The Hustler (1961) – Director: Robert Rossen


The Hustler is a prelude of the kind of films that would rise to prominence with the film generation a few years later. Films like Bonnie and Clyde and Midnight Cowboy. Robert Rossen, the director and co-screenwriter, had a background of making films with social issues and concerns, he either wrote or directed such as films as Marked Woman (Prostitution), All the King’s Men (Political corruption), and Body and Soul (boxing and corruption). He heroes were usually loners, social misfits, outsiders of society. So the story of Eddie Felson fit Rossen perfectly. Felson was the first anti-hero of the sixties generation.
Felson is a cocky pool hustler convinced that he’s the best player there is. He comes to New York to challenge Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) and in their first marathon session lasting something like 36 hours he starts out winning but as the hours go by he becomes more arrogant, cocky and uncontrollable. He’s now drinking and as time goes on Felson loaded with alcohol and arrogance eventually loses to Fats. After the match he meets Sarah Packard, an alcoholic with a lame leg. Broke, he moves in with her and Eddie begins a series of small time hustlers in dumpy pool halls. He eventually comes across the wrong victim and is beat up by four thugs who break his thumbs. After recuperating, he agrees to let crooked gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) manage him, that is, for 70% of the profits. Eddie, with Sarah, travel the country playing pool, hustling big time, Gordon arranging the matches with well off willing suckers. While Eddie is winning things are not well for Sarah who is continually harassed by Gordon who demands all of Eddie’s time. Sarah alcoholic and emotionally defeated commits suicide. Devastated at what happened realizing how much he loved Sarah and how much his self-centeredness has cost him, Eddie quits Gordon, goes back to New York to challenge Fats again.
You can easily see what attracted Martin Scorsese to do the sequel 25 years later. Sin and redemption are common themes in Scorsese’s work as they are here in Rossen’s original. In the end Felson rids himself of Bert Gordon and plays Fats but in doing so loses the chance to ever play for the big bucks again. This ending of course is what sets us up The Color of Money.
Paul Newman gives the performance of a lifetime as Fast Eddie Felson, his moves, his talk, his complete actions are at a perfect pitch. The way he chalks the stick and the way he moves around the table are right on. He is Fast Eddie Felson. Newman who has said he never picked up a pool stick before filming The Hustler, was trained by the great Willie Mosconi who was the technical advisor on the film, and who can also be seen in the movie. Jackie Gleason plays Minnesota Fats as a man who does not show the sweat. Cool, dressed in a suit with a flower in his lapel. He’s a man who knows he’s the best and does not have to prove it. In the first pool session between Fats and Eddie there’s one scene where after 24 hours of playing, Eddie’s up eleven thousand dollars, but he’s tired and drunk. His manager is telling him to quit, he’s winning, but Eddie knows he can’t quit unless Fats calls it quits. While his manager is telling the tired Eddie to quit, Fats is seen in the background washing his hands, powdering them up and putting on his suit jacket. Dressed like he’s about to get married Fats, all refreshed, announces “Eddie, let’s play pool!” Twelve hours later, Felson is broke and Fats the winner. George C. Scott also gives an intense strong performance as the slimy Bert Gordon. Piper Laurie is also wonderful as the doomed Sarah. All four leads were nominated for Oscars.
Credit must also be given to cinematographer Eugene Schufftan whose claustrophobic black and white photography (he won an Oscar for best cinematography) contributed immensely to the atmosphere, as did the location shooting in real pool halls in New York giving it a realistic feel. Rossen was also nominated for Best Director and screenwriting (along with co-writer Sidney Carroll). The film was also nominated for Best Picture.