The Hustler (1961)

The Hustler (1961)

Sunday Classics

by Jeric Llanes

In sports, winning is perhaps the be all end all of goals and accomplishments for the most ambitious of players. Surely sports can also offer fun and comradery, and anyone can look to better themselves personally by finding discipline through the craft of the sport they are playing. But when you find yourself in the midst of competition, locked in a duel with a competitor worthy of your caliber, there’s nothing sweeter than coming out on top with your hand raised, proving that you are the best. Though, at what cost will you pay to be the winner?

This is the dilemma that “Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) finds himself in this classic film adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1959 novel, The Hustler. Eddie is a talented pocket pool player who has enough game to back up his supreme, and sometimes arrogant, confidence. Pool, however, is a dirtier game than others in this film, particularly when the stakes revolve around the money in the opponents’ pocket (no pun intended). Eddie has taken up hustling local players across the country for easy money, fooling them into thinking he’s got no skill, and then placing bets for one last game before showing off how good he really is. But after losing it all when challenging the legendary “Minnesota Fats” (Jackie Gleason), Eddie is left broken and defeated, and must overcome the challenge of finding his true self while others are out to exploit his talents.

What was interesting to me was how the film was able to flip my expectations of its plot and themes as the story moved forward. I like to think of it as an emotional rollercoaster. Surely, the film starts off as a movie about the billiards pool. A great deal of early focus isn’t so much on the game itself, but rather the art of “hustling” that comes along with it. As cocky and sneaky as the young Eddie Felson is, his presence is rather charming. Newman gives off a masterful performance, portraying the character with such a calmness and coolness in the game that nicely counters his other, unflattering characteristics. And the pool sequences really beautifully filmed. I’m not sure if Paul Newman or Jackie Gleason actually knew how to play pool billiards while filming, but the shots they were able to nail in the pocket were very impressive. (I actually wanted to go play a round of pool myself after I finished the movie!)

But soon the film starts to take a more serious tone. The game sequences become longer and more grueling, which leaves you feeling as exhausted as the actors on screen. And this really makes Eddie’s early defeat so deflating. Up until that point, we are led to believe that Eddie was a dashing young man who couldn’t possibly fail, and 40 minutes in it all comes to a stunning halt. So what happens next? After such a humiliating defeat, we would assume Eddie’s going to go back to the drawing board to figure out to how to defeat his rival, and reclaim his glory once again.

And yet the focus shifts, and the real meat of the story reveals itself. Eddie ultimately wants to get his rematch with Minnesota Fats, but that goal is put aside momentarily when he meets a woman who is also down on her luck. With the introduction of Sarah (Piper Laurie), an unorthodox romance comes to the forefront of the picture, and what started off as a movie about sport suddenly becomes a compelling drama that dives deep into our character’s personality and psychologically.

This film isn’t so much about winning and losing a simple game of competition. Instead, this is a story about finding self-worth in a bleak world that labels people as either a winner or loser. This seems to apply to every character in the movie, all of whom I thought were all written fantastically. Not all of them are as dynamic as Eddie or Sarah, but each character seems to offer a point to make, and more importantly represent the different paths that Eddie can choose to take as he continues to discover who he wants to be.  

It was also enjoyable to see that everything from a technical standpoint seems to push and accentuate the grim theme of winning vs. losing as well, from the genuine acting, to the decision to leave the film in black and white, and to how the angles of the camera seem to suggest different power dynamics between two characters. Each shot feels like it was made with a conscious decision in mind, which makes us glue our eyes to the screen so we don’t miss anything! If sports or romance isn’t your thing, then the movie will still impress from a visual standpoint.

The resolution of the film is enough to keep the audience satisfied, but still ambiguous to the point where we’ll wonder what Eddie will do next. And interestingly, a sequel for the film, called The Color of Money (1986), was made with Paul Newman reprising his role as Eddie Felson. *Quick fact: Newman won the Oscar for Best Actor with his performance in the sequel!*

But even without knowing there was a second film to carry on its legacy, this classic is still able to be great on its own merits. This is a great character-driven story, set in a place with circumstances that aren’t often portrayed or touched upon in film. It’s a unique story that offers a lot of depth visually and thematically, which will no doubt linger in your thoughts and probably make you hit the replay button just to catch and rethink about what the film has to say!

Where to Watch This Film: The Hustler (1961) is currently available for stream on Netflix and can be rented/purchased on Youtube, Amazon Video, VUDU, Google Play, and iTunes.



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