The Film: The Hustler (1961)
The Principles: Robert Rossen (Director). Sidney Carroll, Robert Rossen (Screenwriters). Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason, Myron McCormick, Murray Hamilton, Michael Constantine, Stefan Gierasch, Clifford A. Pellow, etc.
The Premise: Underdog pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson dreams of besting all-time champion Minnesota Fats in a high-stakes game of pool.
Is It Good?: No, it’s fantastic. Since I had never seen the film before, I had always assumed that it is a sports movie. I was wrong. While billiards plays a central role to the entire plot, it is not the point of the film. We follow Eddie’s journey as a person from cocksure upstart to broken champion. After the hustler is hustled by champion Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) early on in the film, it appears that this tale will be one of the underdog rising up to finally take the throne. While that does eventually occur, it does not happen in the stereotypical way we have all come to expect from a film of this type.
Upon his crushing defeat, Eddie drowns his sorrows in alcohol and amidst his bar/restaurant hopping he meets a kindred spirit in the form of the equally damaged Sarah (Piper Laurie). Sarah is a free spirit born of a broken home whose rich (unseen) deadbeat father sends her a big check every month to cover her expenses out of guilt. Without the need for a profession, she pretty much spends the majority of her time drinking herself to drown her sorrows. So Eddie joins in on the “fun”, eventually moving in with Sarah. In the meantime, he continues to hustle wherever he can, but the locals begin to wise up. He is propositioned by Bert (George C. Scott) to come work for him. Bert will tutor him how to become a better player and keep 75% of the winnings. Eddie balks and goes on his way.
After a scuffle in a local pool hall that leaves him with two broken thumbs, Eddie’s outlook on life begins to change. His relationship with Sarah continues to blossom while he is sidelined with the injury, but things for the two take a turn for the worse when Eddie heals and decides to take Bert up on his offer. Sarah feels as though Eddie is hustling her as much as Bert is hustling Eddie, but still goes on the road with the two. Big mistake. After a disastrous game that, while making them a lot of money, fractures Eddie’s relationships with both Bert and Sarah, Eddie decides to walk back to their hotel. In the meantime, Bert beats him back. He tells Sarah that Eddie doesn’t want her around anymore, hands her a wad of cash, gets her drunk, and then has his way with her. When Eddie arrives at the hotel, he finds that Sarah has committed suicide. With his soul crushed, he returns to the place where everything began and finally beats Minnesota Fats.
The Hustler isn’t a sports film. It is a character study about the cost of fame and fortune. When Eddie begins his journey, he is broke and hungry for attention, but mostly happy. As he exits at the films end, the situation has reversed. Eddie is now rich and has become a legend, but is dead inside and no longer has a passion for the game he previously viewed as his singular purpose in life. The film is a cautionary tale about how “dealing with the Devil” to get what you want more quickly can only lead to sorrow and hatred in the end.
Is It Worth A Look?: You bet your ass it is. The Hustler features one of Newman’s finest performances and it is easy to see why he was nominated for an Academy Award for his first turn as Eddie Felson and eventually won when he reprised the role 25 years later. The supporting cast members are no slouches either. Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, and Jackie Gleason (in a smaller-than-expected role) all knock their parts out of the park. There is a reason this one has been labeled a classic, folks. Seek it out.
Random Anecdotes: The Hustler is based on a novel by Walter Tevis. Other well-known Tevis works are his sequel, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Famed boxer Jake LaMotta makes a cameo as a bartender. Martin Scorsese (who directed The Color of Money) made a biopic on LaMotta about two decades later: Raging Bull (1980).
Fast Eddie is the another character that returns in The Color of Money. While Minnesota Fats appears in the novel the sequel is based on, Scorsese took the film in a different direction. An attempt was made to include Fats nonetheless, but even Gleason agreed that nothing they were coming up with was worth the inclusion.
All pool shots in the film were performed by the actors themselves, with the exception of a shot that sends two balls into the same whole. That shot was performed by pool champion Willie Mosconi, who also cameos in the film.
Both Jack Lemmon and Cliff Robertson were up for Fast Eddie.
The director hired actual street thugs and got them SAG cards so that he could cast them as extras.
After shooting The Hustler, Piper Laurie didn’t act again until Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976). She spent the 15 years in between with her family.
Cinematic Soulmates: The Cincinnati Kid, The Color of Money, Cool Hand Luke, Hud, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and The Verdict.