The Hustler (****)

Posted on January 1st, 2004 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

Mynagirl and I went to see The Hustler last night on the big screen at the Alamo Drafthouse here in Houston. You can read her review of the Alamo Drafthouse (which we both love) right here:

I have seen The Hustler many times over the years, but never on the big screen, and Mynagirl had never seen the film before in any format. The print was a touch scratchy in places, but overall it was a wonderful experience. The film is very powerful and moody, shot in black-and-white, and almost all of the scenes are set in dank pool halls, dingy apartments, or dark flop houses. I am no fan of film noir, and moody black-and-white is usually an immediate turn-off for me. In my experience, many directors used the moody *look* of film noir to try to *set* the mood, rather than having the mood flow from the combination of plot, characters, sets, and cinematography. In The Hustler the mood is oppressively gray, but not just because it *looks* gray, but because of the grayness of the characters, their lives, their surroundings, and their actions.

Our protagonist is “Fast” Eddie Felson, an extraordinarily skilled pool hustler who has hit the felt ceiling on his way to the top. You see, Fast Eddie has a lot of skill, but at the beginning of the film he has not yet developed the temperament or intelligence necessary to consistently beat equally skilled players. Now, there are only handful of opponents in Fast Eddie’s class, and one of them is Minnesota Fats, the smooth, suave, un-rattle-able, undisputed best there is. Near the beginning of the film, Fast Eddie and Fats engage in a titanic, marathon contest, which ends just as it begins, with Fats as the best there is, and Eddie as a talented loser.

After reading thus far, you may think that this is a movie about shooting pool. It isn’t. Pool is merely the backdrop, the arena in which the male characters contest their manliness in the way that men do. The Hustler is the story of men who think that the arena is all there is to life. The men in this film have no lives outside the arena…no wives, no children, no jobs, no hobbies, no joy. They either compete at the tables, or bet on the outcome of other men’s competitions. The story of this movie is the story of Fast Eddie slowly learning that there’s more to life than shooting pool.

Fast Eddie is played to perfection by a young Paul Newman. Newman plays Fast Eddie as a charming rogue with a razor-sharp pool game. Fast Eddie wants nothing more or less out of life than to beat Minnesota Fats and be acknowledged as the best there is. When his first shot at Fats fails, Eddie starts a downward spiral, abandoning his longtime manager (and friend), and moving in with a woman with her own set of problems.

That woman is Sarah Packard, played by Piper Laurie. Sarah is an attractive, intelligent woman who does not need to work for a living, and so does nothing except attend school sporadically and drink diligently. You can see that with just the slightest of efforts Sarah could drastically improve her lot in life, but she doesn’t seem to care enough to try. She’s content to share her booze, her bed, her roof, and her depression with Eddie, and Eddie is content to take advantage of this damaged soul.

Eddie at least has enough drive to take another run at Fats, and he agrees to be managed by Bert Gordon, a successful, ruthless loan-shark/gambler. Bert Gordon is played by George C. Scott in a performance that could have been the prototype for Bruce the shark in Jaws. Bert is a winner, and he wins at all costs. His philosophy is (and I’m paraphrasing here) that life isn’t like football, where they pay you for yardage. Life is about the final score, and at the end of the day you count up the money, and whoever has the most is the winner. Period.

Bert recognizes the inherent talent in Eddie, and knows that he can exploit it to make a little action and a lot of money. However, as Eddie starts developing character, he also starts realizing that he is falling in love with Sarah. Bert understands that this new love will distract Eddie from his game, and so methodically tries to destroy the already fragile Sarah. He does this right in front of Eddie, but does it subtly, through smiling teeth, with little phrases and smiles and knowing glances. Eddie isn’t even aware of the subtext, but both Bert and Sarah understand that there is a contest going on for poor Eddie’s soul.

The finale of the movie involves another match between Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats. Fats is played with stunning authority by the late, great Jackie Gleason. Fats is dapper and polite, completely cool at all times, even when utterly destroying his opponents. He is the best there is, and knows it, and knows that everybody else knows it, too. Every day he shows up at the same pool hall at the same time, sits in the same chair, reads his newspaper and waits without passion or fear for the next gunslinger to come along and try to take him. But they always lose, because the fat man has it all…talent, intelligence, character, and experience.

On his way to the final showdown, Fast Eddie loses it all. He splits with Bert Gordon, loses the girl, and is left with nothing but $3,000 and a burning desire to prove himself. He walks into Fats’ lair one last time, and challenges him to shoot pool for $3,000 a game. One loss and he’s out. Suffice it to say that at the end of the film there are no winners, but lessons have been learned.

Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott were all nominated for Oscars for their roles. The film was nominated for several other Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and ultimately won two golden statues and probably should have won Best Picture (which went to West Side Story). The Hustler is an amazing film, in that you don’t have to understand the game of pool to understand the games that are played, because the ultimate truths are not in the physics of the billiard balls, but in the actions and reactions of the characters. The lessons that Eddie learns are universal – don’t be consumed by material desires. Setbacks in material pursuits may be painful, but the true tragedy is a wasted life or love destroyed.

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