Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - The Tragic Hustle
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The Tragic Hustle 10/02/2008 - 3:38 PM

165952paulnewmanposters“Nobody should be asked not to like Paul Newman.” This is how New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael summed up her review of the late star’s performance in the 1977 hockey-comedy classic Slap Shot. Kael was hardly a Newman devotee, though she always appreciated his star power, if not his acting technique. It’s hard to argue with her assessment above. A famously handsome, charitable, politically active, Oscar-winning movie star and family man who was a race-car driver on the side—if you made Paul Newman up as the hero of a novel, nobody would have found him even remotely believable.

I’ve only known one person who didn’t like Newman’s onscreen persona. This was an ornery James Dean fanatic who could never bring himself to appreciate the man who essentially replaced his idol as the skinny, existential anti-hero of the day. And I suppose he had a point—Dean was the more intense onscreen presence. Newman himself, ever self-deprecating, criticized a lot of his own early performances as over the top.

That’s kind of how I remembered him in The Hustler, the 1961 movie which introduced one of his most famous characters, Fast Eddie Felson, a pool shark and consensus loser. (Newman would win an Oscar playing Felson again 25 years later in The Color of Money). I’d seen The Hustler as a kid and been disappointed. I’d wanted a pool movie, but instead I got a depressing and molasses-slow love story. So when I went to the video store this weekend looking for a Newman film, I searched first for Torn Curtain, a mid-60s Hitchcock that I’ve never seen. But the only Newman movie available at the local Blockbuster—shouldn’t they’ve had a special section carved out in honor of the great man?—was The Hustler. I wasn’t sure about the 135-minute running time, but my dad and I wanted some Newman, so we took it home.

Turns out The Hustler could have lasted 235 minutes and I wouldn’t have minded. It does move slowly—leisurely is the nice way to spin it—but in the best literary way. The director is Robert Rossen, who also did Lilith, an equally slow, somber, but moving 60s film starring Warren Beatty. Most of the scenes in The Hustler are long and static and full of talk, but the talk is of the highest order. An example: When Eddie aggressively kisses a woman he has just met (Piper Laurie) at the door to her apartment, she stops him and says, “You’re too hungry.” I knew right there that I had misjudged this movie as a kid. It had gone way over my head.

Fast Eddie is a pool hustler tired of traveling through small towns and taking suckers for small money. He wants to prove himself against the best, Minnesota Fats (the real Minnesota Fats apparently took his name from this movie), played by Jackie Gleason. The actor's control and understatement here—you’d never know he’d made his living as a Honeymooner—reminded me of Jerry Lewis’ non-comic turn 20 years later in The King of Comedy. It’s worth renting this movie just to hear Gleason put a New York accent on the word “corner”—as in “four ball in the cour-na.”

Gleason is a quiet scene-stealer, but Newman is up against more than just him in The Hustler. Laurie is superb and scary as Eddie’s troubled girlfriend. Even better is George C. Scott as the manipulative money-man who eventually stakes Eddie and takes him back on the road, in part just to enjoy watching him fail.

Scott’s character, Bert Gordon, articulates the theme of the movie (and, most likely, the Walter Tevis novel on which it’s based; I’ve never read it) when he sums up Eddie this way: “He’s a loser.” Gordon goes on to tell Eddie that while he has talent, he’ll never amount to anything because he has no “character.” Deep down Eddie wants to lose because it’s the easy way out. He’s too weak, too much of a coward to do anything else, whether it’s on the pool table or off it.

In Newman’s best scene, he tells his girlfriend about Gordon’s assessment of him. He admits that he’s bothered because he knows that there’s a lot of truth to it. Eddie has recently had his thumb broken in a pool hall because he embarrassed his opponent by bringing out his best game. Gathering steam and sounding more alive than he does at any other point in the movie, Eddie explains why he did it. He says he wanted to show the guys there what pool is like when it’s really good, when it’s played the way it should be played, when it feels like he’s got oil in his shoulder and everything’s flowing and he’s making shots no one can make, that no one has ever made before. By the time Eddie's done, Laurie can only say, “I love you. You’re not a loser.” She’s seen the man at his purest, when he’s playing for the joy of it, when he’s not hustling.

These two elements of the movie—that character counts for more than talent, and the great athlete talking about what’s it like to be in the zone and show everyone what he can do—struck me as coming straight from a tennis court. How may matches have you seen decided because one player, deep down, doesn’t have the courage, no matter how good he is or how well he’s playing, to win it? Rather than strokes or speed, that simple, but exceedingly difficult to find, courage to win is the difference between champions and everyone else.

The final scene is basically a battle between three actors at their very best. Scott personifies the evil of the almighty dollar when he screams, unhinged, “You owe me money!” Gleason’s Fats is revealed to be no grander or freer than Fast Eddie. And Newman does some of the best contained seething you’ll see anywhere. My favorite line comes when Eddie and Fats, great talents and great men brought down by the hustler’s life, salute each other.

“Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool,” Eddie says with a touchingly innocent sincerity. A tired Gleason looks up and answers with the only words necessary: “So do you, Fast Eddie.” In a perfect world, it would be all that mattered. It’s tragic that there's so much more to life.

Below is the movie's final scene. (Don't click if you want to watch the whole thing eventually.)


Posted by Jonas 10/02/2008 at 04:05 PM


Posted by SwissMaestro 10/02/2008 at 04:07 PM

Marcello Lippi looks so much like Paul Newman is not even funny.

Posted by alljaa 10/02/2008 at 05:50 PM

Paul Newman was an actor's actor...he sought out truly demanding roles...roles that stretched his skills and his ability to interpret man and all his foibles. I thought his best roles were Fast Eddie, Cool Hand Luke and Hud--although I really liked him in many of his later films, especially when he played the ambulance-chasing lawyer who sues the Arch-Diocese when a woman is left comatose--can't remember the name of it!! And Road to Perdition!! jaa

Posted by Flyer 10/02/2008 at 06:46 PM


I believe it was "The Verdict" - a great flick & role for Newman.

Posted by highpockets 10/02/2008 at 07:36 PM

Steve, I love the way you wrote this.

I've watched "The Hustler" about 3-4 times at different stages of my life, and I love your take on its messages. It's a stark and beautiful movie and the acting is first rate.

Posted by tennis kad 10/02/2008 at 07:54 PM

Great stuff. Wasn't expecting to, but I truly enjoyed your take on this remarkable man. I was thinking on Sunday, as my wife and I watched COOL HAND LUKE (What we have here is a failure to communicate!), that there's not a single person in Hollywood right now who even comes close to filling the void left by Paul Newman.

Posted by Epic Backhand 10/02/2008 at 08:07 PM

goodbye Fast Eddie :(

Posted by rudy3 (electricity is for wimps) 10/02/2008 at 08:25 PM

Thank you Steve for that discription of a great film. they don't make 'em like that anymore. The Departed was close, but just something about the films of that era...they are so raw, and real.

I love Hud and The Hustler...but for pure romance...its The Long Hot Summer

"Miss Clara, I'm gonna kiss you, its real simple, I'm gonna please you and you're gonna please me". Uh, so so so...well its just so...

Posted by Andy Clarke 10/02/2008 at 08:27 PM

Great piece.

By the time, I started paying attention to movies, Newman had already become an icon, as famous for his popcorn and salad dressing as for his acting.

In some of his later movies, he seemed to be playing Paul Newman playing a character, winking at the audience from behind the role.

The Verdict was an exception. Great performance, great movie.

I will check out some of the classics, starting with The Hustler.


Posted by skip1515 10/02/2008 at 08:34 PM

Leftie Man, you pen a great bit of writing.

Posted by Andrew Friedman (a.k.a. Rolo Tomassi) 10/02/2008 at 08:47 PM

Steve, this was a nice surprise. If I remember right, the great thing about that "he's a loser" line is that it's delivered with Fast Eddie (Newman) standing right there. (Haven't seen it in ages, so could be wrong.) I loved Paul Newman and like others here have a real soft spot for his role as Frank Galvin in The Verdict - that thing comes on late at night quite often and I can never turn it off and go to bed, even though I own it on DVD!

Posted by sheshe 10/02/2008 at 11:59 PM

Steve, I rarely post, but read TW daily..I just felt a responsibilit, being a avid reader and a huge movie fan and tennis player.. I play on a 4.5 womens team weekly, play paddle and basicly love anything competitive in sports. I also love movies..Especially Classics and really appreciated you acknowledging Newman!! But most importantly, how you zeroed into the similarity in the sport of pool to "any sport"..Tennis...whatever..But it comes down to Courage...That was Huge for me....I just have to say...You put into words what I have been puzzled about in competition. Thank for solving my frustrating puzzle for all these years. Now I have the Courage to win...

Posted by Yummy Prince Fed/Karen 10/03/2008 at 08:00 AM

Did Paul Newman die?

Posted by Biljana 10/03/2008 at 09:45 AM

I was waiting for Steve to write this article. I just knew and was
not disappointed. This is a very smart and just approach to paying tribute to Paul Newman. Somehow every praise you would say about Paul would just not be enough, so writing about his work and making this parallel with sports says enough. RIP Paul Newman.

Posted by ND 10/03/2008 at 11:23 AM

Steve, Yes indeed. It's tragic that there's so much more to life. Is that a Tignor original?

Posted by Fudoshin 10/03/2008 at 11:45 AM

Your observation, "that it takes courage to win" is extremely insightful. A tough win is like staring down death.

Posted by daylily 10/03/2008 at 02:05 PM

steve, thank you for the tribute to paul newman. been hearing quite a few of them this week, including an unexpected one tuesday morning on npr that made me cry. from the time i was a little girl in the 50's, paul newman was my idea of the perfect unreachable star, everything a movie star should be....not the celebrity junque we have today. sigh....i had to grow up, like you, to understand Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Long Hot Summer and Hud....almost everything he did was touched with special. your characterization captured his essense, i believe. thanks.

Posted by Codge 10/03/2008 at 02:26 PM

One of the all time best movies. Beautiful piece.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 10/03/2008 at 02:45 PM

My Saturday evening is now planned: I'm renting The Hustler.

Thanks, Steve, for another great piece of writing and a fine tribute to a fine actor and finer human being.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 10/03/2008 at 03:02 PM

Funny, that "courage" notion, but so very true. I've faced numerous moments in my storied amateur tennis career in which it boiled down to that very thing. I'm happy to say that more often than not I've managed to dig down deep and find just enough of it to prevail when moments before I had thought all was lost. A precious few of those matches have meant a good deal more than simple pride.

Then, last evening, it happened again. I was playing my state's top-ranked state 30-and-over player, who's also a member of my club and a friend and a good egg. We play fairly frequently (once every week or two), and I've begun calling him the Right-handed Rafa from Hollow Rock, because he's quick as all get-out and phsically very strong (he played lacrosse at Stanford an now swims laps daily), and he hits almost everything with brutal topspin, even his serve.

But I was on my best slicein' an' dicin' game, moving him up and back, wide and then wider, chipping and charging and occasionally changing the pace and spin and ripping topspin drives dep to the corners. I took the first set 6-3 after more than an hour, and soon found myself in a battle in which I was always a game back, trying to hold just to stay even.

So there I was, serving to stay in the second set at 4-5, 15-40, and I was running out of gas and motivation as the night grew colder and the hour late. As I walked toward the net to retrieve another netted first service (I had many last night, for some reason, which can really take the wind out of one's sails), I found myself in that old familiar territory--muttering to myself about how rotten I was serving and that I would be better off just calling it a nght and going home to a hot shower and a warm meal.

ANd that's when the other thing happened: I found my inner courage and fight. I fought off the internal demons and fought gamely to hold my serve to make it 5-5, then played a gutsy return game to go up 6-5, serving for the match. Of course, I was stil struggling with my serve, and that made it very difficult to seal the deal. But I worked my way the hard way to 40-30 and, after missing another first serve in the tape (net cord), I decided to hit another first serve at his body, but with a little more lean and upward thrust with my legs, which all night had not been properly engaged on serve (poor timing, for some reason). I sat back in my best Goran Ivanisevic impression, tossed the ball two feet into the court and let one rip right at his body, and he returned short to my backhand side. I ran around it (even though I prefer my backhand in most cases), and let rip an inside-in topspin winner down his forehand line that left him standing dazed and confused. And that, thankfully, was the match. I could not go any further.

Courage is the essence of all sports, no question. Funny how I've always been too frightened to get on stage and act. THat must take some REAL guts!

Posted by ND 10/03/2008 at 04:01 PM

Slice-n-Dice, Good stuff. Love hearing about your playing experiences as well. Btw, your tip about watching the opponent rather than the ball after the shot was really helpful.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 10/03/2008 at 04:12 PM

ND - that's terrific news. I'm glad that that tip has paid handsome dividends in your tennis game, and am flatttered to learn that someone actually read my tip and tried it. I'm floored! Thanks.

Posted by Sam 10/03/2008 at 05:10 PM

Wonderful post, Steve.

Posted by steve 10/03/2008 at 05:49 PM

thanks, and thanks for the post, don.

andrew, you're right, bert gordon tells fats that eddie is a "loser" very loudly within earshot. eddie either doesn't hear it or pretends not to. he asks his buddy, "what did he say?" but it totally throws him off.

think i'll check out the book. all reviews of it are outstanding. the same author also wrote 'the man who fell to earth," which is kind of a shock. very, very different flick.

have a good weekend. will be back with regular stuttgart programming/writing on monday. something tells me it won't be as inspiring as 'the hustler.'

Posted by richie 10/03/2008 at 07:08 PM

A great post, Steve. The YouTube clip shows Newman at his very best - the barely controlled rage against Bert is perfectly done by a great actor that we are going to miss. As many have already said, they don't make these kind of movies any more. That last scene is just so tense and riveting. Thanks again, Steve.

Posted by nickmagoo 10/03/2008 at 10:52 PM

this man did more (and continues to do even after his passing) for charity than almost anyone. and without the usual blustery 'look at me' hogwash that most celebrities revel in - i believe newman's own' has raised over $100,000,000 already. i'm not religious, but i consider this man a saint.

Posted by jeff in rochester 10/04/2008 at 09:27 AM

I was always a fan of George C. Scott from his early days on "Eastside-Westside" on TV......what guy growing up in the 60's, 70's or 80's did not have Newman as one of his heros!

The movie I never could understand why Newman took was "Slapshot" with its "B" cast being filmed in Central New York and other minor league hockey dumps like Syracuse, Utica, Binghamton and Johnston, PA. The movie released in 1977 became the best sports movie ever made. Rod Bloomfield, who I saw play for the Broome Dusters was Newmans double in all the skating scenes and was the Dusters captain and top scorer. The Carlsens(Hansen) brothers are still doing their at as the Charleston Chiefs in major and minor league gigs.

The "Hustler" was one of Newmans bests and loved your in the "zone" tennis comment.

Posted by zolarafa 10/04/2008 at 09:08 PM

great post. Makes this place even more special. Thanks.

Posted by K. kilgore 10/05/2008 at 08:49 AM

i've never posted here. this article made me want to, A. Rent the movie, and B. Hit that really great shot. But "winning" is never about ONE great shot; is it?


Posted by zolarafa 10/05/2008 at 04:17 PM

I did the same. I went to rent the Hustler last night but it was out. I managed to rent "cool hand Luke". Another great one.
"sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand"....

Posted by tina 10/05/2008 at 05:53 PM

Steve - a belated thanks for this. I didn't have time to properly mourn this great man, who started his all-proceeds-to-charity food empire as a gag, and built the most amazing cancer charity for kids in the world. Sadly, his death got a little lost with all the election and Wall Street stuff. But having read this, and shed a few tears, you have given me that moment I needed to say farewell. In my home state of Connecticut, I'm sure it's been treated like a big local news story - I'll have to ring my folks to ask.

Liz Taylor's the only one left now, bless her. But the Oscars' Memorial Montage will be much sadder this time. I'm going for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" for Paul - and Liz, while she's still here.

Posted by alljaa 10/05/2008 at 07:11 PM

Flyer - thanks, it was "The Verdict," of course. I believe the role was first offered to Redford and he passed on it...couldn't relate to the man's humanity, I guess. Who knows for sure. Enjoyed all the comments. Always nice to respond to something other than tennis once in a while, although, we all love tennis. I think the world is reduced, somehow, by the passing of this great artist and humanitarian. I shall miss him. Thanks, Steve, for a great post...jaa

Posted by jeff in rochester 10/07/2008 at 05:37 PM


I just read where the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League will have a pregame ceremony to honor Paul Newman and "retire" his movie numbered jersey #7...................with his fictional name Reggie will be there for the entire season. The real life "Hansen Brothers" will do the honors! October 11, 2008. A lot of the movie was filmed in that arena.

Posted by John 10/09/2008 at 12:34 AM

"Preach! JTS ice, no glass"

One of my favorite movies ever. Great dialogue, great story. Good man...not much 'Hollywood' about Paul Newman. RIP

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