In this 1961 film, adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis, Paul Newman plays “Fast” Eddie Felson, an incredibly talented pool shark. He and his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) have been scamming their way from pool hall to pool hall, with the dream of one day taking on Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Fats is considered the best of the best, and Eddie hopes to beat him and win a big score. Of course, things don’t quite go as planned, and soon Eddie finds himself broke and directionless. He meets up with a beautiful but hard-drinking young woman named Sarah, and sparks fly. Will Fast Eddie try to settle down and make a life with this woman who loves him, or will he return to his hustling ways and attempt another confrontation with Minnesota Fats?
The first 45-50 minutes of The Hustler — the introduction to Eddie and Charlie and that first extended pool game with Minnesota Fats — is absolutely electric. I don’t know anything about pool, but I was riveted to every moment. Robert Rossen’s direction is superlative, and the force of personality of Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason is extraordinary. You don’t need to understand anything about pool — Mr. Rossen makes clear everything you need to know, and the sharp characters draw you in immediately. It’s marvelous.
Things slow down significantly once that big game of pool is completed. The film pauses for a significant middle section of the movie in which Eddie meets Sarah and the two fall into a relationship. After a while I did become invested in the story of these characters’ relationship, but after the high of the pool game it is quite a drop-off in intensity. (Let’s face-it — I was bored.) Things do pick up again as the film builds towards its conclusion, and Eddie and Sarah’s courtship is interrupted by events.
Piper Laurie is quite intriguing as Sarah. Her deep voice and her mannerisms create a rather unique woman. Sarah is no wallflower — she’s an independent woman who has clearly done a lot of living. I was fascinated to see how this pretty young lady who “meets cute” with Fast Eddie in a train station is gradually revealed to be as damaged and self-destructive — if not more so! — than is Eddie himself.
Watching The Hustler it is clear why Paul Newman was a super-star for such a long period of time. The man is electric — a live-wire performer. He’s incredibly handsome and charismatic, a fully-formed leading man, but not a simplistic pretty-boy. Take a look into his sharp eyes or take a listen to his fantastic voice — deep and gravelly — and layers of emotion and meaning will be revealed in his performance. Fast Eddie is compelling to watch when he’s on top, feeling the magic of the pool cues as if they were a part of him, and also when he’s on the bottom, drunk and lost. Fast Eddie makes it hard to root for him at times. (The cruel way he dismisses his former partner Charlie is shocking.) I wasn’t expecting such emotional sophistication in the film.
Of course, when discussing The Hustler one must also stop and praise Jackie Gleason, in a rare dramatic performance. I am not quite sure why, after his performance in this film, Mr. Gleason wasn’t able to build a new career as a serious actor, because he is magnificent here. Fats is an enigma — the audience, like Fast Eddie, can never quite be sure when he’s being genuine or when he’s playing us — but, on the other hand, he’s the most emotionally simple character in the film, apparently far less self-destructive than Eddie or Sarah. Or perhaps that’s just how he appears to Eddie. The film’s story, and Mr. Gleason’s subtle performance, allow us to see Fats in many different possible ways. I love how sparingly Fats is used in the film — though Mr. Gleason is so good that I wish he was in every scene!
The Hustler is a great story and a great film. As a lover of David Mamet’s twisty-turny films about con-men and their various schemes, I particular enjoyed The Hustler which feels, in many ways, like an important predecessor to and inspiration for Mr. Mamet’s stories. (I don’t mean to diminish The Hustler by saying it’s just a predecessor to some modern con-men films, I just mean that if one enjoys modern films about con-men and their schemes, then this trip back to 1961 will be very rewarding.)
Fast Eddie might be a born loser, but The Hustler is a definite winner.