(dir. Robert Rossen) (1961)
A tough, raw, hard-hearted story of Eddie Felsen (Paul Newman) who
wants to move up from two bit hustling at pool to beat the best, Minnesota
Fats (Jackie Gleason). Great pool scenes: Fats’ seven- ball in the corner
is a shot Eddie Charlton would be proud of. Newman is also highly
competent, although he joked of shooting some pool decades later when a
youth approached, declaring he’d seen The Hustler dozens of times and that
watching Newman play pool was one of the great disappointments of his life.
Perhaps Eddie does shoot good but also lucky. Great camera work closes with
great cue-work, giving us a lounge lizard’s eye view. Fats is a wily but
honourable adversary, taciturn and calculating.
Piper Laurie’s lush, Sarah (or whatever her name is today) is magnificent,
matchless, a smart, damaged, feisty woman done down by booze and bastards.
Her relationship with Eddie is really interesting, swinging from “What do
you want me to do, just step out in the alley?” to “I got a fella!” to “We
have a contract of depravity”. As Newman says: “I never hustled you, even
when I thought I was.”
The other standout performance is George C Scott as the gambler/businessman,
Bert Gordon. The ultimate cynic, Bert pegs Eddie as a born loser who has
talent but not character. (Character in this context is a concoction, not a
reality.) Bert’s homily in the bar with Eddie after he has found his ‘excuse
to lose’ and blown his shot at Fats is one cruel, brutish, motivational
The clashes between Sarah and Bert are electrifying. Bert says he knows
what Eddie was thinking when he folded against Fats because he’s been there
himself; then, peering at her, he adds “We’ve all been there haven’t we,
Miss Packard?” And when Sarah accuses him of owning all the tomorrows
because he buys them today (cheap), he responds, with a smirk, “Well, nobody
has to sell.” In the event, no one comes out of this story undamaged.
Rich, raw, cold and in lovely black and white, with authentic support
players (including Jake LaMotta of all people, as a barman), this is one to
see, but bear in mind, this is Ames, Mister. While you’re in town, it’s
best not to hustle pool at Arthur’s Pool Hall down at the docks, or risk
your thumbs with Turk Baker.