THEY CALLED HIM “FAST EDDIE”… HE WAS A WINNER… HE WAS A LOSER… HE WAS A HUSTLER.
There was a time when Frank Sinatra wanted to turn Walter Tevis’s novel “The Hustler” into a movie. I can see why he was intrigued, especially since Sinatra played a heroin addict in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955). He would have been great as “Fast Eddie”. Instead, Paul Newman got the chance to turn the character into one of his first truly outstanding performances.
Pool player Eddie Felson (Newman) travels all over the country with his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) hustling up whatever money they can find. Eddie is very good at it, and now he’s aiming to defeat the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). After getting ahead $11,000, Charlie tries to talk Eddie out of continuing, but he won’t hear of it, especially since the bourbon he’s drinking makes him feel invincible. After 25 hours the game is over, and Eddie loses everything. Back at the hotel, he leaves a sleeping Charlie behind.
At a bus terminal, Eddie meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie) who describes herself as a “college girl” with a drinking habit. As Eddie tries to rebuild his life by hustling again, he slowly gets to know Sarah…
A comeback after being blacklisted
It’s easy to read a lot of things into this classic. Director Robert Rossen, who had been a member of the Communist Party, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953 and named names after years of being harassed by Congress and right-wing figures in Hollywood. He was blacklisted, but this film was a comeback and some critics have seen similarities between Rossen and Fast Eddie, two people who end up betraying those who are closest to them, but eventually find redemption.
The story is indeed also one of addiction and its effects, where both Eddie and Sarah struggle with their poison. Newman in particular is brilliant in his role, as the effortlessly excellent pool player who’d be even better if he understood himself and his motivations. Perhaps his very hopelessness, that he’s unable to resist the darkness within, is part of why we love him in this role; we find Fast Eddie to be destructive, but the Newman charisma still makes him cool. Laurie is good as the girl who can’t resist getting trapped in her boyfriend’s world, but she falls in the shadow of Newman and George C. Scott who’s intimidating as the sharp, shark-like gambler who becomes the devil on Eddie’s shoulder. Credibility is strengthened by the fact that Rossen himself had experience from hustling pool when he was younger. He also employed famous pool player Willie Mosconi as a technical advisor; some of the shots in the film are his work. I’m sure that their combined expertise also influenced the Oscar-winning cinematography; the look of the pool halls, where black-and-white light and darkness fuse into a seedy, smoke-filled world, has become classic.
The story originally focused more on the game itself, but Rossen decided that the touching love story needed more room. Smart move; I’ve never seen a movie about poker or pool or whatever where the actual game deserved more space. It’s there as a device to symbolize something more interesting and human and needs to be kept on a short leash.
Those who know their boxing history might be surprised to see Jake LaMotta in a small role as a bartender. We should consider him the link between this film and Martin Scorsese’s sequel The Color of Money, as the director portrayed LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980). Equally stylish in black-and-white, The Hustler and Raging Bull are interesting stories about deeply flawed men who can’t stay away from the only thing they do brilliantly.
The Hustler 1961-U.S. 135 min. B/W. Widescreen. Produced and directed by Robert Rossen. Screenplay: Sidney Carroll, Robert Rossen. Novel: Walter Tevis. Cinematography: Eugen Shuftan. Production Design: Harry Horner. Cast: Paul Newman (Eddie Felson), Jackie Gleason (Minnesota Fats), Piper Laurie (Sarah Packard), George C. Scott, Myron McCormick, Murray Hamilton… Jake LaMotta, Vincent Gardenia.
Trivia: Tony Curtis was allegedly considered for the lead role. Followed by The Color of Money (1986).
Oscars: Best Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration. BAFTA: Best Film, Foreign Actor (Newman).
Last word: “The aspect I was originally attracted to was my thought that pool halls, at a certain stage in the life of America, were a poor man’s opium den. There was no place in the world where you could lie and be believed like in a poolroom; no place in the world where a guy who was running a laundry wagon, you know, who was a shit, a nothing on the outside, suddenly walks in and shoots a good game of pool, and tells lies. He sits around and bullshits – it’s a place to stay in, you know, till 3 or 4 in the morning or it’s a place to go to at 11 in the morning. That was the basis of my play, but then I read this book and there were other things in it, which were also very valid, which I totally understood. The best kind of pictures you can get are films that are not at all intellectually constructed, but drawn out of your experience and senses.” (Rossen, “An Interview With Robert Rossen”)