The Hustler (1961): Movie Review

Guest blogger Alex DeLarge presents this look at 1961′s The Hustler:

A pool shark leaves the little pond and is soon devoured by a larger fish. Robert Rossen directs this Cimmerian melodrama about a loser whose desire to win almost consumes his humanity, a man who must lose everything to find himself.

Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is a hustler, a thief with a Cheshire grin whose life is measured by the clacking of cue balls and the long hard miles between dingy hotel rooms. Eddie stubbornly wills himself to believe he’s the best pool player in the land, his raison d’être now defined by conquering the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Eddie learns the high cost of losing…and the higher cost of winning.

The film begins with a wonderful setup as Eddie and his partner hustle some small-town yokels out of a few bucks. The scene depicts this small-time existence, Eddie’s talent worth a pittance, a crushing despair that satisfies the id but not the super-ego. Rossen utilizes this dichotomy in the next scene as Eddie challenges Fats in a marathon session for pool hall supremacy; the setting is superficial, the smoky rooms filled with sweat and human detritus remain the same, but here it’s the challenge that is the Big Time. Eddie’s loss causes him to spiral out of control, but it’s a crippled love that redeems him.

Paul Newman sweats charisma as Fast Eddie, walking with a cool swagger and overconfidence portrayed as a fault in his seemingly solid foundation. Newman makes Eddie utterly believable as a human being, full of fear and anxieties, a man who doubts himself but will never let it show: it’s a bravura performance deserving of accolades! George C. Scott is Bert Gordon, the cruel gambler who buys men’s souls for profit…his. Scott imbue this unlikable character with a sly humanity, a keen insightful performance that make Gordon a person and not a mere villain to subrogate Newman’s resurrection. Piper Laurie’s breathy sexuality is convincingly honest and meek, a lonely woman who needs Eddie to whisper those three magical words to attain salvation. But loses her own straight game with a straight razor.

Rossen films in Cinemascope, black-and-white compositions inside of the bleak pool halls, bars, and bus stations which project an illusion of freedom within claustrophobic places. The effects is akin to a prisoner who feels free when allowed to walk the exercise yard, momentarily forgetting that the static tomb of the cell awaits. A cool jazz arrangement keeps score setting tempo and defining narrative timbre.

Ultimately Fast Eddie Felson must face his demons and win his self-respect, not bow to the color of money.

Alex is a staff writer for 7tavern.com and Gone Cinema Poaching, as well as publisher of The Korova Theatre film blog. He never watches true crime shows on TV. Alex exists only in the third person.

  • Jerseyjoe

    I remember seeing this flim when it came out and I was about 12 years old. I really had no idea what it was going to be about, except pool, which I also knew nothing about.
    I likd Paul Newman so I watched it but it was really over my head. Years later I saw it on TV and enjoyed it very much. Still do.

  • Juanita Curtis

    Excellent film- Paul Newman should have won his oscar for this and not The Color of Money. I always considered Piper Laurie to be underrated as an actress.

    • philphil

      Have you read Piper Laurie’s autobiography “Learning To Live Out Loud”? It’s excellent. She enjoyed working with Newman but didn’t realize “The Hustler” would turn out so well.

  • JIM RICK

    THERE ARE VERY FEW PAUL NEWMAN FILMS THAT HE DID NOT GIVE AN EXCELLENT JOB IN. MY FAVORITE WAS “HARPER”…BUT THIS FILM ALSO HAD AN GREAT PERFORMANCE BY PIPER LAURIE, WHO UP TO THE TIME SHE DID THIS FILM, HAD BEEN TOTALLY WASTED IN FILM…..STILL ACTING OCCASIONALLY I UNDERSTAND.

  • Mary

    Paul deserved an oscar for this film. Piper Laurie was perfect.

  • Mike Koskie

    Just read in the Saturday Evening Post of the new James Bond film to be released in October. Called “Skyfall”? Was glad to read this since I heard last year the next Bond movie had to be cancelled for budget reasons. Good to see the Bond Legacy will continue. I think I will have a martini tonight and watch “Thunderball” again on my DVD. Lol Mike Koskie

  • Warren Gumeson

    I was addicted to the college game room — cut a lot of classes to play. All us players were gathered around the TV on Oscar night, and all bitterly disappointed that the Hustler won nothing. One of the big attractions for us was that pool champion Willie Mosconi, who twice visited the game room and wowed the crowd, racked the balls and set up the trick shots in the movie.

  • Tiny Tim

    I saw this and ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ with Steve McQueen about the same time, and the two movies have always been connected in my mind. Although Jewison’s film about big-time poker was superb, I’ve always thought ‘The Hustler’ the better film and Newman the better performer. McQueen was a movie star, and a great one, but Newman was one the best actors of his generation. It’s a crime that the academy had to be shamed into finally giving him the Oscar he had deserved so many times before for playing the shadow of one of his greatest characters in a mediocre sequel. At least he finally got one for his mantle.

