The Hustler (1961) is a crucial film in Paul Newman’s career. It launched him into the Hollywood stratosphere and marked the beginning of an incredible run in the 1960s, with movies like Hud (1963), Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Newman became a movie star but acted like a character actor, creating one memorable character after another. Arguably, The Hustler is where he really came into his own, delivering a powerful performance as small-time pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson. The film takes place in dingy pool halls, lonely bus terminals and low-rent apartments. It’s a world populated by confident grifters, streetwise bartenders and small-time gamblers. In other words, The Hustler is about people living on the margins, refusing to live the humdrum, 9-to-5 lives that most of us lead.
The Hustler is not so much about the game of straight pool as it is about the meteoric rise and fall of Fast Eddie. The prologue introduces him and his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) as they hustle a bar populated by a handful of customers (including a young Vincent Gardenia as the bartender). Eddie knows how to act like he’s an erratic pool player even feigning being drunk. But when it counts and when other people’s money is on the line, he makes the crucial shot to win it all. What strikes you right away is that none of the supporting actors or extras look like movie stars. They look and act like the kind of people you’d actually find in a pool hall. Each of their faces tells a story. Director Robert Rossen cast actors from New York-based theater and television and this add to the film’s authenticity.
Fast Eddie’s goal is to play and beat the best pool player there is: Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Eddie enters Ames Billiards, the pool hall that Fats frequents. He is young, cocky and eager to beat the champ. Eddie is confident and arrogant enough to think that he can beat Fats, a man no one has bested in 15 years. Eddie jokingly calls Ames, “The Church of the Good Hustler,” but Charlie has a much more apt analogy when he says, “looks more like a morgue to me. Those tables are the slabs they lay the stiffs on.” Eddie confidently replies, “I’ll be alive when I get out.” While that may be true, literally, spiritually and emotionally he’ll be dead by the time he leaves Ames.
Fast Eddie is fascinated watching Fats play and we are too. “Look at the way he moves,” Eddie says at one point. “Like a dancer ... And that stroke. It’s like he’s, um – like he’s playin’ a violin or something.” Fats moves around the pool table, sinking balls with deadly precision. At a crucial point in the marathon match, and after observing Eddie play, Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), Fats’ manager, tells him, “Stay with this kid. He’s a loser.” Bert does this right in front of Eddie and this breaks the young man’s spirit. Despite being up $18,000, he is systematically dismantled by Fats in every way. It’s a fascinating example of how losing the psychological edge can affect your physical game. You can’t have one without the other.
For all of his bluster and skill, Fast Eddie lets Fats beat him over 36 grueling hours straight of pool, defeating him financially. Eddie is left with $200 which he pathetically tries to use to play one more game against Fats but the big man refuses. Thoroughly defeated, Eddie pleads and then passes out. For a movie star of Newman’s stature, it was pretty ballsy for him to be willing to show his character so low and acting so desperate. The scene is almost too painful to watch.
Fast Eddie’s salvation, in a weird sort of way, lies with a woman he meets at a bus terminal. Like Eddie, Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie) has been chewed up and spit out by life. She’s an alcoholic but seems to have more deep-routed problems and Piper Laurie subtly hints at them. She plays Sarah like a classy barfly, although, she says that she’s an ex-actress turned college student. Sarah and Eddie are drawn to each other because they are both lonely souls. They don’t have much in common – she’s intelligent while he’s street-smart but they both like to drink. Initially, there is an off-kilter rhythm to their relationship as they get to know each other. When he kisses her for the first time it is forceful and long. She breaks it off, telling him desperately, “Please! You’re too hungry,” like he’s a vampire or a junky, trying to possess her.
Fast Eddie and Sarah soon get involved and he moves in with her. He takes a break from pool, playing the occasional game for small change and still dreams of playing and beating Fats. During this down-time we get some intriguing insights into Eddie’s character. He can be a real cold son of bitch, like when he finally breaks things off with Charlie, humiliating him in front of Sarah in an another ugly, uncomfortable scene. Piper Laurie’s reaction – upset and teary-eyed – says it all as we see just how cruel Eddie can be. Sarah has no allusions about her relationship with Eddie. At one point, she asks him, “what happens when the liquor and the money run out, Eddie?” She shows just how cold and cruel she can be.
Fast Eddie runs into Bert again and the experienced grifter lays it all out for the young pool shark, telling him exactly why he lost to Fats and what he needs to do in order to beat him. He tells Eddie that he lacks character and is a born loser. He proposes to help Eddie get the money to beat Fats in return for the bulk of his winnings. He imparts important words of wisdom on Eddie: “When you hustle you keep score real simple. End of the game, you count your money. That’s how you find out who’s best.” It seems pretty obvious but in a nutshell describes professional sports rather succinctly. Bert speaks frankly and gets right down to the point with Eddie, telling him how things work.
Jackie Gleason plays Minnesota Fats from the less is more school. He speaks little because he doesn’t have to. His reputation precedes him, both in real life because Gleason was very famous for The Honeymooners sitcom and in the film because Fats is regarded as the best pool player in the country. He moves with the quiet confidence of someone who knows that they are at the top of their game and has the experience to back it up. Gleason comes across as a graceful guy despite his bulk and even though he only appears in the beginning and end of the film, the actor makes his screen-time count.
