The Hustler (1961)

The Hustler – 1961

Director – Robert Rossen

Starring – Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott

Heading into this movie, I realize now, I had a lot of pre-conceptions.  Not so much about the quality of the film, whether it would be good or bad, but more about the content of the film.  Thanks to countless posters in the various seedy billiards rooms that I frequent, I just assumed that there would be more pool than there was.  Also, I apparently wrongly assumed just who the hustler mentioned in the title of the film was.

For those, like me apparently, who aren’t too familiar with the story, The Hustler follows the driven ambition of “Fast” Eddie Felson.  Felson, played famously by Paul Newman is a small time hustler looking to beat the best in the billiards game, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), and claim the crown of the best pool player around.  Fats along with his shifty gambling buddy played by George C. Scott, seeing Felson’s reckless ambition for what it is, work to exploit, and take advantage of him.

Along the way, Fast Eddie meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), a woman so defeated by life, that she takes his interest as a sort of cruel taunt.  In reality, he feels as though he can fully be himself around her, without apology for his shortcomings.  The attention re-awakens her hope for a normal life.  Life for the couple starts to feel more and more normal, until that is, the real hustler, George C. Scott’s Bert, convinces Fast Eddie to go out on the road, running hustles and making money for him.  This drives a wedge in their relationship and threatens to ruin everything they’ve built.

As far as the movies that feature the character Fast Eddie Felson, I prefer Martin Scorsese’s take with The Color of Money, although the Hustler is certainly a good, if not great movie.  It may be due to my mood going into watching it, but I was really hoping for more action than drama, more suspense than revelation.

I wanted the cocky Felson to be a bit tougher, a little less pathetic throughout the film.  He is far more of a victim than he is a hustler.  It is certainly viable to create a story that ends unhappily, this film just made me sad.  For a guy who is clearly looking for acceptance, he sure gives away the acceptance he gets from Sarah without a thought about her or even himself.  The only thing that seems to matter to him is being the best in the eyes of those who are laughing at him and using him for their own gain.  As a result I was left more than a little wanting, and felt rather downcast after finishing it.  Despite their best efforts to craft a noir-ish character and setting, the movie seemed to be missing something.  Even the cinematography and music seemed somewhat forgettable to me.

I don’t mean to treat this movie harshly, clearly it had an impact on me, just not the one I was looking for going into it.  The image I have of the character is what I was left with from The Color of Money, a man who despite defeat, doesn’t give up.  Despite, humiliation, has a certain self-awareness, and despite conventional relationships, has carved out a little place for himself in the world.

Truth be told, I’ve had a certain blossoming of respect for this film just in writing down my feelings about it, although I think it says more for Martin Scorsese re-visit of the characters than it does for anything else.

I would say that despite the fact that I liked it, I definitely didn’t like it enough to include it on the list of 1001 movies.  There was an element missing either in the movie or what I wanted from it i’m not sure, but it’s missing just the same.  Either way, it doesn’t matter, it didn’t quite work for me.

“They play pool and stuff” – Ashley

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The Sting (1973)

The Sting – 1973

Director – George Roy Hill

Starring – Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Robert Shaw

Some movies are just the right combination of pluck and chemistry.  They don’t have the strongest story, nor do they have the most gripping action, or the most beautiful girl, but they leave you with a pleasant feeling once the film is over.  Thanks to the long lasting effects of this pervasive pleasantness, films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Hot Shots, and The Neverending Story still resonate with me, while still other films (much like the Wonka re-make) fail.  They possess some element that isn’t quantifiable or necessarily repeatable.  The stars aligned and the seas parted and low and behold the film is good.  The Sting sits firmly in this demographic, not at all bad, but somehow better than the sum of its parts.

Redford and Newman re-team in this buddy film set in the lawless Chicago of the 30’s.  Newman oozes confidence and cool as the con-man Henry Gondorf, who takes novice Johnny Hooker, Redford, under his wing in order to pull off the fleece of the lifetime against serious as cancer mob boss, Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw).  There are a number of twists and turns, red-herrings and surprises on the con-men’s road to revenge, yet the whole tone of the film stays light and fun.  Despite some marvelously dower moments by Robert Shaw’s Lonnegan, the stake never really seem that high, although it is still a pleasure to watch all of the three main actors do their thing.

