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.