IMDB #190 The Hustler

Are some of us born winners, and some born losers? Is there a way to tell? 1961's The Hustler takes a dour, pool-filled road to finding out.

It's about when talent's not worth as half as much as character, when you have to sacrifice something to gain anything, and the people you have to hurt to get there. It's about winning, really winning, instead of waiting for an excuse to lose.

Plus, lots and lots of pool.

The Key Players:

Robert Rossen makes his only appearance on the countdown as our director. He would garner five Oscar nominations for this film and Best Picture winner All The King's Men all told, and might have made more classics if he hadn't been blacklisted as a former communist in the early 50's, and then put off filmaking altogether from working with Warren Beatty on Lillith.

The late, great Paul Newman with far too many roles to list: I'm sure we'll have time later. He also made a mean salad dressing.

Co-star Piper Laurie is a three time Oscar nominee most famous as Carrie's mom and as Catherine Martell on "Twin Peaks."

"The Honeymooners" tv legend Jackie Gleason has a small role, while George C. Scott (whose bravura turn in Patton we skipped due to countdown shuffling) steals the entire second half of the film.

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The Story:

Newman stars as "Fast Eddie" Felson, small-time pool hustler ready for a shot at the country's best, Minnesota Fats (Gleason). Surprisingly he and his partner Charlie get to this big match right away in the film.

Fats is a stolid, mirthless player, and Eddie starts beating him for $100 a game. Soon the stakes are raised to $500, $1,000, and they draw a crowd and the attention of Bert Gordon (Scott), Fats' bankroller and the boss of the pool hall.

Eddie had vowed to win $10,000 that night, and after some 24 hours of straight pool, he's up $11,400- Charlie tells him to stop. Of course he doesn't, but he's soon up $18,000. Surely he'll stop now, right?

Nope. An increasingly tired and whiskey-filled Eddie eventually loses everything but his original $200 stake- all that for nothing. Bert mocks him as a "born loser" as Charlie carries him away.

The next day, he ditches Charlie and meets Sarah Packard (Laurie), a sleepless "college girl" who fills her time between classes drinking away an allowance from an absent, rich father. He takes up with her, aimless, and rejects Charlie's pleas to go on the road again.

Bert Gordon tries to get him to play with new sponsorship (and for only a 25% cut), but Eddie turns him down, only to have his thumbs broken when he hustles a small-time pool shark. Sarah nurses him back to health and tells him she loves him, but he can't say it back.

Soon he reconsiders Bert's offer, and all three of them head to Louisville to hustle a rich billiard player- will Eddie earn a new stake to take on Fats? Will Sarah save him from where his life's clearly headed? Will the scheming Bert Gordon destroy their souls?

Stay tuned to find out!

The Artistry:

Among Newman's storied filmography, I've seen the breezier The Sting and Butch Cassidy, so I think I expected The Hustler to be in the same vein, but with pool.

And he does bring some of that bright comic energy, here and there, but this is largely a quiet, soul-searching, staring-in-the-mirror-while-drinking-from-the-bottle type of film.

Laurie and Newman's romance, purposefully emphasized over the pool-sharking (I wouldn't call The Hustler a sports film) has a magnetic trainwreck quality that seems familiar even as they give it their all. You know he's never going to say "I love you" in return, and she's never going to get him to give up his lifestyle.

It's a codependency we saw in a less hasty version in A Streetcar Named Desire, though at times less turbulent. They do take a picnic while he waits for his thumbs to heal, and though he slaps her once, early, she responds with a defiant "I bet you're waiting for me to cry."

Why she's drawn to the detached, moody, Eddie is hard to say- though I'm sure it helps that he looks just like a young Paul Newman. He sports more than a couple Marlon-Brando-tight tee shirts before donning a suit for the big matches.

For my part, I enjoyed George C. Scott as the wiseass businessman, who knows the angles and can seemingly tell the future. He doesn't become a true villain until the very end, and stands out more than Newman's archetypical antihero. Plus his voice is just so cool.

Jackie Gleason has maybe five lines- no idea why he would recieve an Oscar nomination for this role, other than voters being shocked that he doesn't crack a joke.


Eddie, after going in deep and losing his cool, turns Sarah away when she pleads a final time for him to stop- he finally wins, but he can sense that something between them has snapped. So he walks home to the hotel in Lousville.

Bert gets there first and makes a lecherous pass at Sarah, which she's too defeated to turn down. Then she kills herself. A distraught Eddie lunges at Bert, and we fade out.

Cut to some time later, as a stone-faced Eddie walks back in to take on Minnesota Fats again, $3,000 a game. He wins, over and over, of course, but he doesn't seem pleased. He needles a tense Bert: "We really stuck the knife in her, didn't we?"

Bert gets uppity and demands half of Eddie's winnings, still claiming to be his agent. But Eddie cowers him out of it with the shame of Sarah's death, and leaves a grim winner.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I'm not a superfan, mostly because I stray away from relentlessly dour things. But I'm going with higher, for some powerhouse acting and a meticulously expressive script.

The Legacy:

The Hustler was nominated for nine Oscars, including all four leading roles (Scott turned his down), lead to a resurgence of pool in the US, and is revered in all corners as a classic.

Paul Newman reprised the role in Martin Scorsese's sequel The Color Of Money in 1986 and won his only Oscar.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Paul Newman describes what it's like to be in the proverbial zone.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Jackie Gleason did a lot of his own shots. Maybe that's why.

-I had to look up the rules to Straight pool, which Eddie and Fats played. So that's why that guy kept going "125! That's game."

Coming Up...

Fri, May 21st: 189. The Kid

Tue, May 25th: 188. The Best Years Of Our Lives

Fri, May 28th: 187. The Exorcist

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