The idea of the home truth is a surprisingly common element in much that passes for classic Hollywood as characters tell each other what they think. But what we want to propose provocatively, and then explore singularly, is the idea that where Hollywood of the thirties and forties seemed frequently to offer sharp truths, into the fifties, and up until perhaps the mid-sixties generally, films often offered much more blunt truths. The sharp truths are those of the screwball comedy, for example, where Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Clarke Gable, Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell etc. lightly chide each other for their inadequacies, their little moments of bad faith, and their feelings of smugness, apparent in It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday and numerous others. Even a film noir from 1944 like Double Indemnity often plays on screwball style exchanges, evident in the first time Fred MacMurray meets Barbara Stanwyck. The brief comments about driving too fast aren't very different from those in the meeting between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell at the beginning of His Girl Friday. Repartee is vital to the films' tone - whether it be screwball or even noir. This is a cinema of sharp home truths, where the interlocutor replies with equal sharpness, but it is as if the sharpness is more important than the truth: the witticism greater than the honesty it is supposed to contain. Now, this is not the case in a cinema of blunt home truths, where the dialogue is usually much slower, the lines less witty and the truths more important than the manner in which they're offered.
One proposes the above generalisation as a way into The Hustler, Robert Rossen's adaptation of Walter Tevis's novel, made in 1961, and with Paul Newman the itinerant pool hustler of the title. What the film does well is explore the notion of truth within the idea of the game. This game isn't only pool - pool is the arena in which other games can also be played out: for a pool hustler needs to be both a great player and an astute observer of human moves. But beyond the game of pool and the game of psyching people out, is the truth, the reality those too involved in the game of pool, or too involved in the game of human behaviour, can see. The three characters played by Paul Newman, George C. Scott and Piper Laurie each loosely represent these three categories. Newman's Eddie Felson is interested in the game of pool, Bert (Scott), manipulating the human, and Sarah (Laurie) in the truth expressed through love. In a scene well into Eddie and Sarah's relationship, they're having a picnic and, as they sit and talk, Sarah says "I love you, Eddie". Eddie tries to make light of the comment, but she repeats it. She says it with both absolute love and plenty of pain, looking at Eddie so tenderly that the crippled Sarah brings out beautifully the layers of truth in the statement. She is saying she loves Eddie, knows that this will eventually cause her more anxiety than pleasure, and that her own physical handicap doesn't put her in a good place to win Felson's affections. Indeed later in the film Bert makes that very clear after he becomes Eddie's manager. When the three of them take off to Louisville for a hustlers' convention, Bert offers a few home truths to Sarah. "You're here in on a rain check, and I know it. You're hanging on by your nails...don't make trouble Miss Ladybird."
Bert's blunt truth here is as blunt as Sarah's to Eddie, even if there is nothing but tenderness in Sarah's comment; nothing but contempt in Bert's. Bert's language may be metaphorical but it isn't an invite to trade witticisms; it is a desire to drive a stake through Sarah's sensitive soul. When Sarah tells Eddie she loves him, it is the opposite: to try and get Eddie to find his. But in both instances, hard truths are being offered. At the end of the film, after Sarah commits suicide when Eddie rejects her, and after Eddie finally beats his rival Minnesota Fats, generally seen as the best pool player in the country, Eddie says, "we really stuck the knife in her, didn't we Bert, we really gave it to her good." "Maybe it doesn't stick in your throat because you spit it out like you spit out everything else." Eddie has proved at last that he is the best pool player in America, but of course it is a pyrrhic victory, won at the price of the woman that he realises retrospectively he loved. He might be attacking Bert but he is also criticising himself, with the difference chiefly one of how they take Sarah's death: there is self-justification on Bert's part and self-laceration on Eddie's.
Now one of the shifts we may notice in late classical American cinema as opposed to the earlier years of the talkies, is the degree of self-contempt practised by fifties stars like Brando, Dean, Newman and Clift, as opposed to the innocence, arrogance or smugness of Gable, Flynn, Grant and Stewart. The Russian existential philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev says in The Destiny of Man, "nor is it true that man always loves himself above all. Man is an egoistical and egocentric being, but that does not mean that he loves himself...indeed he may feel a positive aversion to himself". He also notes that "people who have a liking for themselves are generally kinder and more tolerant of others", and it is as if he could be drawing out the distinction we've been making between early and late classic Hollywood. It also helps explain the American philosopher Stanley Cavell's claims about many of these early classic films, that of 'moral perfectionism'. "Perfectionism proposes confrontation and conversation as the means of determining whether we can live together, accept one another into the aspirations of our lives." This is for Cavell a living ethos, and sees it played out in the films he discusses in Cities of Words: including It Happened One Night,Adam's Rib, Stella Dallas, Mr Deeds Goes to Town and His Girl Friday. It is interesting that all Cavell's examples are from the early period of classic Hollywood sound film, and one wonders how his thesis would play out where characters like themselves less, and where unhealthy impulses are often stronger than healthy instincts. Do we instead end up with moral imperfectionism? When Brando famously says in The Wild One after being asked what is he rebelling against, and replies "what have you got", it is of course very similar to the title of Dean's A Rebel Without a Cause.