Cinematographically, the film rides a thin line between stylized and cartoon, (a line that fellow 70’s heart-throb Warren Beatty went way, WAY past in Dick Tracy) and at times seems a little campy.  Still the look of the film sets a certain tone that works for the camaraderie of Hooker and Gondorf.  It looks exactly like the Disney resort “The Boardwalk” made me feel, nostalgic about a time I never thought I cared about.

Of all the creative elements, the least effective in terms of me continuing to enjoy the movie, was the musical score.  Despite the fact that it compliments the set design and look of the film, every time strains of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” began, I was immediately drawn out of the story.  Luckily, even though the music is a little goofy, it isn’t used to a degree where I couldn’t pay attention, I just gritted my teeth and eventually it would end.

By and large, I enjoyed this film quite a bit.  I saw the twists and turns for what they were long before they were revealed, but I blame my knowledge of modern movie conventions for that.  While it might not be the best con-man movie I’ve ever seen (that dubious honor goes to the super fantastic Paper Moon), I think it’s earned it’s spot on this list, even if that spot is towards the end.

“Learn to run your own con-game.” – Ashley

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Cool Hand Luke – 1967

Director – Stuart Rosenberg

Starring – Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Harry Dean Stanton, and Strother Martin

Combining religious imagery, southern drawl, male bonding, and a healthy dash of exuberance, Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke has become more than the small story of a man’s stint in the clink, it has transcended its reach and become a meditation on the importance (or the lack of) of authority for authority’s sake.  Paul Newman, arguably one of the most iconic actors of his time, perfectly personifies independence, and the idea of anti-establishment.

The story deals with capture and incarceration of the titular, Luke, and his relationships with his fellow inmates, the guards that drive them, and with the bureaucratic warden who oversees everything in the prison.  In the first 5 minutes of the film, we see Luke cutting the heads off of parking meters, being caught, and sentenced to 2 years in prison.  While he is doing something technically wrong, the 2 year sentence seems a bit of an over-reaction to the weight of the crime.

Once in prison, Luke spends his time testing the boundaries set by both the inmates as well as those set by the guards.  Eventually bonds begin to form, and a precident is set as the other inmates begin looking up to Luke.  It is in this part of the film that the main relationship, that of Luke and George Kennedy’s Dragline, is solidified.  The two men start off as rivals; Luke is simply pushing buttons, a behavior that Dragline sees as threatening to his authority among the other inmates.  Over time, the men become friends, Dragline eventually becoming Luke’s biggest advocate.

There are many different theories on the internet about what the different factions represented in this movie represent.  There is quite a bit of religious iconography that appears in the composition of the film, and while that is a perfectly valid interpretation, I fell more in line with the societal similarities.  To start with, Luke.  He gets his own group because he is really a free radical.  He doesn’t follow any one set of guidelines despite what anyone else tries to force him to do.  Luke disrupts the set in stone flow established by the system (the Warden), and maintained by the guards.  He inspires change, and therefore straddles the line between respected and feared. 

Next we have the prisoners.  These men represent society, everyday people with faults and flaws.  Each has a place, a role in the story, and each seems to run on a set path (ones that eventually get thrown off by the arrival of Luke).  Despite the fact that each these men are convicted prisoners, all of them are relatable, and the majority of them are downright familiar, almost good.  They represent all mankind.  The guards are an obvious stand in for the law, specifically the police.  These men keep the peace, and enforce the will of the bureaucracy, often utilizing fear, threat of violence and force (most personified by the anonymous and imposing “man with no eyes”). 

Finally, we have the warden.  In the story, the warden is one man, yet he represents a system of rule, or government that is infinitely larger than one man.  Since this system is most disrupted by the arrival of Luke, the warden is the most afraid of him.   What Luke represents is dependant upon which group you are from.

Despite it’s rather serious themes, Cool Hand Luke remains a rather jovial film, thanks in no small part to Newman’s performance as the eminently likable, Luke.  Newman and George Kennedy were both nominated for Oscars for their performances, with Kennedy taking home the statue for Best Supporting Actor.  Balancing out the weight and likability of the main characters is Strother Martin as the warden.  His measured performance never travels too far into the cartoon villain territory, yet it’s just strong enough to get the proper reaction.  Cool Hand Luke is another film that is populated with famous faces before they were famous, including Harry Dean Stanton, and Dennis Hopper. 

