Deep in the heart of every American male lies an aching question he must face throughout his life in moments of doubt and crises; “Am I A Loser?” I suspect women also face this feeling, but I don’t know for sure, and since The Hustler is an extremely male movie, and because our society has a different set of expectations and rules for men, we can run with that idea as a premise. There are few pastimes available in our society that are more inextricably linked to this question than gambling, or hustling. For the purposes of this particular movie, the hustle is pool, and the male is Paul Newman. In the history of anti-heroes, it’s hard to think of a more appealing loser than Newman’s character, Fast Eddie Felson. Made in 1961, The Hustler could be considered Newman’s breakout role. He speaks in his own voice, not affecting the southern, good-ol’-boy accent he used to such great effect early in his career, and he digs deep in exploring the motivations and weaknesses of his character, who is a pool hustler making his way across the country, haunting the seedy, grey temples of loss known as pool halls. Director Robert Rossen memorably shoots the entire movie on location in real pool halls, real bus stations and real dive bars, and the ambiance is palpable - the bottoms of your shoes might be sticky after this movie. Fast Eddie has a goal: he wants to play, and beat, the legendary pool hustler Minnesota Fats, played with Buddha-like calm by Jackie Gleason. He gets his chance early in the movie, starting strongly and beating Fats for the first 12 hours of a day-long pool marathon. Then, slowly his resolve starts to slip, just as Fats gets his second wind. Eddie slips into drunken sloppiness as the fat man turns the tables and takes Eddie for every penny he’s worth. He’s left broke and shaken and he embarks on his own personal trip to the bottom, so he can start to claw his way back to the top (bearing in mind “the top” in Eddie’s world is actually the lowest rung of society).
Eddie’s journey takes him into the arms of a drunken, artistic, sweet, but ultimately damaged woman named Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), who tries to offer some meaning to Eddie’s life beside the endless spiral of drunken loss he finds in pool halls. He scrabbles his way along the bottom, having both his thumbs broken in a hustle gone bad and seeking solace in Laurie’s needy embrace. For a brief moment Eddie has a glimpse of what a “normal,” nice life might be like. As soon as the casts are off his hands however, he is back at the pool table, this time with the management and financial backing of a demonic gambler named Bert Gordon. Gordon is played by George C. Scott in his third-ever role, and the entirety of his weighty reputation as an actor could rest on this role of a lifetime. Gordon embodies everything that is venal and cruel in this world. When men look in the mirror, it is Bert Gordon who stares back and says “yes, you are a loser!” Gordon takes Fast Eddie and Sarah to Kentucky to play billiards with a rich dilettante after the Kentucky Derby, but instead Eddie again loses and, in a sad seduction, Scott uses both Eddie and Sarah’s weaknesses against them and causes Sarah to commit suicide in a sad and heartless scene. Eddie is further numbed as his life continues to follow a sad path to nowhere.
Eddie finally makes his way back to Minnesota Fats. He is in the same pitiful pool room, with the same group of wagering jackals (including Bert Gordon), but this time he has a sober intensity. He has reached the bottom. The face in the mirror has told him with no hesitation that he was indeed a loser. He’d lost everything: his pride, his money, his one shot at true love, what small reputation he once had - it’s all gone into the corner pocket. But here he is with one last chance to play Fats. The pool scenes in The Hustler are like the fight scenes in Raging Bull. In other words, they are beautiful, black and white works of art. Everything is shot in clear mid-screen shots, with the action on the table getting as much attention as the action on the character’s faces. And what action it is! Eddie plays the games of his life. He is playing for Sarah and to prove to Gordon and himself that he has value. Eddie wins, but it is a hollow victory. He has the respect of Minnesota Fats and the other losers in the pool room, but by turning on Bert Gordon he has sealed his fate and effectively ended his own career as a pool hustler. He leaves with his pride and some money, but we can’t be sure what the future holds for Eddie.
Ultimately the power of The Hustler lies in the post-noir seediness of the environment the director creates, and in the elemental brilliance of the four main performances. Rossen's depiction of the world is unrelentingly bleak and Newman, Scott, Gleason and Laurie all inhabit their characters in an uncanny way. Each one seems to embody an emotion - Newman’s pride, Gleason’s confidence, Laurie’s self-doubt and Scott’s ferocious desire, which, in the skillful hands of the director, give flesh to these emotions, and we can certainly see some part of ourselves in that flesh.
- Paul Epstein