Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Jazz Sounds of the Hustler

He composed the scores for most of the Tennessee Williams films that did not become classics. Indeed, the most memorable aspects of films like This Property is Condemned, The Fugitive Kind, and Baby Doll were probably their Kenyon Hopkins penned soundtracks. However, the former Paul Whiteman arranger did compose scores for a few acknowledged classics, including Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (trailer here), which screens at MoMA during the afternoon tomorrow through Friday, for anyone looking for motivation to call in sick.

Paul Newman is “Fast” Eddie Felson, the brash young pool-cue slinger, who learns some life lessons the very hard way. Felson is gunning for Minnesota Fats, the top dog of high stakes pool. Find him he does, in Ames Pool Hall, where they engage in an epic twenty-five hour match. As the momentum shifts between players, Hopkins’s jazz-oriented music brilliantly underscores the contest’s ebb and flow.

Of course, as Felson’s challenge opens the film, it is a safe bet things will not go as he planned. Indeed, the rest of the film builds toward the inevitable rematch. Along the way, Felson takes emotional and physical beatings, making some tragically irreversible mistakes. Perfectly cast, Newman still manages to hold the audience’s rooting interest, even when acting bitterly cruel or wallowing in self pity. Jackie Gleason’s performance as Minnesota Fats is masterfully understated. With grace and subtly, he conveys a character that has seen a lot of life, but came out on top, with his dignity intact. As George C. Scott’s professional gambler explains, Fats has class.

The Hustler might be the best “sports” movie ever. Thanks to Hopkins’ music, the balls almost dance across the table. It also makes the film’s silences so much more effective. The soundtrack album credits a top-flight band of studio jazz musicians, including trumpeters Joe Wilder and Doc Severinson, trombonist Jimmy Cleveland, reedmen Phil Woods and Jerome Richardson, and the great Hank Jones sharing the piano chair with Bernie Leighton (who holds the distinction of being the only other musician to solo on Charlie Parker’s “With Strings” sessions). Of additional jazz interest, separate from Hopkins’ soundtrack, a Dixieland combo led by trumpeter Dan Terry, featuring Kenny Davern on clarinet and Roswell Rudd on trombone, is briefly heard during a frantic party scene in Louisville.

Hopkins’s score is definitely in what would later be dubbed the “Crime Jazz” style. It is film noir music suitable for the characters’ twilight world of pool halls and bus stations. The Hustler also definitely looks right, thanks to Harry Horner’s Academy Award winning art direction. However, the opening titles are a bit of an oddity, stylistically suggesting television credits by using brief snippets from scenes the audience is about to watch in full.

The sad recent passing of Paul Newman happened to be an occasion to reconsider and appreciate his considerable filmography. Arguably, Felson, both in The Hustler and its eventual sequel The Color of Money, is his signature character. Sharply written, The Hustler is a moody classic, featuring vintage performances by Newman and Gleason, perfectly buoyed by Hopkins’ jazz score.