Thursday, January 26, 2017

Like a Church

The opening.

The strange titles prelude, driven by Kenyon Hopkins's cool.

And the quiet. . .

Robert Rossen's The Hustler (1961) became mythic almost upon arrival. The movie was top box office for '61 and '62, was nominated for nine Oscars (winning for Eugene Shuftan's beautiful and mysterious photography, a photography that breathes, as opposed to this; and for Gene Callahan's sets, 'though the main poolroom was a real one three-floors above Times Square). The character of "Fast Eddie" Felson (played by Paul Newman) became an instant pop culture icon. Yet the movie -- similar to Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running (1959) with which it shares much -- is at war with itself; unlike Minnelli, a fracturing director Robert Rossen fails to heal -- leaving us with a flawed masterpiece. Two worlds fluttering wildly into incoherence: the energy, purity, and life of the game; and the oppressive grim distractions of what is supposed to be Eddie's salvation from the game: life with Piper Laurie.

Carol Rossen was the director's daughter, and that special (and forgotten) actress has said many times that for her father The Hustler was a very personal work. It shows. Everything in the film flows from a lone sacral respect, a single outrage and tenderness. (For good and bad.) Yet Robert Rossen is problematic from any "auteurist" point-of-view. He was producer, writer, and director from the late-30s to the middle-60s. The Hustler apart, his lasting output is thin. He wrote The Roaring Twenties (1939) for Walsh, The Sea Wolf (1941) and A Walk in the Sun (1945) during the war, a couple of second-rate post-war noirs The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and Johnny O'Clock (1947) -- his first direction. His second was Body and Soul (1947). Among the late-40s/early-50s explosion of boxing movies, it may be the most humanly interesting and philosophically inert. Garfield is great, yet to compare it to Force of Evil (1948) is to expose its meaninglessness. (Abraham Polonsky -- Body and Soul's screenwriter and the maker of Force of Evil -- would eventually be helped along toward professional extinction by Robert Rossen's HUAC testimony.) In 1949, Rossen directed, wrote and produced that year's Oscar champ: All the King's Men, a demagogic view of a supposed demogogue. Rossen's fictionalized Huey Long is not a passionate populist leader breaking heads in pursuit of a genuine 30s socialism, but the scary embodiment of a government activist conman. (Thomas Dewey must have cheered.) The Hollywood Blacklist nightmare had begun.

Rossen's 50s output is chum. Released the same year as Boetticher's Bullfighter and the Lady, Rossen's The Brave Bulls (1951) is safe. At the end of the decade there is They Came to Cordura (1959) -- a strange and unpleasant western-trying-hard-not-to-be-a-western that has its fans. What is most interesting about Cordura is the tortured (and already dying) Gary Cooper. But in '53 Robert Rossen would leave his mark on the decade by testifying before HUAC, naming 57 colleagues as suspected "communists." So let us call The Hustler a miracle. . .

And the first match between Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats is indeed that, as perfect a 20 minutes as has ever been filmed.

The respect and care and intimacy shown toward all things. The room's boodle-boy, maids, the owner/manager. Each man's gestures and body movement (the only glimpses of anything female here are what we see of the room's black maids). The time of day. Thirst, hunger, and exhaustion. The attention paid toward the very respectful spectators. And what faces they have! Greedy, direct, too impatient for hypocrisy. In love with honest sport. Rossen and DP Eugene Shuftan's wide-screen spacing is at times as radical as that season's Last Year at Marienbad or L'Avventura, without a hint of abstraction. Fast Eddie's world becomes born to us by this scene; and by the opening in the ramsackle bar, where Eddie and Charlie happily take the rubes while winding up back in their beat-up junker: gasoline and bus stations, cheap motels, drive-ins, mechanic shops, diners, factories and steel mills.

Gleason steals the match, and the scene.

That old fat man. . .
Look at the way he moves,
like a dancer. And them fingers,
them chubby fingers. And that
stroke. It's like he's playing
a violin or something.

Gleason's Minnesota Fats was an invention of novelist Walter Tevis and the movie. (Some pool player took the name after The Hustler became a hit, doing very well for himself.) We believe Fats can do anything. And the movie's belief in him is both honest and childlike. He is devoid of personality beyond the heroic, as our first sports heroes were. As Fast Eddie's object of glory, what Rossen gives us of Fats is enough. But why stop there? Gleason demands much more. Where is the conversation (over JTS Brown) between Fats and Eddie? Or seeing what arrangements have been made between Fats and his manager Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), for Fats seems afraid of him.

Here the movie genuflects before a world functioning on the relaxation of men taking, or not, another step up at just the right time. Inside the tension, the scene swims through some warm mood deeper than air -- and there's an intimation of treachery one can recover only in a dream, as if alone in a room, windows shut, and a paper has blown from the table.

Eddie loses and leaves his partner behind. He meets a girl in a bus station, begins an affair with her. At her place, he flops.

And begins to hustle on the side.

Charlie finds him: the great Myron McCormick. Like Cooper in Cordura, dying of cancer.

Eddie finds Bert Gordon.

