“The Hustler” is among my top five favorite films. I’ve always found this fact a bit odd since I’ve never cared much about pool, and I've never had much patience with features dealing with addiction (think of the latest version of “A Star is Born”), the other recurring theme here. And yet, as Roger famously said, "it is not what a movie is about but how it is about it."
Robert Rossen’s “The Hustler” (1961) is the story of “Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), a pool hustler who lives on earning a few bucks here and there, in a profession where gifted players with colorful aliases try to pass themselves as easy marks in order to tempt the more naive ones. Eddie may be a phenomenal talent, but the cathedrals of this particular sport are found in places like Ames, Iowa, and he spends most of his time among lowlifes in bars and bus stations. There are other quirks to Eddie’s unusual occupation. Getting discovered by an opponent can bring dire consequences. When facing the sport’s biggest legend, Eddie can be ahead tens of thousands dollars but still find himself on the brink of disaster, as he simply won’t quit or declare victory until his nemesis has yielded completely. This may very well be the reason why all of his belongings fit in a bus station locker.
“The Hustler” deals with Eddie’s efforts to secure a second confrontation with the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) after the latter outlasts him in the night-day-night duel that comes close to costing Eddie his life. After getting caught hustling the wrong crowd, he is nourished back to health by the kind but utterly unstable Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), an alcoholic who then tries to save him from Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), the very man who seems to be Eddie’s only ticket back into high stakes pool and the “action” he badly craves.
It says something about “The Hustler” that Eddie is the most outstanding character in the film, but only by a small margin. Any of the other two main leads would have made for a superb protagonist as well. Minnesota Fats is one of those rare cinematic figures that don’t need much screen time for his presence to be felt throughout the movie (much like Marlon Brando in “The Godfather”). Some of his aura comes from the very adulation that Eddie (and others) constantly bestows upon him (“Look at the way he moves, like a dancer!” “ … and those fingers, those chubby fingers”). His grand entrance at the pool hall and his colorful preparations to keep himself ready at all times certainly don’t hurt either, but Gleason’s screen presence is off the charts.
For his part, George C. Scott's Bert Gordon has always reminded me of Hannibal Lecter. Both are extremely perceptive, almost paternal characters, and they seldom (if ever) resort to lying, even if some of Bert’s truths are hard to deal with, like his views on the inevitability of Sarah’s eventual doom (“if it hadn’t happened in that room in Louisville it would have happened someplace else!“). It is by knowing the exact buttons to push and by externalizing what lays inside their rotten cores that both can easily destroy the man standing next to them.
There is much more to every Great Movie than the topic at its surface and it is usually something very basic, close to the essence of humanity. Take for instance “The Godfather,” a film that (as I’ve mentioned before) is more about the sublime bonds and occasional deep hate that can only take place between parents, sons and siblings, than about gangsters. The same applies to “The Hustler.” At first sight, the picture may appear like a pool-themed version of “Rocky” where the hero has to validate his existence by participating in a memorable competition of sorts, but the dilemmas here are much deeper than that. Even though it seems to deal with a very particular, sordid world, it includes some very universal themes. That is also the main reason why it hasn’t aged a bit.
Eddie’s predicaments are a microcosm for the goals we set for ourselves and the excuses we tend to make when we fail to reach them. The pool scenes in “The Hustler” are fascinating, but they don’t really matter all that much. Most viewers will only understand the basics of the game and probably won’t know what’s going on half the time Eddie is facing an opponent. We do get to see several sensational shots but in many instances their outcome isn’t even shown on screen and the camera focuses instead on the character’s faces, as when a supposedly drunk “Fast” Eddie easily repeats a seemingly impossible shot to con his opponents in the opening sequence.
The pool games here are much more about the character’s states of mind than about pool itself and the many great truths in the film apply to every walk of life. What’s odd is that a good deal of them are uttered by Bert Gordon, the “villain” of sorts of the piece. When Bert points out such things to Eddie like he was just waiting to get beat by Minnesota Fats in their opening duel, it’s hard to disagree. Bert’s nature is a bit of a puzzle until we get see him reacting brutally towards Sarah when the last third of the movie starts, as she sees right through him. The main question raised by the picture is whether the seemingly remarkable Bert is correct about Eddie being a “born loser,” or that the heavy drinker Sarah is right when she pictures him on the brink of greatness instead. The film’s conclusion provides the answer in a way that resonates at our core.
It is precisely the sense of ease in which greatness can be created, when an individual really “has it going” (as explained by Eddie to Sarah) that permeates in this feature as well. Rossen displays a great sense of confidence in dealing with every facet of Eddie’s trajectory. He conveys a deep knowledge about the finer points of pool and about alcoholism but what makes this a truly Great Movie is that it is even better at showing an understanding about human nature. It makes these subjects foreign to most of us feel deeply personal. By the end of the film, it is clear that “Fast” Eddie Felson has gone through a journey of transformation. This is the rarest of pictures in which the audience ends up dong so as well.