Weekly Volcano Blogs: Walkie Talkie Blog

January 7, 2014 at 7:56pm

Check This Out: "The Hustler" (1961) and "Hud" (1963)

Newman's Own: "The Hustler" and "Hud"

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Every Tuesday, "Check This Out" recommends movies available at your friendly local library. So you can satisfy your next film fix at the place with the books.

Before all the salad dressing and philanthropy, Paul Newman didn't always play the nicest of guys onscreen. Early in his long career, he seemed to favor unlikable characters, roles that contrasted sharply with his all-American good looks and screwed with audience expectations. Two of Newman's most iconic parts - as "Fast" Eddie Felson in The Hustler and Hud in Hud - I happened to find sitting almost next door to each other on a shelf in the library, and make sense as neighbors given their common skill at being glorious bastards.

The Hustler starts with Newman as just that - a pool shark who cheats amateurs out of their money by feigning inexperience. His constant boyish grin disarms his victims and us, for only about five minutes. But Eddie's grin fades quickly when up against the bemused smirk of fellow pool prodigy Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). When he (s)mooches his way into the life of Sarah (Piper Laurie), a lonely alcoholic, we eventually see Eddie in a darker light, that of the selfish con man who has a disturbing addiction to losing (in) everything, including love. If some night you find yourself in the mood for a beautifully shot black and white downer with a love-to-hate rogue as your hero, The Hustler will do it.

At least Eddie finds some salvation in the final scene; Hud, on the other hand, stays bitter until the bitter end. With a Texas accent that Newman manages to make sound both lyrical and harsh, like blowing cigarette smoke on a flower, his cowboy has no qualms with bedding as many married women in town as he can, while from his lips always is heard a discouraging word for his impressionable teenage nephew Lonnie and salt of the earth father.

You keep expecting a catharsis from Hud when he finally succeeds in pushing away for good the only family he has, but sadly it never comes. He simply closes the door in our faces in the film's last shot and retreats into an empty house. It's an astonishing lack of remorse and refusal from a protagonist to change by the end of his tale, which must make Hud a must-see.

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