A 25% slice of something big is better than a 100% slice of nothing.
The Hustler is directed and co-written by Robert Rossen, and is based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. The film stars Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott.
Perhaps it is a bit of a reach if we want to think of the game of pool as a sport. Granted, pool goes under a special brand of sports known as cue sports, but playing pool does not involve the same kind of physical intensity that we see in other sports like football and basketball, thus, it's a game that doesn't get extensive media coverage, and it's a sport that I have yet to see on a TV in all the times I've gone into a sports bar or any restaurant with a TV. Nonetheless, playing professional pool takes a great deal of skill, and I have made September 2018 a month dedicated to sports films, so damn it, I am going to go outside the box a little bit to conclude this month, because why the hell not?
There is only one definitive movie about playing pool, and that is 1961's The Hustler (okay, two if you want to include the sequel: The Color of Money). And though there is a lot of pool-playing throughout the movie, it's next to near impossible to try and watch The Hustler the way you would any other kind of sports movie. That's because The Hustler focuses so much more on its dramatic themes, with pool acting as the driving force behind what motivates many of the film's characters, particularly its protagonist: "Fast Eddie" Felson. The movie assumes you know the basic rules of playing pool; it never takes the time to explain to you how the game is played and what exactly makes someone a skilled pool player. Because of this, The Hustler opens itself up to become a character-driven story, and not merely a "feel-good" story, typically one in which an underdog overcomes incredible odds to win it all. Oh, I assure you, The Hustler is no "feel-good" story at all.
The Hustler tells the story of pool hustler Eddie Felson (Paul Newman). He travels cross-country with his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) in order to challenge the famous pool player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Eddie puts up a good fight, even going ahead for a bit of time, but his arrogance costs him, and he loses almost all of his earnings, being put down as a "loser" by professional gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott). Eddie leaves Charlie, and goes to a bus terminal, where he meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), an alcoholic who attends college part-time. The two grow close, but then Charlie resurfaces and asks Eddie to go back out on the road with him again. Eddie refuses, and Charlie realizes that Eddie plans to challenge Minnesota Fats to another match.
- What we have here in The Hustler is a story that centers on winning and losing, and how a person gravitates towards one side versus the other. To put it differently, The Hustler asks what is it that allows someone to always succeed as opposed to someone who keeps finding themselves on the short end of the stick? The arrogant Eddie Felson that we see during the first half of the movie might be a very talented pool player who knows how to win against any ordinary pool scrub, but up against the big boys where it really counts, he is always a loser. It's only until he suffers a great loss later in the film and is forced to swallow his pride does Eddie finally understand what it will take for him to emerge as a winner. As other analyses of this movie puts it, "Eddie wins by losing."
This powerful theme of winning versus losing is a rarity for any film that focuses on people engaging in competition or facing off in some kind of sport. If placed in the wrong hands, The Hustler would be treated like any standard hero comeback story, as the story is perfectly set up to be presented as such since Eddie loses to Minnesota Fats in the beginning and plots to challenge Fats again later on. There's more at work here than just Eddie learning how to be a more honorable and professional pool hustler, and thus, learning how to be a better winner; this is an example of how "winning" and "losing" are what can impact how a person feels about themselves as a human being, and how well they believe they are living their life. You might have a successful career, be part of a loving family, and have a ton of friends, but no one's giving you a trophy for "winning" the game of life. On the flip side, if you did something like drop out of college, no one's claiming that you're a "loser" at life (just look at Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for all the proof you need on college drop-outs turning out just fine). In short, The Hustler explores how winning and losing drive people's live, and how they motivate people to pursue certain interests, even if people don't view their pursuits in terms of winning and losing.
- The Hustler is thematically rich, and that's why it's such a bummer for me to say that I find it boring for certain stretches. The romance between Eddie and Sarah is surprisingly dull; there's just no spark between the two, and there isn't enough that happens between them for me to really want to care about what they're saying. Sarah remains on the sidelines for a large portion of the film, only being exposed as an unfortunate person when it's convenient for Eddie to stop feeling sorry for himself. We learn that not only does Sarah go to college part-time, but she's being supported by her father, details of her character that are mainly there so that Eddie won't seem like the only "loser" in the film's lineup of characters. Bert Gordon is also not a very interesting character, which is even more of a letdown because he's being played by the great George C. Scott. The movie only shows Bert as someone with a bullying attitude, taking interest in Eddie only because he thinks he can take advantage of Eddie. Thus, Bert is also not much of a joy to watch on screen either, further contributing to several boring stretches throughout the film. Did scenes without a pool table in the frame have to be so not interesting?
But luckily, the boring scenes come with several fun scenes, and The Hustler has so much thematic meat on hand that it's hard to just give in to the parts that are boring and not think more about what works very well. What does work very well is the pool-playing scenes, the theme of winning and losing and how winning and losing affect the human mind, and the strong performances by Newman and Gleason. The Hustler is not at all like any typical sports movie: there's no heroic comeback, no underdog overcoming the odds and proving all of their doubters wrong, and no cliched inspirational speeches about the "meaning" of the game. It takes a more underrated game like pool and effectively uses it to further explore themes that the likes of football and basketball couldn't even touch. It makes sense to think about how over the years, there has been no other recognizable "pool" movie, with the exception of the sequel to The Hustler: The Color of Money. No one has dared to try and pull off what The Hustler has done thematically, and considering it's been almost sixty years since this movie first came out, I highly doubt there will ever be another for-the-ages pool movie.
Recommend? Yes, even though the movie is boring in some parts.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: