In honor of the late Mr. Newman, Mr. K and I had a Fast Eddie Felson Marathon several days ago. (Note: the following contains spoilers; if you haven't seen these films but intend to, you might want to skip this post.)
"The Hustler" was released in 1961; I saw it as an 18 year old college student and was stunned. But then, a lot of things stunned me in those days. I've never so much as seen a clip from it since. It's a wonderful film, easily as powerful now as it was then. Black and white, lots of noir shadows, lots of hot closeups. I thought I remembered only two plot points, but discovered I remembered the whole movie viserally: every time the movie approached a difficult scene, my stomach clenched. When Eddie walked into the waterfront pool hall and started showing off, I had to get up and pace around, only glancing at the screen.
It's a hell of a good movie, but not because of the pacing or the shots or the stars, but because it's about something: talent and character. It's articulated in the scene where the promoter (George C. Scott, at his nastiest) explains to Eddie why Minnesota Fats beat him. Because it's not enough to be the best at the game -- you have to be able to play for 24 hours and then go in and wash your face and comb your hair and come out just as steady and ready to play as when you started. Eddie develops that kind of character -- at a terrible price -- and proves it by beating Fats and then refusing to pay a percentage to the promoter, even though it means Eddie will never play serious pool again. It's a grown-up movie, and I missed a lot of it at 18, but I was very glad to see it again, and I'm still thinking about parts of it days later.
After a dinner break, we started "The Color of Money." Newman reprising Eddie, a young cocky Tom Cruise, score by Robbie Robertson, directed by Martin Scorcese. What's not to like? Well, the whole movie, actually. It's an awful film. When I saw it in 1986, it seemed entertaining enough, but now even the entertainment has leached away, leaving nothing. Fake characters (with the shining exception of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Carmen), random plot elements, show-off cinematography -- what it lacked was being about something. If you saw it on a plane, you'd watch it and not think much about it. But watching it directly after "The Hustler" was a revelation. "Hustler" is what a movie can be like, can do. "Money" is what we so often settle for in a movie.
One of the most telling things about the two movies was their attitude towards the hustle. When a pool player hustles someone, he pretends to play badly, gradually lures the other person into thinking they're better than they are as the bets go up, and then wins the big bet, in a way that looks like the hustler just had a run of luck. At the end of "Money" Newman and Cruise have a showdown, and Newman wins, barely. He's elated -- he's back! Then Cruise comes into his hotel room and gives him an envelope full of cash; Newman's cut of the side bets, won because Cruise threw the game. Newman's character (I can't bring myself to call him Eddie, Eddie would never have stood for this shit) is upset because Cruise is claiming he would have won if he'd wanted to. But that's not the problem -- the problem is that hustling is NOT THE SAME as throwing a game, and as far as I could tell, neither the writer nor the director saw any difference. Lack of character. You don't have character, doesn't matter how much talent you have, your wins are going to be dependent on luck, and your talent's not reliable.