The Hustler
(United States, 1961)

I'm probably one of the few cineastes who saw The Color of Money before The Hustler. So, when I initially sat down to watch Robert Rossen's film on a 28" television, I had a pre-conceived notion of who Fast Eddie Felson was (based on Scorsese's interpretation in the later feature). That knowledge didn't prepare me for the depth of the film, the quality of the acting, or the arc traversed by Eddie's character. In short, based on The Color of Money, I had been prepared for a less impressive and more formula-driven motion picture than the one I saw. For me, as good as Paul Newman and Piper Laurie are, it's George C. Scott who stands out. At the time I viewed The Hustler, I was already intimately familiar with Scott's work in Patton, but his interpretation of the diabolical Bert Gordon temporarily drove all thoughts of the WWII general with the ivory-handled revolver from my mind. I have only a vague notion of how pool is played, and, aside from toying with the balls and cue sticks at my grandparents' house when I was a kid, I don't have any experience with the game. The limitations of my knowledge didn't impact my ability to appreciate what director Robert Rossen brought to the screen. You don't have to understand pool to absorb the tension in the matches between Eddie and Minnesota Fats. That's because those struggles are about pool only on the surface. Each shot is just another move in a contest to determine whose willpower is stronger and whose stamina will first break. As Bert mentions later, character ultimately trumps talent. Who would have thought a movie centered around such a relatively static game could be so dynamic?

Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
When the film opens, Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is making a living as a pool hustler, traveling around the country with his mentor and partner, Charlie (Myron McCormick), winning small amounts of cash in bars and other establishments. But Eddie yearns for something more – not only to make a big score, but to play the best. So he sets up a meeting with legendary player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). The two go at it day and night, with Eddie deep in the black at one point ($18,000). But ego and liquor get the best of Eddie and he keeps playing until he has lost all of his winnings. He leaves a beaten man, then spends the night at a bus station, where he meets the equally rootless Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie). Like Eddie, she lacks meaning in her life. She goes to college two days a week because she’s bored, then spends the rest of the time drinking. Eddie ditches Charlie and moves in with Sarah. But his pool match with Minnesota Fats did not go unnoticed. A shady character named Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) saw the whole thing, and he wants Eddie to go to work for him. When Eddie says no, Bert gives him a reality check about the difficulties of hustling without a partner or manager. It’s difficult to play pool (or do much else) with two broken thumbs.

There are some who wrongfully assume that The Hustler is about pool. It is a natural assumption: much of the action takes place in billiards rooms and pool halls, but this movie is no more about pool than Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is about boxing. Lead character Fast Eddie Felson is a pool shark, but change him into a poker player or a golfer, and The Hustler would play out pretty much the same. Robert Rossen’s film is far less about Fast Eddie’s confrontations with other players than it is about his war with his own demons and his struggle to define the intangible meaning of "character". The Hustler is one of the most compelling character-based films to emerge from the decade of the 1960s.

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