The Hustler (1961)
Fast Eddie the Real Hustler
Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool - Fast Eddie
"The Hustler" starring Paul Newman in an iconic role is often cited as a great movie about the game of pool, some even say it is the greatest, but to be honest it's not really about pool despite it providing the vehicle for what is for me the main emphasis of the movie. No for me "The Hustler" is a story about a man in constant battle with his own demons, the struggle to define his own character as well as a few other sub stories which add to the movies impressive 134 minute running time. Yes it features action around the pool table, some of which is very impressive, but pool is only the surface layer to what is a multi layered movie.
In "The Hustler Paul Newman (Road to Perdition) plays 'fast' Eddie Felson a brash young pool hustler who is determined to beat the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Except Eddie is obsessive and never knows when to quit, which is his downfall. Having hit rock bottom and hooked up with the equally troubled Sarah (Piper Laure - Carrie), Eddie sets about rebuilding his life under the watchful eye of corrupt manager Bert Gordon (George C. Scott - Malice). But Eddie must battle his own demons to find out who he really is and wants to be.
As "The Hustler" starts it leads you off in one direction, we get a nice intro to 'fast' Eddie along with his manager Charlie as they role into a small town and pull of a hustle around the pool table. Then it moves quickly on to the main Pool hall and the marathon game between Eddie and Minnesota Fats which fuels all your expectations for a movie about Pool, you get the clever shots the atmosphere and tension of the game as it goes on and on. But then "The Hustler" becomes something else it becomes a movie about Eddie, his character, his brashness and the journey to defining who he is. It's this fact which makes me question those who cite "The Hustler" as being the greatest Pool movie because whilst what Pool is offered is wonderfully choreographed the movie is not really about it, in that it could have been a movie about a darts player or tennis star and still been just as effective.
It is the focus on Eddie defining himself is what makes "The Hustler" so interesting and all those sub stories such as his relationship with the equally troubled Sarah and also that of gambler Bert Gordon. It is a surprisingly compelling story taking on dark elements such as drinking and loneliness as well as a few other surprises as Eddie struggles to battle his own demons, finding his confidence and also who he really is. In many ways it's a movie about a personal battle and whether or not character means one thing, something shallow or something more important such as integrity.
That is not to say "The Hustler" doesn't have issues and after the impressive start it seems to struggle at times, descending into a slow lull as story elements are built. The relationship between Eddie and Sarah is a perfect example struggling to deliver enough pace to keep you completely engrossed as it goes through the ups and downs of the troubled pairing. But even so it is a good layer to the movie, just not as well worked as maybe it could have been.
Towards the end of the movie, once all the sub stories are set up it manages to find that pace. For those who expected a pure Pool movie will have found the deeper elements to the movie and become entwined in Eddie's journey to discover who he is and that no matter how talented he is with a pool cue doesn't make up for a lack of character.
It has to be said that Paul Newman is stunning as Eddie Felson and in the opening scenes delivers every character trait you would expect from someone who has something to prove, the gambler with an obsessive nature, never knowing when to quit. It's surprisingly realistic, and for anyone who has gone through a similar situation will empathise with the character, the never knowing when enough is enough. But it's also in those searching scenes, when Eddie is trying to find himself that Newman equally excels delivering the lack of confidence and slight confusion as to who he is. Add to this you have the Newman's smouldering good looks which are capitalized on whenever the movie seems to be drifting. It's certainly a great performance from Newman and the brashness he delivers around the Pool table is some of the most impressive character acting I have seen, putting Cruise in the shade for his take on it in the movies sequel "The Color of Money".
Paul Newman is definitely the focal point of the movie but is assisted admirably by a stunning supporting cast in particular George C. Scott who is sort of ominous as gambler Bert Gordon delivering that calm calculated persona capable of anything in the pursuit of his own gains. It's a bit of a devil character that Eddie ends up going to in his pursuit of being the best, but it is the sometimes subtle as well as obvious manipulations which makes it such a great character. Alongside Scott is Piper Laurie who delivers a believable performance as the troubled and fragile Sarah whilst Jackie Gleason is impressive as the legendary Minnesota Fats. Gleason in particular delivers a brilliant character, the much respected Pool player with a bit of class about him, but with a ruthless side lurking beneath.
What this all boils down to is that "The Hustler" is a great movie, although I wouldn't say it's a great Pool movie. It has some great scenes around the table but would say "The Color of Money" is a more impressive movie if what you want is Pool action. Nope, "The Hustler" is impressive because it has layers of story, character depth and darker elements which are a surprise when the creep up on you. It's by no means perfect and at 134 minutes it is quite long, suffering from lulls in the pace during the middle section. But with a top performance from Newman and an overall well developed storyline it is fascinating viewing.
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