Many of the films of the fifties and early sixties were looking not for moral perfectionism, but being 'real', escaping the phoney, and Sarah in The Hustler functions chiefly on that basis. She knows what she feels and knows who she is. Though she lies initially and withholds certain information from Eddie, later she tells him exactly how she became lame, and also says the rich person giving her money is her father. That she was so real is what allows Eddie to attack Bert at the end of the film. He tears into Bert not with the sanctimoniousness of the righteous, but the awareness of a man in purgatory who missed his chance of salvation. He is coruscating through the virtue of another, as though in consequence trying to finds the remnants of virtuousness in himself.
If we can say there is a moral imperfectionism frequently at work, can we add that it is reflected not only in the nature of the dialogue, but also the form in which such exchanges take place? The repartee of classic Hollywood often demanded the shot/counter shot, or what was called the plan americain: the shot of one or more characters filmed in such a way that we see most of their bodies within the frame. There was in such exchanges a sense of equivalence. In many later films, and perhaps especially influenced by Welles' work in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, the form becomes humanly equivocal: based on perspective imbalances with characters large in the foreground and others small in the rear of the shot. Numerous critics have talked of Welles' fascination not with moral perfectionism, but the problem of evil, including Gilles Deleuze and Andr Bazin. Deleuze talks of Welles' nihilism, while Bazin noted of Macbeth that "...good and evil are not yet clearly separated". The exchange needn't be direct but contained by a cinematographic insidiousness, captured extremely well here in the moment where Eddie and Bert talk about Eddie's pool career. Eddie is large in the foreground as he enters the frame and sits at the bar. While ordering his drink, Bert says, sitting in a chair in the background, to make that two and that he is buying. Here we are once again in a scene of home truths, as Bert tells Eddie he might be the best pool player around, but that Minnesota Fats has more character in one finger than Eddie has in his whole skinny body. While Eddie faces the camera, occasionally turning to look at Bert, the film captures astutely in form the distance between the two characters as Bert tries to close it by complimenting Eddie on his talent but questioning his character. During this long single take, eventually Bert gets up and comes over to the bar as the film moves into a series of two shots with either Eddie or Bert in profile; the other face on. Obviously what counts first and foremost in this whole sequence is the dialogue exchange, but director Robert Rossen frames it with a certain wariness: as if to say the gap between the characters' values remains huge, even if they seem to be working towards the same goals, and Rossen wants to show that gap visually.
We might contrast this scene with the most emotionally honest moment in the film, the one where Sarah tells Eddie that she loves him. Here the scene is offered in a fairly standard shot counter/shot manner as Eddie reveals his passion for pool; Sarah expresses her love for him. "You're not a loser, Eddie, you're a winner," Sarah says, "some men never get to feel that way about anything." It is filmed with no sense of wariness, no feeling on the viewer's part that we should be wary about how the characters are talking to each other. The only question is whether Eddie can live up not so much to her truth claim but her love claim: can he feel the same for her as she feels for him?
The answer is, of course, yes and no, but the film earns its tragic dimension when Eddie admits that he loved her, but can only acknowledge it after her demise. Yet this is still love as blunt home truth. "I loved her, Bert," he says, but it is love as harsh reality. Eddie announces it to feel the bitterness of his own loss, and also to force Bert to see how hollowly Bert lives. As Eddie insists that her death really sticks in his throat, he says "that he traded her in on a pool game. But that wouldn't mean anything to you. Who did you ever care about? Just win, you said, just win, that's the important thing." Eddie realizes that he may have traded Sarah in for a game of pool, but we should recall that Sarah loved Eddie partly because of his passion for the game. Winning might be irrelevant next to love, but a passion for something isn't especially the problem: at least it is a passion. Bert has no passion at all: "You're a loser", Eddie says, "because you're dead inside. And you can't live unless you make everything else dead around you." If so often the repartee we have mentioned in relation to early classic Hollywood generates energy in the very exchanges, the blunt home truths are more inclined to acknowledge dead energy in the character being accused or in the accuser, and sometimes in both.
During Eddie's tirade, the only cutaways are to Minnesota Fats, who is placed in between Bert and Eddie in a shot of the three of them before Eddie says he loved Sarah. Though Fats has two reaction shots here, there is no immediate recognition where he stands in relation to the argument. His purpose though isn't to respond to one position or the other, but to absorb the home truths Eddie is offering. What we may wonder has Fats sacrificed over the years by having "more character in his finger"? We don't know, but after Eddie's comments, Rossen returns to a shot of the three of them, with again Fats literally stuck in the middle. Eddie might be offering the home truths to Bert, but if anyone is absorbing them it is Minnesota, as each character leaves the film with a feeling we might say of moral imperfectionism.
