Powerfully compelling, heartbreakingly realistic and moderately bleak, Robert Rossen’s The Hustler is a superlative character study and one of the finest films ever made on the subject of self-destruction and redemption. Paul Newman’s role as “Fast” Eddie Felson, a cocky and small-time pool player with high aspirations, is regarded as his breakout role by many. That’s not to say that this is the first film that showed what an immensely talented actor he was. There was The Long, Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but the character he played here was relatively heavier and more challenging than the ones he played in those two films. It’s a role that made him really stand out and gave him that iconic status. And you don’t have to be a pool player to appreciate this film. This is first and foremost a character study and a brilliant one at that.
This is one of those films where the script – based on Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name – works in perfect unison with the actors, direction and camera work. Rossen’s adaptation belongs to that list of films that remained faithful to their source novels. Every actor is phenomenal here and there is not one false note in their performances. Newman does ambitious, vulnerable and insecure with equal finesse. But my favorite is without a doubt George C.Scott’s utterly despicable, manipulative and repelling character Bert Gordon. It’s him that provides the impetus for Felson’s redemption. Right from the very beginning, we have no idea what Gordon is up to and why he wants to be Felson’s manager. He is an unhinged, destructive force with the Medusa touch. Scott seems so confident in the role and it’s very obvious that he enjoyed playing it. And Jackie Gleason makes a considerable impact as Minnesota Fats. He doesn’t speak much but his expressions and movements tell you everything you need to know about him.
Piper Laurie, an actress not as popular as some of her contemporaries, plays Sarah, a lonely and alcoholic woman who is going through a self-destructive streak of her own. The delicate Sarah and the arrogant Felson make an unlikely duo and it becomes quite apparent from the outset that their relationship is doomed. There are some similarities between Newman’s character and Brando’s in On the Waterfront. Whenever Newman whines and says, “I could’ve beat him (Minnesota Fats)”, I was reminded of Brando’s “I could’ve been a contender!” line from Waterfront. The influence of The Hustler can be felt in so many films. Norman Jewison made a similar film (but with poker) with Steve McQueen called The Cincinnati Kid. And John Huston’s 1972 film Fat City has a slight resemblance to this film. In Fat City, Stacy Keach played a down on his luck boxer and his relationship with Susan Tyrrell’s character is slightly similar to Felson and Sarah’s. There’s a wonderful scene in this where Felson and Sarah has a picnic and they discuss winners and losers.
The dialogues are sharp and memorable. In the beginning, Felson likens a pool room to a church while his ex-manager Charlie likens it to a morgue with the pool tables resembling “the slabs they lay the stiffs on”. Newman gets to exchange some intense lines with Scott, especially during the climax. In one scene Felson asks Bert what made him lose his first game with Fats and he tells him, “Character”. Dede Allen’s skillful and dynamic editing brilliantly captures the tension in the pool rooms and the reactions of the players’ and spectators. Kenyon Hopkins’ atmospheric jazz score is effective and parts of the score evoke his work in 12 Angry Men. The Hustler was nominated for the Oscars in 9 categories but won only in 2. Newman played Felson once again in The Color of Money, Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed sequel to this film, starring Tom Cruise. Newman played a similarly self-destructive character in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict. It’s a pity that he wasn’t honored with the Best Actor Academy Awards for his performance in the first film and for The Verdict. However, the Academy repaid him later with an “apology Oscar” for The Color of Money.