Friday, September 04, 2015

The Greatest Shot In The Hustler

"Now why did I do it, Sarah, why did I do it? I could've beat that guy, I could've beat him cold. He never would have known. But I just had to show him. Just had to show those creeps and those punks what the game is like when it's great, when it's really great. You know, like anything can be great, anything can be great. I don't care — brick-laying can be great if a guy knows. If he knows what he's doin' and why and if he can make it come off."
There are a number of great moments in The Hustler including the one above (which was not in the book). Here the screenwriter is explaining his own art - and of art everywhere - through the Fast Eddie character. This scene is crucial as a fulcrum to the film, making Eddie's pool quest relevant. He seeks to test himself, being forced to realize that to bring one's art to the highest levels is a moral endeavor. So easy to have conviction without morality and so easy to have morality without conviction. The rub is in the merging of the two.

The great thing about pool is that it's a street game that can be elevated into art. Also, it's a game that in any shot can be a moment of great skill even in the midst of otherwise mediocrity. With its easy accessibility and allure it's a con man's paradise. But this takes a different sort of trickster. Not only does he have to be an expert liar and reader of human nature, he must be a master of the game. That is what elevates the pool hustler from an ordinary swindler.

The film would have been nothing without the artistic pool shots. Sure, they had Mosconi on set for some of the close-ups (Willie in the movie) but the principal actors themselves had to be seen making unedited shots or the whole movie loses credibility. Gleason was already an outstanding pool player and his "dancing" around the table was a delight to behold. The viewer couldn't help but feel he was getting a glimpse into an elite world of transcendent play. That left a tough act for Newman to follow.

Newman proved a quick student of the game. Imagination plays a part in pool when dissecting the layout of the table ("Making shots no one has ever made before."). Newman was flawless in his portrayal and seeing him actually make that first shot in his final showdown with Fats showed him as the fast and loose player he claimed to be. To be the best, first one must give one's self up. That's what separates the pretenders from the contenders.

In my other (half) life, I'd like to think of myself as an expert pool player. I'd have been purely a "feel" player, knowing without knowing the angle to take, the right speed, the right cut. On rare occasions I've been able to let it flow, shocking myself on what I could do. That allowed me to understand what the players were talking about, that the cue stick is "a part of you" and a feeling comes over that you "just can't lose." In pro sports they call it "being in the zone." But while most of us can never experience that in a football game, anyone can capture it in a game of pool.

"I loved her, Bert. I traded her in on a pool game. But that wouldn't mean anything to you because who did you ever care about? "Just win, win!" you said. "Win, that's the important thing." You don't know what winning is, Bert. You're a loser, 'cause you're dead inside and ya can't live unless you make everything dead around ya!"
But the greatest shot in The Hustler is not a pool shot but a camera shot. In a speech to the emotional cripple Bert, the camera cuts to Fats where Eddie unintentionally hits home with his remark of "Just win." It's there we get a much needed understanding of the life of the Fats character. Gleason's self-reflective glance of questioning remorse proved him to be the man of character he was hailed to be. In a few second seconds of screen time we see a lifetime in Fats. Absolutely magnificent.

There really was no other way to work Fats' inner life into the script. We could have seen a shoehorned shot of him entering an immaculate apartment that's dark and lonely. That or something similar would have told us volumes. But nothing could match the volume told by the unintended arrow hitting him when least expected. It was genius of the director to include this shot, not only because the audience hungered to know more about a character portrayed as a legend but also because the depth it added to the film and - most importantly - creating a moment of genius in a story about genius.

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