Paul Newman is an excellent contrast with his youthful exuberance. Fast Eddie is young, good-looking and plays a mean game of pool. There’s a scene where he delivers a monologue to Piper Laurie’s character, conveying his passion for pool and how it makes him feel when he’s on top of his game. “The pool cue’s part of me ... You feel the roll of those balls. You don’t have to look. You just know. You make those shots that nobody’s ever made before. And you play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.” Newman delivers these words with such passion and conviction that it’s hard not to get caught up in Eddie’s enthusiasm for pool. He’s got the world by the tail, that is, until Fats beats him and he then stupidly (and arrogantly) hustles the wrong guys, getting his thumbs broken in the process. Over a short amount of time Eddie ages emotionally, changing into a bitter, angry man. Newman does a great job of conveying this transformation as Eddie begins to resemble one of the world-weary characters in Jack Kerouac’s Beat novels.
With his slicked-back black hair, sunglasses and finely-cut suit, George C. Scott looks like a shark – the kind that preys on humans, plays with them for awhile before devouring them. He doesn’t tear people down physically – it’s all psychological, like when he first sees Eddie play pool against Fats. Piper Laurie delivers a fierce performance and is not afraid to look unattractive when her character is a drunk. She conveys a sharp intelligence and is more than a match for Newman’s mercurial Eddie. He and Sarah are two damaged people drawn to each other.
In 1959, director Rossen came across Walter Tevis’ novel about a small-time pool hustler, bought the rights and convinced 20th Century Fox to make it. When casting the film, Rossen consulted pool champion Willie Mosconi who recommended Frank Sinatra to play Fast Eddie because they were friends and thought that he would be good for the part. Newman was shooting a film in France and was set to do Two for the Seesaw (1962) but it fell apart. Rossen then sent him the screenplay while the actor was still in Paris. Halfway through reading the script Newman called his agent and told him that he wanted to do The Hustler. Before doing the film, he had never held a pool cue. When he got back to New York City, he began to do research for the role by hanging out at a local pool hall where he was almost hustled by a pool shark. Mosconi trained with Newman for three days a week for two or three weeks. He also taught Newman how to hold a pool cue and look like a pool player.
Piper Laurie was doing a play off-Broadway when Rossen approached her backstage and gave her a copy of the script. She didn’t read it right away because she had been given many weak scripts in the past. Laurie finally read it and ten pages in she knew that this was something she wanted to do. Like Newman, she did a lot of research, including hanging out at the Greyhound bus terminal in New York City at night. She also spent a lot of time talking to Rossen about her character. The cast read through the script together over two days. According to Newman, Rossen let the actors experiment with scenes and “feel our way through them” but knew when to guide the cast if they were going off in the wrong direction.
The film was shot in and around New York City, using many practical locations, like Ames Billiard Academy for the pool matches as per Rossen’s preference. Both Newman and Jackie Gleason did most of their own pool playing for the film and you can see it in the long shots but Mosconi did many of the close-ups. Off-camera, Newman and Gleason actually played four games of straight pool with Newman beating Gleason twice and Gleason winning twice – the last time for $200. Gleason had been hustling Newman.
The Hustler premiered in Washington, D.C. in September 1961 and the studio was worried that the film would not be successful because Rossen’s previous effort was not a hit. Studio executives also did not understand how the game of pool worked. Regardless, the film went on to become a critical and commercial hit. Time magazine felt that the film was too long but felt that the “pool-shooting scenes are magnificently staged” and praised the cast: “Newman is better than usual; Gleason, as the slit-mouthed, beady-eyed Minnesota Fats, darts among the shabby little pool sharks like an improbably agile and natty whale; and Gambler Scott looks as though he could sell hot-air heat to the devil.” In his review for The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote, “Under Robert Rossen's strong direction, its ruthless and odorous account of one young hustler's eventual emancipation is positive and alive. It crackles with credible passions. It comes briskly and brusquely to sharp points.” Roger Ebert later ranked the film among his pantheon of Great Movies and felt that it “is one of those films where scenes have such psychic weight that they grow in our memories.” The Hustler was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won for its rich, atmospheric black and white cinematography and art direction. Its success also revitalized interest in pool and sparked a craze that lasted a decade. Many years later, Newman would revisit this character in The Color of Money (1986) co-starring Tom Cruise and directed by Martin Scorsese.
The Hustler flies in the face of traditional 9-to-5 suburban living by presenting characters who live on the fringes and who refuse to conform. They are deeply flawed and this is what makes them so compelling to watch. They are capable of being so cruel to each other and the film explores the origins of this behavior. Rossen wisely refuses to judge the characters, instead leaving that up to the audience. Ultimately, the film is about winning and losing in America and the toll it takes on an individual. Eddie learns that talent is not enough to win at pool. You also have to have the will and determination to beat your opponent. You also need character and this lesson he learns the hard way.