The Hustler

The Hustler (1961) movie poster

(1961) dir. Robert Rossen
viewed: 12/22/08

Having accelerated pool playing from an occasional pasttime to a more substantial practice, I felt it behooved me to revisit the uber-classic pool movie, 1961’s Paul Newman/Jackie Gleason film, The Hustler.  I had seen it years ago, and I do mean years.  And in the 1980’s I did see The Color of Money (1986), the Martin Scorsese sequel with Tom Cruise.  But it had been years, though the iconic images hang in almost every pool hall of both Gleason and Newman, Minnesota Fats and “Fast Eddie” Felson respectively.  The iconic quality of this film is hard to completely fathom.

Even the most hardcore of pool players deem this film as very “true” to the world of pool halls, rules, character types, the entire milieu.  And it’s interesting, here, almost 50 years later to see how many of the practices, vocabulary, and etiquite still exist.  Who knows how much of it is from the evolution (or lack of evolution) or simply embued by the film itself.  I mean, I doubt there are many hardcore pool players who have not seen The Hustler.  And not only does it capture the culture and sensibility, it does it with wonderfully realized visual flair.  The movie looks great.

The interesting thing is how much this film is about the characters outside of the pool hall.  The film opens quickly into the first showdown between Felson and Fats, a dramatic battle on the table that lasts for over 24 hours, which leaves Felson spent and broke.  But then the film moves into the drama, the drunken world of “Fast Eddie” and his crippled alcoholic moll, Sarah, tragic and very well-realized by Piper Laurie.  The human side of the story is not a happy one.  Felson, who begins the film as a cocky gunslinger, finds that his critics are right, that outside of his stroke and his cue, he is a shell of a man.

When George C. Scott, Bert Gordon, steps in as his manager, the pact with the devil is made, and everyone’s fate is sealed.

What is amazing is that how little Gleason is actually in the film, but he makes such an impression that he dominates almost as much as Newman, who is there all the way.  I’m not familiar with Robert Rossen or his other films, but this is a polished gem of a film, a very slick and quite moving story from the gutter and the poolhall.  It’s not hard to see why it’s considered a classic.

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