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The Hustler (1961)
Be careful what you wish for
Sarah: What does he do, this Bert Gordon? Eddie: He's a gambler. Sarah: Is he a winner? Eddie: He owns things. Sarah: Is that what makes a winner?
As unfounded as the McCarthy era witch hunts proved to be, much of the artistic output of the so-called "communist sympathizers" did have this in common: an indictment of the American Dream (or perhaps more accurately: the American Dream as a cautionary tale). Robert Rossen's THE HUSTLER no doubt falls into this category.
More than anything, Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) wants to be the best pool hustler there is. And that means beating Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). "It's like a morgue," Eddie's partner comments as they enter the pool hall where he's to do battle, "the pools tables are like slabs they lay the stiffs on." Act One ends with Eddie lying on the floor--broke, dead drunk, having lost the pool game--the latest corpse sacrificed on the altar of 1961-era Corporate Greed.
Act Two begins with him meeting Sarah (Piper Laurie): a lost soul (much like Eddie) who provides solace & wisdom and who nurses him back to health after the beatings given to him by Minnesota Fats(figuratively) and a bunch of thugs he meets at the pool hall ARTHUR'S (literally). It is Sarah, in fact, who understands Eddie better than he understands himself when she tells him he's a winner. Not because he's rich. Not because he's the best. But because he's alivealive with the pure, unadulterated, incorruptible joy he gets when he uses his God-Given talent. "The pool cue's a part of me," he tells her. "I just had to show'em, what the game's like when it's great. When it's REALLY great. How anything can be great. Bricklaying can be great. If a guy KNOWS." This after Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) has told him he's a born loser.
Bert Gordon: Cynical. Greedy. Student of human moves. He knows Eddie's the best pool player he's ever seen. "I never saw anybody shoot pool the way you shot the other night against Minnesota Fats," he tells Eddie. But he still calls Eddie a loser. Why? Because by the end of the game, Fats has all the money. "This game isn't like football. You don't get paid for yardage," he tells Eddie. And so THE HUSTLER is really about a tug of war. For Eddie's soul.
Bert is pulling him one directiontowards being successful at all costs. Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing. You keep score real simple. At the end of the night, you count up to see who has the money. Sarah is pulling him in the opposite direction. She knows the real score. He achieves his dream in the end (beating Minnesota Fats) but at what cost? Fast Eddie comes to realize there are more important things than winning. But by then it's too late.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
You got yo mind right, Luke?
I think it's safe to say Paul Newman helped define the contemporary American male that emerged between WW2 and the androgynous 60's (most of which occurred on a mass, mainstream level in the 70's). A transformation that morphed the male ideal to one of feminine beauty. But in between the laconic, rugged individualist (Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne) and the cute, physically non-threatening boy toy (David Cassidy, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger) was the charismatic outsider (Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman): beguiling yet dangerous, clean cut yet anti-authoritarian--refusing to give in to the societal polemic that demanded conformity. And this post-modern male persona, established in many movies (ON THE WATERFRONT, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE to name only three) was perhaps best exemplified in the movie COOL HAND Luke.
We fall in love with Luke during the opening scene, I think: The utter stupidity of a grown man, drunk & alone, cutting off heads of parking meters is, well, damn satisfying to watch. There's something Dostoevskian about it (from NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND: "What about the millions of facts that show that men, deliberately and in full knowledge of what their real interests were, spurned them and rushed in a different direction? They did so at their own risk. . .refusing to follow the safe, well-trodden path and searching for another path, a difficult one, stubbornly working their way along it in the darkness). And our love of Luke is sealedafter he opens the beer he'll never drinkat the beginning on that beautiful freeze-frame of him laughing at life: her struggles, her injustices, her seeming insistence that we conform, or else.
And that is also why we loved Paul Newman. He deflected (or more accurately Fast Eddie, Luke, Butch, & Henry Gondorf did) the slings and arrows life through at him with a grin and a twinkle in his eye that couldn't help but win us over to his side. We are so rooting for Luke to connect with his mother, to escape the chain gang, to achieve the miraculous feat of eating 50 eggs. And speaking of miracles, you may or may not know that this movie is a retelling of the story of Jesus (complete with disciples, miracles, persecution, doubt, prayer, crucifixion, and resurrection).
The last image we see is of a photo in a magazine Luke had sent the chain gang showing him living the good life. When they find out the picture is a phony and that Luke is not the man they thought he was, Dragline rips it up. At the end of the movie, the photo has been resurrected: the repaired rips forming a Cross after faith in Luke has been restored. But however you chose to interpret COOL HAND Luke, it is Paul Newman whom we ultimately respond to. With all the lives he impacted, he was--on and off the screen--one of the quintessential American males of his times. I mean, think about it. Is there anything more irrelevant than a movie star? Has there ever been a movie star more relevant than Paul Newman? He was a natural born world-shaker.
