Hustler, The (United States, 1961)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There are some who wrongfully assume that The Hustler is about pool. It is a natural assumption: much of the action takes place in billiards rooms and pool halls, but this movie is no more about pool than Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull is about boxing. Lead character Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is a pool shark, but change him into a poker player or a golfer, and The Hustler would play out pretty much the same. Robert Rossen's film is far less about Fast Eddie's confrontations with other players than it is about his war with his own demons and his struggle to define the intangible meaning of "character."

When the film opens, Fast Eddie is making a living as a pool hustler, traveling around the country with his mentor and partner, Charlie (Myron McCormick), winning small amounts of cash in bars and other establishments. But Eddie yearns for something more – not only to make a big score, but to play the best. So he sets up a meeting with legendary player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). The two go at it day and night, with Eddie deep in the black at one point ($18,000). But ego and liquor get the best of Eddie and he keeps playing until he has lost all of his winnings. He leaves a beaten man, then spends the night at a bus station, where he meets the equally rootless Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie). Like Eddie, she lacks meaning in her life. She goes to college two days a week because she's bored, then spends the rest of the time drinking. Eddie ditches Charlie and moves in with Sarah. But his pool match with Minnesota Fats did not go unnoticed. A shady character named Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) saw the whole thing, and he wants Eddie to go to work for him. When Eddie says no, Bert gives him a reality check about the difficulties of hustling without a partner or manager. It's difficult to play pool (or do much else) with two broken thumbs.

The film's central struggle is not between Eddie and Minnesota Fats, although their classic confrontations take up a quarter of the movie's running length. It's also not about Eddie's clashes with Bert, although those too comprise a significant amount of screen time. Rather, it's about Eddie's war with himself. By the end of the film, Eddie has decided who he is and what he wants out of life, but he has to learn some hard lessons to get to that point.

One of the film's key lines comes from Bert. Commenting upon Eddie's first marathon match with Fats, Bert notes that Eddie has the talent to beat the other man, but lacks a key quality that Fats possesses in abundance. When questioned about what that quality is, Bert responds, "character." For the rest of the movie, Eddie is on a quest to define that word. But it means different things to different people. To Bert (and perhaps Fats), it means arrogance and a killer instinct. Ultimately, Eddie finds another definition: integrity.

The biggest influences on Eddie are Bert and Sarah. While Bert is a pernicious, shady individual whose only interest in Eddie (or anyone else for that matter) is financial, Sarah's relationship with him is based on need and (later) love. She is not entirely stable, however. A low self image has made her vulnerable to depression and alcohol, and Bert, seeing her as a rival for Eddie's concentration, finds it an easy task to destroy her. A cutting comment here, a vicious remark there – and Sarah is on the edge. Eddie, blithely unaware of the poisonous undercurrent in Bert and Sarah's interaction, doesn't recognize the situation until it is too late.

Eddie shows all the qualities of the classic obsessive. Away from the pool table, he's a likable, charismatic individual. This is the Eddie who sweeps Sarah off her feet. However, put a cue in his hand, and reason flees. He becomes obsessed not only with winning, but with hammering his opponent into submission. He loses perspective, refuses to quit while ahead, and makes irrational decisions. Every time Eddie gets into trouble, it's because emotion brings him down. He loses to Fats because he won't stop until the “Fat Man” says the game is over (which ends up being when Eddie is out of money). He gets his thumbs broken because he showcases his talent to a lesser hustler, proving to everyone watching (including those who have lost money to him) that he's a pool shark. In classical terms, this is his great character flaw.

In The Hustler, the supporting characters are as well developed as the protagonist. Bert and Sarah aren't just people placed into the script to give Eddie an antagonist and a love interest. Through good acting and solid writing, they attain individuality. Bert is far more than a two-bit gangster. He's a man whose emotional core is so hollow that he needs to dominate and win in order to find a reason to live. George C. Scott gives a towering performance, full of fire and vitriol. He was deservedly nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar, although he did not win. (The loss set up Scott's longtime feud with the Academy, which led to his rejecting his Oscar for Patton. After not winning for The Hustler, he denounced the Academy Awards, saying that they were run by politics.) Sarah is emotionally complex. Piper Laurie plays her not as a pretty face but as a deeply troubled young woman whose tenuous anchor is shattered by her contact with Bert. Her last actions represent a profound statement.

Jackie Gleason, who will always best be remembered as Ralph from "The Honeymooners", exhibits restraint and subtlety in his interpretation of Minnesota Fats. The Fat Man has a commanding presence from the moment he enters a room. This is in large part due to Gleason who, with so little dialogue to fall back on (aside from calling his shots, Fats doesn't say much), employs mannerisms and body language to get the job done. (Note: to clarify something that is occasionally a point of confusion, the real-life Minnesota Fats took his name from the character, not the other way around.)

The Hustler did not put Paul Newman on the map, but it was one of several key films that led to his being considered a bankable, A-list star. Newman is perfectly in synch with his character. During scenes when Eddie is away from the pool table, he is relaxed and charming. But, when in the midst of a match, there is a rush of volcanic emotion, presented alongside an ill-concealed sense of obsessive impatience. Eddie is a complex character who grows a great deal during the course of the movie, and Newman has no difficulty charting the course of the man he plays.

The director of the film is Robert Rossen, who also functioned as producer and co-wrote the screenplay. Rossen was one of many filmmakers targeted by Congress during the House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearings. Although he initially refused to testify, Rossen eventually reversed his position, admitting to being a Communist and naming 57 others. (Had Rossen not cooperated, it is doubtful that The Hustler ever would have been made.) One can perhaps see echoes of his guilt and remorse in the way Fast Eddie copes with Sarah's ultimate fate.

Viewers do not have to possess even a passing familiarity with pool to appreciate the movie. Since The Hustler is about the characters, not the game, all that's really necessary to know can be learned by watching the first match between Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats. In actuality, most of the shots were accomplished by Gleason (who was a good pool player before filming started) and Newman (who spent numerous hours practicing). Occasionally, however, it became necessary to use the "stunt hands" of Willie Mosconi, the 14-time world billiards champion who functioned as the film's technical advisor.

The public's fascination for Fast Eddie was so great that Martin Scorsese teamed up with Newman (and Tom Cruise) to bring back the character in 1986's The Color of Money, an inferior film that nevertheless offers its share of small pleasures. 25 years late, Newman won the Best Actor Oscar for playing Fast Eddie. Yet, as intriguing as the character is in the Scorsese film, that cinematic representation of the pool shark pales in comparison with the one presented in Rossen's The Hustler, one of the most compelling character-based films to emerge from the decade of the 1960s.

Hustler, The (United States, 1961)

Ranked #71 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:14
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1