The Hustler (1961)
★★★ / ★★★★
Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) and his manager, Charlie (Myron McCormick), tour all over the country to challenge billiard champions for high-stakes games. Eddie’s latest opponent, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), has a reputation for being one of the very best, undefeated for the past fifteen years. Things are looking up for Eddie until an observant gambler named Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), drinking a glass of milk now and then, begins to watch the match.
Based on the screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen, “The Hustler” is a surprise because it manages to make a very dry sport interesting. Just how does the film able to pull this off? Since the camera focuses on the behavior of the players combined with what occurs on the pool table, it is able to offer something unique.
People respond to challenges in different ways and the filmmakers are aware of this. Each time a cue hit the cue ball, there is split second in which the audiences are able to see how the balls disperse. Interestingly, there is not one complete shot of a cue hitting the cue ball until all the balls stop moving. Once a turn is over, it is almost immediate that the camera focuses on the characters’ reactions, from how proud they are of the shot to the worry that creeps in like a thunderbolt when a slight error is made.
Balls follow the rules of physics but human emotions do not. The duel between Eddie and Minnesota Fats is very involving which almost sets an impossible standard for the rest of the picture. When Eddie meets Sarah (Piper Laurie), a fellow alcoholic, at a bus terminal, I liked that it does not come across completely romantic. Their flirtation is executed with a certain rhythm, a dance which recalls the feeling of Eddie and Minnesota Fats circling the billiards table. However, when the couple end up living in the same apartment, the breezy pacing hits the break. Perhaps the screenplay wishes to make the point that not much good can come out of two current alcoholics living in the same place.
Eddie’s interactions with the woman is the antihero’s turning point, but I kept wishing for him to finally get back on the saddle and play. This is a problem because the character arc is the point of the film, not necessarily the pool matches. It is redeemed slightly, however, by scenes between Newman and Scott which contain very sharp dialogue. Gordon admits to Eddie that he believes Eddie is born a loser even though he has undeniable talent. Gordon, having a knack for business, proposes that if they worked together, the road to success would be theirs for the taking. My curiosity was piqued in terms of which man is really taking advantage of whom.
As foolish as Eddie becomes after he drinks glass after glass of J.T.S. Brown bourbon, his determination to make money remains as strong as Gordon’s. The symbiosis between the two is parasitic and the screenplay elegantly peels the layers of their motivations until the final pool match. Money is what the main characters are constantly, blindly after. The excitement of gaining or losing it paints a portrait of addiction.
Based on the novel by Walter Tevis and directed by Robert Rossen, the redemption in “The Hustler” is not only appropriate, it is earned despite the protracted middle section. While the big moments provide reference points for the drama, the small moments define them.