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.