Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott

Directed by Robert Rossen

Written by Sidney Carroll and Rossen, adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis

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The Hustler is a dark, effective drama that introduced the world to the driving force of Paul Newman, the most charismatic actor to arrive onto the film scene since Marlon Brando.  Newman’s natural talent as a thespian, his God-given good lucks and his endless charisma lends itself to the character of “Fast” Eddie Felson, a gifted pool hustler who travels from Oakland to take on who he’s told is the best player out there, Minnesota Fats.

This twenty-minute tour-de-force, where Fast Eddie and Fats play a grueling 36-hour match in a dank pool hall in a constantly murky cloud of smoke, greased by endless glasses of scotch, is a masterpiece of acting and camerawork.  Newman comes on so strong in this scene; endlessly cocky, even when faced with the fact that he’s lost thousands upon thousands of dollars that he could have previously walked away with.  Fats is played by Jackie Gleason of The Honeymooners fame, who plays against type (thank God), never smiling and never giving in to The Hustler’s cajoles and excuses.  Amidst the sounds of balls being pocketing, glasses clinking and pool cues tapping, Felson loses himself in booze and pride and ends up losing everything.

A shamed, broken man he heads west again, but meets college-student alcoholic Piper Laurie in a bus station and uses his charm to move in with her.  The two get along well, yins for each others’ yangs, but easily-got money (and the oft-referenced glory of the pool halls) are two things Felson realizes he can’t live without. An offer by slimy, heartless businessman Bert Gordon, played by a young George C. Scott, to be Felson’s manager, sharing in profits that he hustles while on the road, won’t leave his mind and he accepts – despite the positively indecent 75/25 rate.

“Better to get 25 percent of something than 100 percent of nothing,” Felson says.

After a lavish party thrown by a Mr. Findley in Louisville (played by Murray Hamilton of Jaws’ stubborn Mayor fame) Felson learns how far he’s fallen and just how important the game of pool and his perfection of the art of hustling are compared to losing those that care for him most and, maybe, his very soul.

Newman’s concluding portrayal of a mistake-filled man seeking redemption, while not as powerful as his “Fast” Eddie magnetic charisma, charm and guile seen at the film’s beginning, is another example of the heroic template of characters he will play following 1961; characters that not only are likeable and enviable, but have a heart to match.

George C. Scott’s portrayal of Bert Gordon is a lesson in how to be apparently suave, but always conniving.  Minnesota Fats’ pathetic look in the face of Scott’s infamous bellowing is hard to forget, showing how the best pool player in the world is still nothing but a pawn in the hands of the businessman, the gambler that gambles only when he knows he’ll win – the man with the pocket book.

The Hustler doesn’t transition perfectly into Scorsese’s 1986 companion piece The Color of Money, at the end of The Hustler he’s in near-tears, a wreck, and at the beginning of The Color of Money he’s flirting with his blond girlfriend, but I think this is to both films’ strengths.  The former is a dark character piece on a troubled but gifted shyster, the latter on a man who forgot how good he is, and only sees this again when he joins up with a kid who reminds him of his former self (Indeed, if anyone during the Eighties could match Paul Newman’s Sixties pretty-boy exuberance and charisma, it’s Cruise).

They are two completely different films, and yet if The Color of Money is indeed taken as a sequel, then it’s possibly one of the best sequels ever made, and made 25 years after it’s progenitor.  This is in no small part due to how it respects the landmarks The Hustler set up; likewise thrives on its understated themes.

Images courtesy of and respectively.