Skip to main content

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #102: The Hustler

Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961) is proof that any sport can be used for good cinematic drama even if that sport is pool. Although this is not a game that involves a massive sport arena and bloody boxing gloves, things can get dramatically interesting if the monetary stakes are high, and visually arresting if the filmmakers shoot from the right angle. It also helps a lot if the man putting his money on the table is played by a young Paul Newman in a career-breaking role.

Prior to watching the film I had a vague idea of the meaning of the word “hustling” and a rather passive interest in the game of pool. It’s a fun game to play if you are having a couple of nachos and chicken wings on a Friday evening with friends, but I didn’t see it as a spectator sport. Watching The Hustler in the classics section of Netflix two years ago was a bit of an education since it shows the sport as a way of life for some people, and a huge source of revenue for big time gamblers.

Newman star as “Fast” Eddie Felson, a pool hustler who makes his money by pretending to be mediocre at pool and then regains his earnings once he shows his true skills. That strategy works if you can successfully hide your true skills from your fellow players, and also if your fellow players actually are inferior. After travelling across the United States and honing his skills, Eddie eventually bites more than he can chew with Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), a legendary player who may look like an easy win given how he is indeed a rather fat man. Yet Fats is a very skilled player who manages to outlast Eddie for 25 hours straight, during which each game involved bets of up to $1,000.

Following his brutal defeat, Eddie meets love interest Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie) who also has her fair share of troubles in life. While Eddie is addicted to gambling and hustling, Sarah is an alcoholic who attends college part-time. Two people like that can either help each other survive, or their mutual vices can end up destroying them. Adding fuel to the fire is professional gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) who was there the night Fats defeated Eddie, but saw potential in Eddie and wishes to be his trainer.

Bert believes Eddie has great skills, but he cannot win against an adversary like Fats because Eddie lacks character. In exchange for a 75 per cent service charge, Bert promises to stake Eddie and make him a winner. At this point, this sounds like plenty other sports movies, in particular Rocky: you have an underdog trying to fight his own inner demons, a love interest with problems of her own, and a trainer who claims he can turn the underdog into a winner. The Hustler manages to rise above the tropes of this crowded field by going into an unexpectedly dramatic direction right before the final big game. Eddie will indeed gain character, but there is a cost to pay.

This is one of Paul Newman’s first roles and one of his best performances. The film’s writers gave him a lot to work with since Eddie has a great character arc, starting out as a brash and cocky player during his first encounter with the intimidating figure that is Minnesota Fats. Even after he is defeated he blames others for his failure and only reluctantly agrees for help when he finally realizes his limitations. Piper Laurie plays a great foil to Eddie since she can see he is heading down a dark rabbit hole and wisely advises he should leave while he still can.


The Hustler may not have the blood or stake of the average boxing movie, but it certainly has the dramatic heft and the performances to match. You will root for Eddie to win the obligatory big game in the third act because he has earned it by then, but you will have a bittersweet feeling when you think about what he has lost in order to become a winner.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #77: Spartacus

Spartacus (1960) is an interesting movie in Stanley Kubrick's filmography because it doesn’t really feel like a Stanley Kubrick movie. I don’t exactly know why, but his signature style doesn’t seem to be present unlike in classics such as The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, or Dr. Strangelove. It does however feel like one of those big sword-and-sandals epics in which you have British thespians acting as Roman politicians with the occasional big battle sequence. In that respect it is spectacular and features Kirk Douglas at his best as the titular hero.
The story of the rebel slave Spartacus has inspired a bloody and sexy TV series (so far unseen by me, but I hear it’s great) and the story behind how it was made is one of those cases of life imitating art. The Bryan Cranston film Trumbo tells how screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950s for his communist beliefs and had to rebel against the system by writing screenplays for cheap movies under a fake nam…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #79: The Thin Red Line

I once saw an interview in which Christopher Plummer said that what Terrence Malick needs is a writer. He was referring to his experience shooting The New World, which saw his role considerably reduced. The same happened to a much greater extent with Malick’s war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), which saw the screen time of many movie stars reduced to mere minutes amid a 170-minute running time. However you have to hand it to the guy: he knows how to make anything look beautiful, including the carnage of war.
Malick’s movie came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, so I think that year I had my fill of ultra violent war films and was no too interested in seeing it. Sixteen years later I finally caught up to it on Netflix, but in hindsight the big screen might have been a better option since this is a very visual story. The plot is pretty loose, following one American soldier and sometimes some of his brothers in arms as they make their way through World War II in the Pacific theat…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #85: Blue Velvet

Exactly how do you describe a David Lynch movie? He is one of the few directors whose style is so distinctive that his last name has become an adjective. According to Urban Dictionary, the definition of Lynchian is: “having the same balance between the macabre and the mundane found in the works of filmmaker David Lynch.” To see a prime example of that adjective film lovers need look no further than Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), which does indeed begin in the mundane before slowly sinking in macabre violence.
My first introduction to the world of David Lynch was through his ground breaking, but unfortunately interrupted, early 1990s TV series Twin Peaks. This was one of the first television shows to grab viewers with a series-long mystery: who killed Laura Palmer? A mix of soap opera, police procedural, and the supernatural, it is a unique show that showed the darkness hidden in suburbia and remains influential to this day. Featuring Kyle MacLachlan as an FBI investigator with a love for …