Something You Don’t Need, An Excuse: The Hustler (1961)

I am a stalwart fan of Paul Newman as an actor, granted I have not seen his entire filmography, and as such cannot speak to his scope of acting abilities.  That being said, what I have seen from the actor proves to me that he is versatile, earnest and fully involved with any performance he delivers, this is quite clear in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as one of my personal favorite films Cool Hand Luke.  If you add the already nostalgic touch of black and white to such a film then the result is something that only helps to make Paul Newman pop off the screen, at least this is how I felt while watching The Hustler.  What is likely to be my new favorite sports movie, The Hustler is sentimental, yet jarring in its reflection on an era far gone in which even pool sharks had a set of ethics that were followed without question.  Pitting the still young Paul Newman against a veteran actor like Jackie Gleason furthers the enjoyability and acting seems so simple with the aid of Piper Laurie and George C. Scott to the cast.  I assumed going in that there would only be so many ways to shoot a game of pool, but Robert Rossen manages to make even repeated shots seems vibrant and fresh, and is smart enough to let the camera just observe at points in times throughout the movie.  Compose with a clear goal in mind, The Hustler is an exceptional piece of cinema that reflects one of the last mighty breaths of Hollywood filmmaking that would irrevocably change with the onset of the sixties.

The Hustler follows the trials and trebulations of one “Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) and up and coming pool hustler who has already made a respectable name for him throughout the country.  Along with the help of his manager Charlie (Myron McCormick) Eddie desires nothing more than to verse and destroy rival pool shark Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason).  Eddie is so willing to verse the legend that he goes to his home billiards room and challenges him directly.  Fats, in a rather dismissive manner, agrees to verse Eddie and makes work of the young and inexperienced hustler with sage-like precision.  This loss is rather devastating to Eddie who is now broke and seeks refuge in the town, one that is rather unwelcoming to the infamous hustler.  Despite this trouble he manages to meet a young woman with a bit of a drinking problem named Sarah (Piper Laurie) who instantly takes a liking to the witty ways of Eddie.  Looking for an out, Eddie agrees to help Fats’ manager Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) with the hopes of paying off his debt.  While Bert is certainly willing to help Eddie, he sends him through the ringer a few times in order to assure his power, particularly in the scene involving Eddie losing to a rich aristocrat in multiple games of billiards.  It is at this point that Bert uses Sarah as a means to bring Eddie down and gain monetary reward in the process and humiliating Sarah in the process, leading to her tragic suicide.  All but defeated, Eddie attempts his hand at playing Fats one more time and succeeds in winning a substantial amount of money.  Fats, for the first time in his career, is force to quit and Eddie is the ultimate winner, although he is told forcefully by Bert to never step foot in his billiards hall again.

The Hustler is, like many sports movies, concerned to a great deal with an individual (in some cases a group) making a name for themselves.  However, at the point in which viewers are dropped into the narrative Eddie has already made somewhat a name for himself and desires to obtain accolades previously unimagined.  To him the only thing that matters is winning against Fats, and once he does this, he realizes that in order to be fully satisfied he must not only win, but also completely obliterate the aging pool shark.  It is at this point that the theme of hubris develops within The Hustler and becomes a point of criticism throughout the film.  Eddie’s hubris is the cause of his name being tarnished through a portion of the narrative, just as Bert’s hubris ultimately cost him his relationship with each friend he makes throughout the film.  Similarly, Sarah’s own self-involved quest for meaning borders on hubris in that she seems to treat her rather simple sufferings as a trust fund child as a burden on par with Atlas.  Hubris literally destroys Sarah and greatly harms both Bert and Eddie, at one time Eddie’s fingers are broken.  It is only after severe loss that either men realize the consequences of their pride, although for Eddie it is far to late.  With this notion in mind, it would appear as the only two characters void of such pride are Eddie’s mentor Charlie and Fats, although the latter is an unusual circumstance because we are at no point provided with his past story and are only aware of him as a Goliath like being in the world of pool.  Although his presence and graceful playing style are likely intended to be the example of modesty to the young Eddie, Fats teaches him the most important rule of all, accepting defeat.

Key Scene: The montage involving Eddie and Fats first meeting
The Hustler is a staple of American cinema and a giant in the genre of sports films and given the recent bluray release it is necessary to own, not only for its gorgeous cinematography, but for its easily accessible and morally profound message.

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