  • Stan

    Piper Laurie and George C. Scott should have won best supporting awards. Really, the entire cast was good in this one. Paul Newman of course was beginning to really cut his teeth in his chosen vocation and you can really see the star potential he displayed. I was dissapointed however with the second installment “Color of Money” even though Newman made a return. Cruise was not a good choice to play along side Newman for that role. Oh well, The Hustler is a great gem to watch if you haven’t seen it yet.

    • Deb

      Well I have been haenirg most everyone on this site saying as how they want Inglorious Bastards to be his next movie, and it now appears it is. I am happy with that as well. I can’t wait to see how he takes the war genre to the next level. Unfortunately, we won’t see this film until late 2006 or early 2007 at the earliest. Oh well, I’ve got Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair to hold me off until then!

  • Gord

    I didn’t initially like “The Color of Money” but I recently rewatched it and have revised my opinion of it. And no, sorry Stan but I don’t agree with your Cruise comment – I thought he was quite good in it.

    Can’t disagree with those who think Newman was gyped out of an Oscar for “The Hustler” (and maybe Scott and Piper Laurie as well) but I remember being really blown away by Jackie Gleason when I first saw it. To me, however, the one Oscar Newman should have won, hands down, was for “The Verdict.” That early scene where his hand shakes as he is trying to down his drink is indelibly etched, as are so many others from that brilliant film. That said, I wouldn’t want to ake anything away from “The Hustler”, another Newman tour de force.

    • Akanfe

      I love this alcitre. Thank you.Also, a couple of friends and I attended one of the premieres and thought the movie was very funny, Tucker, Nils, and Bill were hilarious, and in short my friends and I had a great time.

  • Sheryl

    I agree Paul Newman deserved a Oscar for this film and many more. But as we know the Academy Award is motivated by politics. Paul Newman was and always will be my “favorite” actor.

  • gary

    at the risk of being stoned to death I disagree about Paul Newman’s so called Oscar denied performance. It was over cooked as were a lot of his earlier performances and one person who would agree with me Mr Newman himself.

  • Bob Spallina

    The “Hustler” is one of the all time greats, showcasing both Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. They were outstanding in their roles as was the rest of the cast. The film perfectly captured the smokey and dark atmosphere of Ames Pool Hall.
    Great Movie!!!

  • Kenneth Morgan

    Good review, but I’m surprised there was no mention of Gleason’s Oscar-nominated performance. In this film, he’s the opposite of Ralph Kramden: cool, soft-spoken, restrained and, at the table, merciless. In my opinion, he very nearly steals the movie from Paul Newman, which is no easy task.

    And I agree with the earlier post linking this movie with “The Cincinatti Kid”. They’d make a great double feature, as both follow parallel courses to a somewhat opposite finish.

  • SONNY LACHNER

    PAUL NEWMAN WAS ONE OF THE GREATEST ACTORS THAT EVER GRACED THE SILVER SCREEN….HE SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN MANY OSCARS ESPECIALLY FOR COOL HAND LUKE…ONE OF MY ALL TIME FAVORITES THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS ….HE SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN IT FOR THAT ONE TO JUST OUTSTANDING AS A SHARP LAWYER ”’BUT COLOR OF MONEY WAS OK, BUT NOT ONE OF HIS REALLY BEST….WHEN I MET HIS CO STAR IN COOL HAND LUKE IN 1989 GEORGE KENNEDY, HE AGREED WITH ME THAT PAUL SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN BEST ACTOR FOR LUKE AS HE WAS JUST TREMENDOUS IN THAT ROLE AS I TOLD GEORGE HOW GREAT HE WAS AS WELL ….THERE WILL NEVER BE ACTORS MALE OR FEMALE LIKE THE ONES WE HAVE LOST OVER THE PAST 10 YEARS OR SO …WHEN THOSE PEOPLE MADE A MOVIE YOU GOT NOTHING BUT THE BEST….REALLY AT THAT TIME YOU COULD REALLY SAY WITH FOND REMEMBERENCE “HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD” -30-

  • giver13

    I loved Piper Laurie in this movie.

  • csuebh

    “The Hustler” was clearly an all time great movie and I absolutely loved Paul Newman in this film but he proved to be a very good character actor and showed this talent in such movies as “The Long Hot Summer”, “From the Terrace”,”Cool Hand Luke” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. However, everyone always forgets about Jackie Gleason who never gets the credit he deserves for his wonderful acting abilities over and above “The Honeymooners”, his film “Gigot” showcased that ability better than anything else he did.

  • kingpong

    I can’t believe that there’s no mention of “Fast Eddie’s” partner’s name in the above review. Myron McCormick was awesome in this movie and deserved to get a mention. He was the kind of character actor that most knew his face but not his name and he was terrific in the Andy Griffith film “No Time for Sergeants” as the basic training barracks/drill sergeant. He was also in the Broadway cast of the play.