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The Talent of Paul Newman

A Review of "The Hustler" and "Paris Blues"

Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Two concurrent films present the happy task of discussing Paul Newman. This young American actor started under the handicap of some physical and temperamental resemblance to Marlon Brando and has played many parts in which it was easy to envision Brando.

There was an initial impression that he had been brought out as a cut-rate Brando, available to the producers who couldn’t get the original.

It did not take long to dispel this impression. Film performances such as those in The Long Hot Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and (much of) Exodus, his Broadway performance in Sweet Bird of Youth, and now these two films re-confirmed–as the airlines say–his sound skill, plentiful talent, his personal note. Those who, out of artistic antiquarianism, maintain that acting is impossible in pictures, that a performer merely behaves or that technicians always do it all for him, are invited to watch the picnic scene in The Hustler in which Newman, as a wizard poolplayer, explains to his girl the thrill that he gets out of winning. If that scene is not finely tuned acting–well understood, carefully planned, technically primed, then set ablaze with talent–the acting world is a lot poorer than even my conservative estimate. 

The Hustler and Paris Blues give Newman two versions of the same part; a young man with a gift, whose principal virtue is his devotion to that gift, and to whom love means chains.

In the first he is a pool hustler: an expert who makes a living by concealing his skill in pool until he has drawn commonplace players into betting heavily and then wins carefully so as not to reveal that they have been hoodwinked. The script of The Hustler, by Sydney Carroll and Robert Rossen, from Walter Tevis’ novel, strains hard to give an air of menace and criminality to the pool hall. When the film started (really started, after the pre-titles teaser), I thought it was building to a knife fight, at least, not a pool game. 

The theme is hand-me-down Hemingway. A young man shoots pool clean, true, brave, and he wants to stay that way; but the non-heroic world drives him into the clutches of a gambler. The gambler is the somewhat incredible cause of the death of the player’s girl, who loved him and is the first he has truly loved. To honor her, the player comes back and beats the champ who had earlier beaten him, then walks out into the night.

Besides the pseudo-menace, the script is full of pseudo-meaning. (S. J. Perelman could amuse himself by translating it into the bridge or chess world.) But the execution of the script is extraordinarily good. Rosen, the co-author, has directed with a sure, economical hand. Newman is first-rate. As his neurotic, lame girl, Piper Laurie has a part rather obscurely explained but which fits her like a chic straitjacket. Miss Laurie’s powers are all interiordirected. She embodies Method views of Stanislavsky, Freud, and Sociology 22 (Mon., Wed., Fri.–1:30-3 p.m.). This is not to mock her; all these qualities suit her part here, and she gives it movingly anguished touches. But, at present, acting consists for her of taking lines and emotions apart in public. As soon as the audience becomes more important to her than acting “problems,” as soon as continuous projection becomes her chief aim, she may be a good actress indeed.

George C. Scott–except for some moments toward the end when the script forces him to be false–gives his most credible performance to date as the gambler–some well-knit, non-egocentric acting. Rossen has skillfully handled Jackie Gleason, as a pool shark. Gleason does not act, he poses for a number of pictures which are well arranged by Rossen. It is the best use of a manikin by a director since Kazan photographed Burl Ives as Big Daddy.

Paris Blues has a rewarding idea buried in it, but it does not involve Newman’s part. Four writers have adapted Harold Flender’s novel, whose sole asset was the idea they have minimized: An American Negro jazz musician, living happily in Paris, falls in love with an American Negro teacher vacationing there. She wants to return to the US and help to improve Negroes’ future; he wants to stay in Paris and be happy now. The plot has been inflated to give them each a white friend, and the romance between the white pair has taken over, reducing the racial subject to a couple of squabble scenes.

Martin Ritt’s direction, in the intense realistic vein of Rossen’s, is inferior to it. The patchwork part keeps Newman’s trombone player from being as good as his pool player, but it has many effective moments. Joanne Woodward, as his girl, is a capable actress who would be better if she mastered one technical matter: breathing. Her voice is insufficiently supported and sometimes drones out before she reaches the end of a line.

Sidney Poitier, whose story this ought to be, is superb. What this magnificently endowed man does with this tritely written role deserves more attention than present space allows. Diahann Carroll, the beautiful popular singer, plays his girl (sans music) with great personal appeal but not much else. Louis Armstrong makes a boisterously welcome appearance, and the film is kind enough to “introduce” Serge Reggiani, an actor who has been a fixture of French films for about two decades.