In the source materials for postwar film adaptations, two names stand out in having one science fiction film and another from a completely different gIn the source materials for postwar film adaptations, two names stand out in having one science fiction film and another from a completely different genre: one is Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes and The Bridge Over the River Kwai), who was gifted a screenwriting Oscar as a front for the blacklisted Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, and the other is Walter Tevis (The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Hustler). The Hustler, a classic 1961 film starring Paul Newman, was adapted from this short and lively work, Tevis' debut novel, written while still in his twenties. It is a vivid piece which has defined the idea that many people have of the smoky and hardnosed world of pool halls.
The first thing that is interesting is that the dialogue seems written for a screenplay. It is evocative but succinct, actually quite remarkable when we consider that many scenes feature some pretty convoluted life lessons. Tevis hammers on the imagery and doesn't bother to sugarcoat or "explain" Fast Eddie Felson. This is a wise move that keeps us guessing a little: is he a hero or an anti-hero? Is this a morality tale or a feel-good sporting comeback? Is he worthy of love or just another dunderhead galumphing through his wild oats days? Wherever there can be ambivalence, Tevis underlines it. We have to listen to our own voice, believe in our destiny, even we the readers…
It is an accomplished work, not so much because of an amazing prose style, but because Tevis strikes this unusual tone between pulpy sensationalism and inner understanding that reads both slick and profound when it wants to. Once Newman had played the role, his translucent blue eyes stranded in the black and white world, his cocky grin both overdone and deeply true, then the book's legacy should have beenassured. And yet it was almost too effortless-seeming an adaptation, which left its author behind, since it almost felt like it had been improvised by a stellar cast. In truth, the book is a worthy enough entity, a return to days when a bestseller didn't have to be focus grouped or watered down.
Try this: "The truth of what Bert was saying was so forceful that it took Eddie a moment to drive it from his mind, to explain it away. But even this was hard to do, for Eddie had a kind of hard, central core of honesty that was difficult for him to deal with sometimes—a kind of embarrassing awareness that only a few people are afflicted with. But he managed to avoid the fact, to avoid capitulation to what Bert was saying, that he, Eddie, was—simply enough—not man enough to beat a man like Fats. But, not knowing what else to say, he said, aware that it was feeble, “Maybe Fats knows how to drink.”
Or this: "I did. You and any decent goddamn gambler wants to be a hero. But to be a hero you got to sign a contract with yourself. If you want the glory and the money you got to be hard. I don’t mean you got to get rid of mercy, you’re not a con man or a thief—those are the ones that can’t live if they got mercy. I got it myself. I got soft places. But I’m hard with myself and I know when not to go weak."
Which offers a kind of thinking man's macho worldview, tough nut welcoming some mirror time. And while it's pretty reductive, betting the whole house of humanity on a stroke of unbridled pragmatism the way many in the US seem to want to, the truth is that the winner/loser dichotomy (or Nietzsche's master/slave morality if we want to ratchet up its implications) does have a certain hook in it: that self-pity is pretty much anathema to victory.
Between this and the alien Thomas Newton despairing at this world, we have a cast-iron legacy of perceptive pessimism to carry into the new millennium....more
There is an exhilarating moment in this novella when you feel a rush on several fronts. The set-up (boorish wunderkind chess master accosted on cruiseThere is an exhilarating moment in this novella when you feel a rush on several fronts. The set-up (boorish wunderkind chess master accosted on cruise agrees to play if paid) gets a little twist (mysterious stranger steps in and forces a draw), then we go off to find that mysterious stranger is a Austrian Jewish banker who had been hunted down and imprisoned by the Nazis. What is exhilarating is that the privileged banker learned his chess literally by himself, filling his mind with something while in solitary confinement, playing against himself, paying for it with a kind of schizophrenia, while the boorish peasant just had a natural savant gift. The child of privilege worked so hard at his chess he unhinged himself, while the boor just sees the money he can make from these lesser fools around him.
Why exhilarating? Because Zweig manages to slip in some neat allegory (East European destruction of its Jewish faux-elite vs militaristic peasant empowerment - this was 1942 - but without avoiding the heavy irony riding on the question of opportunity) while turning on the undeniably appealing chess showdown. The peasant grand master here is the one in his element, using the rules to his advantage. The Jew is cut adrift from his earlier privilege and even from his sanity. But he takes on the champion: David vs the excruciatingly relentless Goliath. There are so many levels going on here - which chess is always good for anyway - that it's not anywhere near enough just to think about who won the match. This is another great entry in the sublime sequence of novellas and short stories that Zweig sprinkled around the first part of the century.
Of course, it's when you consider Zweig's looming fate that the whole thing takes on an even deeper resonance....more