But how does this differ from the earlier years of classic Hollywood, and are we not making outlandishly broad generalisations about thirties and forties cinema by contrasting it so broadly with fifties and early sixties film? Our purpose isn't chiefly however to make grand claims, but merely to try and understand one film, and hopefully the generalisations made are useful in trying to say why, in the best sense of the term, The Hustler is a film of its time: a work indebted it might seem to some of the home truths so often practised by Tennessee Williams and the adaptations of his work. Newman starred in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof three years earlier, was also in The Long Hot Summer and Sweet Bird of Youth. His wife Joanne Woodward appeared in The Fugitive Kind from the play Orpheus Rising the year before, and Newman in the eighties directed a Williams adaptation indeed starring Woodward: The Glass Managerie.
If we muse over classic Hollywood films like Casablanca and Now Voyager, we might think of the famous remarks made at the end of each film. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman will always have Paris, they say, accepting that they ought to sacrifice their love to the greater good; while in Now Voyager Bette Davis announces to Paul Henreid, "let's not ask for the moon; we have the stars" as she decides to sacrifice their love for, again, the greater good: that of the child. In each instance the characters settle for a moral perfectionism greater than their own emotional wants. The sadness is relative and bittersweet: they must accept they will become better people for their sacrifice. Whether it is in a comedy (like It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday or The Philadelphia Story) where love prevails, or in weepies like Casablanca or Now Voyager, where it is sacrificed to a higher purpose, moral perfectionism is achieved. In The Hustler the best one can hope for is an awareness of one's moral failings. The greater good lies not in this life as happiness or sadness, but in the lost life of someone who represents higher values than seems readily expressible and sustainable in this world. Is this not also partly the difference between an early classic melodrama like Stella Dallas, where the vulgar mum chooses to give her daughter the good life by letting her classy ex-husband remarry, and retreats from her daughter's existence, and Douglas Sirk's late fifties melodrama Imitation of Life with the mulatto daughter only realising after her black mother's death how important she was to her? In Stella Dallas the mother acknowledges her own moral perfectionism in her act of sacrifice, la Casablanca and Now Voyager. In Imitation of Life, rather like The Hustler, it is only after someone's demise that one can see reality: and thus the film contains the tragic dimension and the awareness of moral imperfectionism that can recognise only retrospectively the greater good, though do nothing about it except try and improve one's own now self-loathing character.
The Hustler's sense of unity chiefly comes from two scenes; one early in the film and one at the end: the two encounters with Minnesota Fats. In the first exchange, Eddie believes that the most important thing in life is to be a winner, to be the best. Therein lies his metaphysical justification; it is how he defines his identity and purpose when Sarah admits she has fallen in love with him. He eventually loses the game because winning is curiously less important to him than the addiction of winning: he is like a gambler who can't leave the roulette table even if pool is obviously based more on skill than chance. Later of course Bert insists that the game isn't about either luck or skill but about character, closer to the game of poker that Eddie plays at one stage and loses at quickly. This is Bert's metaphysic: not talent attached to winning, but character allowing one to make money. Obviously Eddie is aware of the importance of making money and hiding one's talent: it is partly what a hustler does. But he is someone for whom the expression of talent is vital to his existence. When he watches Fats he says breathlessly, "look at the way he moves, like a dancer...those fingers, those chubby fingers...that stroke....like he's playing the violin or something." For Bert talent is merely a means to make money - the quality of the talent is irrelevant to the service to which it can be put. But for Sarah it resides in love, so it makes sense there would be tension between Bert and Sarah when they meet: selflessness meets selfishness and Bert reduces Sarah's love to a low-grade commodity Eddie buys until a better product comes along. Bert's horrible home truth we quoted earlier helps create despair in Sarah and false consciousness in Eddie as Bert destroys their relationship and contributes to Sarah's move towards suicide.
Existence will no doubt continue being a game for Bert, but the lesson Eddie seems to have learnt is that character doesn't come from winning or losing at pool, at playing the game or playing people, but in confronting one's own fragile ego. At the end of the first game with Fats, Eddie loses as he lacks the character even for the game. By the end of the film, he wins with character enough to acknowledge its irrelevance. It is the film's final home truth, soberly framed as the characters slope off out of the shot in one fixed image. The score is melancholic jazz, tragic rather than sad, and reflects the fixity of the frame which is like the fixity of a gaze recognising human frailty and weakness more than moral strength. It is a wonderful, formal, example of moral imperfectionism: the antithesis of the high-angled crane shots that concludes a more perfectionist aesthetic, evident of course in two major examples of it from classic Hollywood that we have invoked - Casablanca and Now Voyager. Moral perfectionism can look heavenward; moral imperfectionism straight ahead.
© Tony McKibbin