The film looks like a sweltering hot summer feels, sticky sweaty clothes and all.  The era, and the setting of the film are perfectly evoked in the cinematography, with sunbleached days and hot, dark nights. 

I am coming more and more to believe that Paul Newman was one of the industry’s best actors that never got the full recognition he deserved.  I am writing this (in part) to commemorate his birthday (01/27/2010).  So belated happy birthday to the late Mr. Newman!  What we have here, is a failure to communicate!  Well…I hope that’s not the case, anyway.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

ButchCassidySundanceKid

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – 1969

Director – George Roy Hill

Starring – Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross

Growing up as a kid, I would visit my dad on the weekends.  Together we would watch shows like “Bonanza”, and movies like “The Outlaw Josie Wales”.  To my dad, the western was a big deal, and as a result I got pretty burned out on watching them.  So I stopped.  All through high school, and some of college I avoided them.  To me, they all seemed the same.  Gritty, boring, long, and worst of all, un-interesting.  It was in college that I began my love of foreign film, from the French new wave, to Italian neo-realism.  The angry young men of British films, to the heroic samurai from Japan.  It was one samurai film in particular that caught my attention (Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo”), and eventually led me back to the western through the work that it inspired (A Fist Full of Dollars).

Despite this rather circuitous route, I’ve since come to embrace the western as the praise-deserving genre that it is.  With these newly opened eyes, I’ve seen some real gems that I would have otherwise missed, among them, Once Upon a Time in the West, 3:10 to Yuma (the 2007 version, as I have yet to see the original), The Proposition, and now…Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!

Newman and Redford are positively magnetic as the titular pair of outlaws in this late 60’s film by George Roy Hill.  Redford in particular stands out for me.  He is quiet, introspective, dangerous, and complex.  He has an intensity as well as a light-heartedness, all conveyed through “simple” posturing, or through a smouldering stare.  Before this, my only real knowledge of Robert Redford came from a small selection of his acting resume (Three Days of the Condor, Sneakers, and Spy Game), none of which gave a consistent feel for his ability.  In Butch and Sundance, I feel that I got a much clearer glimpse into why this actor became as popular as he did.  As the Sundance Kid, he is the calm, cool and capable partner of Butch Cassidy, the smooth-talking, idea-man played by Paul Newman.  Despite Butch being more of the main character, and having more dialogue, he was continually out shone by the quiet, almost Harry Lime-esque character of the Sundance Kid.

Don’t get me wrong, Paul Newman is great in the role of Butch Cassidy, but since I expected less of Redford, I was left with a more lasting impression from his performance.

Both characters seem wholly entranced by, and are ultimately slaves to the impending future.  They are living through the events of the present, with their eyes firmly forward, ever planning the next heist, fleeing the current town for the next one, and orchestrating the next caper.  As the film progresses, they slowly become aware that this shiny future they admire has no place for them, that they are a dying breed.  In every aspect of their lives, there exists strife.  From the dissent in their own gang, to the special posse contracted to deal with them, to the overwhelming odds they face by the end of the film, it becomes clear that their time is through.

The thing about this impending doom, though, is that they are seemingly un-willing to change in order to stop it.  While trying to escape their pursuers, they are told “It’s over, don’t you get that? Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.”  Throughout the film, they are given multiple chances to turn away from their destiny, but they never do.  The glamour and and excitement of this lifestyle is all they know, and it keeps them constantly committed to their outlaw trade, looking for fresh starts, second chances and new hideouts (New York, Bolivia, Colorado, etc.).  The eventuality of their communal fate, illustrated in the scene where Butch Cassidy is riding his brand new bicycle, doing tricks, and taking risks, only to end up in front of a stampeding bull.  And so it is with Sundance too.  The railroads are bringing civilization and law to the once lawless terrain measured and ruled by the gunfighter and his gang.  They are literally and figuratively being driven to extinction.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a fantastic watch, and is well deserving of it’s place on the list of 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die.  Highly Recommended.

“What the shit, bicycle montage?” – Ashley