Why is this movie great?
Never seen VERTIGO? Read this review AFTER you've seen it. Seen it & love it? This review is not for you (sorry-read if you want but just know you're the choir & I'm the preacher). Think VERTIGO is maybe the most overrated movie ever? READ ON because THAT'S who this review is for!
Because like you, I once thought the same thing. First let's talk about the plot holes. Like: How did Scotty get off that roof anyhow? Did they inflate a giant airbag on the street that he fell onto? Maybe a S.W.A.T. team climbed on the roof & somehow managed to tie a rope around his waist. I know: SPIDERMAN rescued him. Second: Why would Elster let an accomplice to the murder (Judy) remain behind (in the same town with the witness no less) when she could so easily expose them both? Seems a loose end Elster would not allow considering how elaborate & carefully thought out his ruse was in the first place. You can probably think of some more plot holes but those two will do for now.
Another thing I hated when I first saw this movie was all the shots of Scotty following Madeline. Do we really need 30 minutes of watching her make a left turn as she leads Scotty to an art museum or cemetery or flower shop? Zzzzzzzzzzz. And how myopic would she have to be not to notice him following her (Oops. Guess that last sentence should've been in the previous paragraph)?
But then a strange thing happened. Over the course of the next few years I watched this movie a 2nd time. Then a 3rd. And a 4th. And slowly I started to feel myself pleasantly being sucked into this movie-it's swirling, inexorable, gravitational pull on me similar to that on the main character. Because that's why those long scenes of Scotty following her are there: Madeline is pulling him down into a whirlpool of obsession that he will soon not be able to escape from. Notice that in just about all the shots in which he's following her, she's leading him down and to the left. In a circular motion. And even in the Church he walks through to get to the cemetery, notice the music: repeating back on its self (like a circle) & always descending. (ASIDE: Three times Scotty follows Madeline up instead of down. All three times he loses hertwo times up the mission tower & one time up to the hotel room she's renting. It's true he follows Judy up to her room but that's the one time he & we don't know she's Madeline.)
And speaking of the music, I personally think that's maybe the most seductive element in this movie. In fact, the score is so gloriously & emotionally evocative, Bernard Hermann deserves as much authorship of VERTIGO as Hitchcock himself in my mind. Because in the same way that we learn to love a song only after listening to it several times, this movie rewards multiple viewings.
There's no evidence to suggest that Hitchcock thought of this movie as being more important or more personal than any other movie (at least from anything I've read or seen on the subject) but it would be easy to make that leap. Because as has been pointed out by Brian De Palma (who made not one, not two, but THREE movies heavily influenced by VERTIGO: OBSESSION, BODY DOUBLE, & FEMME FATALE) and others is that this movie captures a director's relationship with his leading lady (more specifically: Hitchcock's relationships with all his blonde goddesses).
Scotty falls in love with Madeline, a woman who doesn't really exist. Directors fall in love with (i.e. decide to hire) a leading lady who doesn't really exist. They watch an actress playing a part in a movie & decide that actress would be perfect for their movie.
Turns out Madeline is really just plain, ordinary Judy. Turns out the leading lady the director hired is just a human being-not the glamorous, bigger-than-life, 40-foot goddess he saw up their on the silver screen in her previous movie.
Scotty then tries to turn Judy back into Madeline. The director-through make-up, costumes, cinematography-tries to turn his leading lady back into the gorgeous, bigger-than-life goddess he initially saw & fell in love with.
Perhaps this is the metaphor Hitchcock was trying to express. Who can say? But what we can say for sure is that VERTIGO was just voted the greatest movie ever made by the most credible entity that conducts such polls: SIGHT AND SOUND. Why? Again, who can say? But my own personal opinion is that what VERTIGO is really about has to do with why we love movies: our love of and obsession with illusion.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
You always hurt the one you love
I absolutely LOVE this movie. It's one of the best movies I've seen in the last ten years. I can SOOO relate to Kym (Anne Hathaway's character) which may seem odd since I am a bald, 47-year-old white male. Anybody who has ever felt like an outcast or a black sheep in their own family or has battled substance abuse will absolutely fall in love with her. I could totally identify with her pain when her well-intentioned but clueless family just couldn't understand her or why she was the way she was. Those of you who didn't like this movie, I think I can guess why: the scenes at the rehearsal dinner, wedding, & reception do seem drawn out. And if you felt uncomfortable watching this family during some scenes, that was the point. THANK YOU Mr. Demme, Ms. Lumet, Ms.Hathaway, Ms. DeWitt, Mr. Irwin, et al for having the temerity to tell the truth about how diseases of this nature affect real families. And thank you for touching my heart & moving me in a way that only great movies can.