WALTER TEVIS – The Hustler. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1959. Dell D434, paperback, 1961. Rerinted several times since.

THE HUSTLER. Fox, 1961. Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott. Screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen. Directed by Robert Rossen.

   I started watching this last week and remembered I had read the book back in High School. A quick check of my shelves turned it up: the same movie tie-in edition from 1961, and I settled in for a few days of doing the book/movie thing, where I read a few chapters through the day, then watch the corresponding minutes that evening.

   Both are fun.

   Walter Tevis worked his way through college in a pool room, and he writes is a hard-boiled classic here that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gold Medal wrapper. It also shows all the best earmarks of a First Novel: craftsmanship, passion and the sense of personal experience that makes the milieu come alive on the page. His portrait of pool hall culture and pool-hustler life-style comes across with the precision and color that only come from having lived and observed it

   Tevis seems to instinctively know how to get drama from his characters in a natural, unforced way. He brings life and depth to Fast Eddie Felson and his alcoholic college-girl companion. He also does a fine fast job with the minor characters and offers a brilliant portrait of the sinister-heavy-as-mentor, Bert Gordon, who seems at first to be in it just for the money — in the best pulp tradition — but his real motives come out toward the end in a scene of surpassing toughness. No fan of Hammett, Chandler or John D. MacDonald should miss this one.

   Robert Rossen’s film works some changes on the book: not bad ones, not improvements, just changes. Mostly he draws a dichotomy between Piper Laurie’s sensitive love and George C. Scott’s calculating reserve. Scott’s very presence makes his relationship with Eddie (young Paul Newman at his most virile and charming) more Faustian, and as the drama draws them into opposition, it’s… well it’s like seeing a kitten wander into the path of a speeding truck.

   Indeed, as the movie progresses the drama gets heavier —much more so than the understated narrative of the book — and it provides some Oscar-worthy moments for some very capable players, the sort of thing we go to the movies to see.

   And speaking of Oscar-worthy, it’s just not possible to review this film without mentioning Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats. For once in his life, The Great One doesn’t try to be the star here; he’s content to sit back and provide solid support in a role he was born to play. And doing that, he shines all the brighter in a brilliant cast working for a director who knows how to get the most from them.