biography” study of Newman returns from the DVDs, looking like a VHS copy.
Other ported-over featurettes are “Life in the Fast Lane: Fast Eddie Felson and the Search for Greatness,” “Milestones in Cinema History: The Hustler,” “Swimming with Sharks: The Art of the Hustle,” “The Hustler: The Inside Story (with Richard Shickel).
Needless to say, repetition runs every which way, like a well-struck rack of balls.
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