Filmed in harsh black-and-white and featuring characters who live on the fringes of conventional society, The Hustler is one of those films that’s so unremittingly bleak that it would probably be so depressing as to be unwatchable if not for the talented cast. Paul Newman plays “Fast Eddie” Felson, a pool hustler who is talented but cocky, a guy who has the talent of a winner and the self-centered, self-pitying personality of a loser. When we first meet Eddie, he and his manager, Charlie (Myron McCormick) have traveled all the way from Oakland to New York, all so Eddie can challenge and hopefully beat the legendary pool player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Eddie does get his chance to challenge Minnesota (or perhaps I should call him Mr. Fats?) and comes close to winning. However, in the end, Eddie is too arrogant and impulsive and he ends up losing to Mr. Fats.
Defeated and humiliated, Eddie is hiding his meager possessions in a storage locker at the local bus station when he first meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie). Sarah is an alcoholic and an aspiring writer. She claims to be a part-time student but we never actually see her in class. She walks with a pronounced limp and she has a habit of declaring the world to be “perverted, twisted, and crippled.” Soon, she and Eddie are living together, two lost souls who support and destroy each other at the same time. When Sarah attempts to write a short story about Eddie, Eddie responds by destroying the page and ordering her to never write about him again. Charlie views Sarah as a destructive influence and decides that he doesn’t want to have anything else to do with Eddie.
However, Eddie soon finds a new manager. Bert Gordon (a demonic George C. Scott) is a gambler who says that if Eddie sticks with him, Eddie will not only get rich but he’ll defeat Minnesota Fats as well. At first, Eddie wants nothing to do with Bert but, when his own attempts at hustling lead to him getting his thumbs broken, Eddie has a change of heart. Under Bert’s guidance, Eddie find success but he does so at the expense of what little decency that he had to begin with…
Eddie is an interesting character, one who most viewers will probably have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, he’s a jerk. He’s an arrogant, cocky jerk who thinks that he’s the best and who either uses or allows himself to be used by almost everyone that he meets. Though he definitely ends up being exploited by Bert, Eddie knew what he was getting into when he made his deal with the devil. Though he loves Sarah and she loves him, Eddie still treats her poorly. There are just so many reasons to dislike Eddie Felson.
Except, of course, Eddie Felson is played by Paul Newman.
Seriously, it is possible to dislike a character played by Paul Newman? As an actor, Newman was so charismatic and projected an innate goodness that came through even when he was playing a character who didn’t always do nice things. As written, the character of Eddie spends the majority of the movie acting like a louse. But, as played by Newman, Eddie becomes a wounded anti-hero, the bad boy that every girl dreams of somehow redeeming.
Ultimately, there are many reasons to see The Hustler. Gleason and Laurie both give good performances. George C. Scott, meanwhile, is like a force of nature. Just listen to him as he shouts, “You owe me money!” Director Robert Rossen finds an odd beauty in some of the sleaziest parts of New York City. But, in the end, the main reason to see The Hustler is for Paul Newman’s amazing performance in the title role. It’s a great performance that elevates the entire film.
I have to admit that I don’t know much about pool. During my first college semester, I lived in a dorm that had a pool table in the front lobby. There was always a large group of people gathered around that table, playing pool and generally looking like a bunch of hipster douchebags. Sitting in the lobby meant having to listen to a constant soundtrack of balls clacking against each other, followed by people saying, “Such-and-such in the corner pocket” or whatever the Hell it is people say when they’re playing pool. (To be honest, though I could hear the voices, I rarely listened to what they were actually saying.) I don’t know if the people playing pool in the lobby were any good. But, after seeing The Hustler, I can say that Eddie Felson would have beaten all of them.