Buddy films almost always have two clashing personalities at the core. Butch and Sundance, Woody and Buzz, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Thelma and Louise — more often than not it’s the Hardass and the Free Spirit, or the Mentor and the Newcomer, or the Brainiac and the Simpleton. But as far as the casting goes you can usually say cool: those two guys will be great together. Newman and Redford is a more obvious pairing than Hanks and Allen, but the latter’s not strange enough to raise any eyebrows.
But Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen? That’s not an immediate sell as a buddy-comedy duo, is it? Each of them is legendary, but in a different fashion. Gleason is a comedic entertainer at heart, delivering highly effective drama in smaller portions in The Hustler and a handful of other notables; McQueen, meanwhile, would build his career on strong silent types even in his lesser-known dramas, from The Sand Pebbles to The Getaway. He would rarely do comedy, and Gleason would rarely share the limelight in any of his comedic films (not intentionally, of course; he just stole the show pretty much every time). So perhaps a Gleason/McQueen team-up isn’t inherently strange until you consider that a) it’s a comedy with the duo sharing top billing, b) it’s fairly dramatic at times in a satirical Catch-22 sort of way (more on that in a minute), and c) McQueen is the loopy goofball and Gleason is the knowing-smile know-it-all. That said, the most important consideration is d) Soldier in the Rain is highly underrated.
Continue reading Soldier in the Rain (1963)
There’s a long legacy of sports films where the heroes are the starry-eyed, passionate lovers of the game, the athletes who play from the heart and, despite a lack of technique or formal training, still come out on top. Even Rocky emerges from his loss against Apollo Creed with the blood, sweat, tears and girlfriend to prove that, in the end, he’s the real winner. Robert Rossen’s The Hustler is not one of these movies. If you asked George C. Scott’s character, Bert, what those other heroes had in common, he’d tell you it was “character.” Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie, on the other hand, has none. The Hustler tells the story of how Eddie (our hero, if you can call him that) earned his character.
The opening scene introduces Fast Eddie, a drifting pool shark, as he executes his latest con in a small town billiards hall. Just as he’s about to put away the eight ball in a finishing move and claim all the bets, the camera decides to stay on his face, completely ignoring the action on the table. We know Eddie wins because of the sound of the ball landing in the pocket, but that’s not the sound Eddie lives for. He’s there for the shit-eating grin he gets to wear the moment he wins. For the groans of gamblers that have lost money on a rigged bet. For the wad of cash he gets to shove in his breast pocket. He’s good at pool, sure. Hell, he’s the best anyone’s seen. But there’s no indication yet that he plays pool for any other reason than that it’s a game that attracts the greasy, betting types with loose wallets. For Eddie, pool’s a means to an end of fame and glory. And this, somehow, is the protagonist we’re supposed to fall in love with.
Continue reading The Hustler (1961)