What exactly are we supposed to loathe and fear about Bert Gordon? Funny, brilliant, super-straight and tough -- he'd make a great manager (until you crossed him or began to lose your talent) and he wants to take Fast Eddie (and himself) to the top. What is wrong with this or the way Gordon plans to go about it? Is it the 75 (to him)/25 cut he demands? What is Eddie supposed to do in its place? Manage himself, having gotten rid of Charlie? Scuffle around in back alleys -- maybe open up "a little pool room with six tables and a handbook on the side"? Paul Newman was 36 when he made The Hustler, but Felson in the movie seems barely out of his 20s. Again: what is Rossen and co-screenwriter Sydney Carroll leaning on Felson (and us) to understand? Settle down with his very disturbed girlfriend, have some babies, maybe become an early-60s Tin Man?

Which parts of Bert Gordon's advice should we shun? Which judgments on Eddie's character and game? What piece of Gordon's plan to put Eddie's talents to good use seems wrong? It feels as if we're to turn away in horror from Gordon's ideas of what it means to be "a loser."


Isn't Gordon saying that "a loser" is someone who doesn't have the strength and purity of heart to live his life from the core of his talent? To never let up. To always let the talent dominate the room, rather than the other way 'round. And that only people with special talent are worth bothering with. The purity and exclusivity of it is cruel and illiberal. And this was 1961. What if a society devolved into where the only "talents" honored were those of aggression and domination? What if one's talents flowed from a sense of honor instead? Gordon accuses Eddie of intentionally losing by needless drinking and exhaustion, of not knowing when to declare victory. Yet doesn't the game go on and on because of Felson's respect for the Fat Man?

Refusing the 75/25 split, Eddie quits Bert Gordon. But not before being warned about taking his game into the wrong places. Advice he ignores.

Broken, he returns to Sarah, who dutifully heals him. And for a brief time, The Hustler blossoms with that second knowledge which is part of one's childhood, and which so rarely returns for men and women. During their picnic together, Rossen makes us feel as if they had known each other perfectly as children, and now as man and woman meet in full, further sympathy. Perhaps only after suffering and defeat can the naked intuition again break free between a man and a woman.

Broken, Fast Eddie also returns to Bert Gordon.

It is with the person of Sarah Packard where the cracks in Robert Rossen's artistic character are revealed. She's a holdover from the 40s and 50s where Hollywood male directors took the suffocations of the nuclear family and defined them not by corporate/Cold War culture (Ray's Bigger Than Life [1956] and Sirk's Imitation of Life [1959] are exceptions) -- but by a spider woman. Often limited by definition to glamorous, sexual ladies such as Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Ava Gardner in The Killers, Jean Simmons in Angel Face and Gaby Rodgers in Kiss Me Deadly, these women are just as often regular girlfriends or wives portrayed as parasites. Or saviors. (One of the many great things about Out of the Past is how the small-town blonde is seen as a weakening, not a savior.) Rarely do we see boyfriends or husbands this way, Hitchcock's The Wrong Man an exception.

Sarah Packard is lonely, rather plain, lame -- and seems to feel about Fast Eddie the way she accuses Bert Gordon of feeling about him: hating all that could cause her to lose him. She wants to keep him in the clutch of her hand. She doesn't want him to feel too alive, to win too much, to drink and eat too well. Of the hangers-on, she is one of the hardest to root for. Does Rossen know this?

Preminger's great Man with the Golden Arm (1955) has ex-junkie and would-be drummer Frankie Machine (Sinatra) torn between the sexual ardency of a young Kim Novak and the insane guilt caused by Zosch (Eleanor Parker), a "cripple." Parker is lovely and moving throughout, but the movie plays it small at the end.

As with so many things, Vincente Minnelli in Some Came Running (1959) takes the hanger-on cliche and makes it beautiful. Sinatra (originally cast to play Eddie Felson) is caught. He longs for a bright frigid blonde college teacher, who wants nothing sexually to do with him (and who is sort of a well-born version of Sarah), while he is being longed for by a dumb working-class pushover, in Dean Martin's words -- "a pig."

Yet no one has ever felt that way about him before. So maybe he can help her. . .

Who can Sarah help?

Is Rossen testing the depths of our compassion by making her so pathetic and unappealing?

In the great final scene, Eddie beats Fats, who cowers before Bert Gordon; as Eddie breaks with him. Sarah Packard is eulogized. (Leading twenty-five years later to Martin Scorsese's dimwit MTV sequel The Color of Money.)

The movie and Rossen seem to be caught between two storms. His embrace of Sarah is meaningful and sincere, yet rather than test our compassion toward her, he is clearly not up to it: failure and weakness and fear are perhaps things he hasn't known. He is also not up to what was happening: that the country's heart was opening, "losers" would be as interesting as winners, the gentle and lost would be recognized, aggression and domination less so. The change would be smothered in its crib, leading to our current jungle. As Eddie says, if a guy knows -- if he knows what he's doing and why and can make it come off. With the crippled and weak, not here for Rossen. But Rossen in the vanishing world of rooted men and rooted success is as great as his main character.