The definition of a hustler, according to Webster's Dictionary, is a professional gamester, gambler, bookmaker or plunger, who also wears the coat of a prostitute or call girl (although in this case it would warrant the moniker of call boy). All this and more makes up the seamy, underbelly of the world of billiards, or in more common terminology, pool.
Our cast of characters lives and breathes pool. They wallow in the mire of the losing end of a hustle and bask in the reflected glory to be had when feeling full of grace and cash when the balls fall their way. Allow me to entreat your entrance into such a world, to let you feel the skin of the score, feel the heat, feel the agony and feel the cue stick as it is thrust for the kill.
Eddie Felson, or 'Fast Eddie' as he is known (Paul Newman), always looking for action, crisscrosses the country with his partner, Charlie Burns (Myron McCormick). Their goal is to locate the requisite game that consists of bangers or fish, those who lack the skill to really play the game and will eventually wind up as requisite losers to the hustling pool shark. Their bait and switch techniques lead them to a session with legendary pool player, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Felson proceeds to bark and freeze out Fats into a 24 hour non-stop marathon of fast breaking, free wheeling and dogged shots that culminate in Felson losing all that he had won, $18,000, due to a bad lack of judgment, tiredness, choking and basically being drunk. Felson proceeds, against better judgment, to lose Burns and go it alone. Because he is naive enough to believe that he is 'the best', he begins walking a path down a dark and winding road that will end with him discovering who he really is and what is and isn't important in his life.
The second act provides the romantic relief given by Piper Laurie as the doomed Sarah Packard, filled with her own demons and willing to latch onto what she considers a reality in the guise of Felson. Not content to leave well enough alone, Felson feeling the heat of a projected rematch with Minnesota Fats, sells his soul to the devil, Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), a professional gambler or 'patron' who pimps his way and jelly rolls by absconding with a gargantuan cut won by any member of his stable, silly or crazy enough to agree to his terms. Bert will finance Felson, and parlay his skills to games of his choosing, so that the latter can get the money he feels is necessary to get the desired rematch with Fats.
The performance of Paul Newman is hot, electric, hissing and sizzle. His emotions are worn on his sleeve, and the raw venue of the outpouring of his addiction to the game, his shy handling of romance with Laurie and the vitality and cockiness portrayed in his moments with Gleason at the pool table, are priceless vignettes encapsulated within the confines of a beginning and end to this story. Felson has the stone cold nuts buried within himself, and his rematch at the end of the film is brutal and coarse; in keeping with the black and white magic that projects itself as a web that weaves itself around us, drawing us ever closer to the crux of the matter.
Gleason is cool and calm. The rarified dandy that allows his reputation as the best to bulge ahead of him, to shark the short stop, fool enough to think he can take him on. The detachment, the demeanor, the noblesse oblige all gravitate to him, making him a legend in his own time and tournament tough. Gleason proves that besides being the comedic actor so many of us are familiar with, that there was a dramatic actor biting at the bit to prove his mettle.
George C. Scott, the Stake Horse, is miry, looking for that shark who will eat the food chain of fish, minnows, guppies and algae that embroider themselves as alleged experts of the game. He's a lockout artist and wears the outfit like a custom tailored suit. His performance as road agent, like that of McCormick, is a study in contrasts and shadows. Scott burrows under the skin and elicits not an iota of sympathy for his character, for he is a survivor, with a heart that is pure granite and will always find a means to an end, come hell or high water.
Piper Laurie as the alcoholic cripple, Sarah Packard, is acting fulfillment. Her Sarah is quiet and sad; a harbinger of a life lived amid endless rejections and mind numbing relationships that have always faltered; being cast aside until another, eligible suitor or solution makes its acquaintance with her and the cycle begins anew. Hers is a trilogy of a downward spiral. The relationship with Felson, clinging to the life preserver that she thinks him to be; the all too knowing summation of her opinion of Gordon and her eventual, ill fated ending are almost Shakespearean in their scope and pacing.
The direction by Robert Rossen, based on the novel by Walter Tevis (Tevis also wrote the screenplay for this and The Color of Money, another of his novels), is taut and tense in the workings of the pool world and the inhabitants that make it a place of 'the best' or 'yesterday's news'. He elicits performances from his cast that are signatures of the talents that all would keep as constant companions throughout their illustrious careers. He has a complete understanding of the tense, time clock precision required to bring the sport of pool to the everyday Joe who watches this film.
The black and white cinematography by Eugene Shufften is marvelously complex, plying the viewer to look into the cracks and crevices that cement another facet in this moment of time. Black and white films are today, looked upon as a dinosaur, an anachronism that has become as outdated as the turbulent 60's, disco or the last favourites column that ends with each year before the new one comes upon us. If given half a chance, the inner workings of the mysterious power it uses to draw us closer into a story would become all so apparent to us. Those of us who truly love movies already know the secret.
The Set Direction by Harry Horner and Gene Callahan permits no substitute to the throne of pretense or false deceptions. Grime, sweat, smoke, drink, grease, moments in time living in the past, swirling into a maelstrom and regurgitated out for our perusal -- this was and is the low life of a pool hall. It's the world of pool as seen away from the niceties of the manicured world of competition as it is presented today.
Kenyon Hopkins music has a cool, jazz feel to it; laid back and gleaned as smooth and neat as a bourbon on the rocks. There is no garnishment, no sweetness, no syrup to congeal; just a calculated, simple drawing upon minimalist themes, as jazz is wont to be.
The Hustler is one of the best 'sport' movies ever. The dialogue, the performances, the even handling of all concerned, have presented us with a film that had that feel of lives lived within the confines of an aquarium of restrictions that has burst from the netherworld of backstreet pool. The Color of Money pales in comparison to this film. The Oscar was awarded to Newman (playing the same character for the latter), but I consider it as a compensation for his real work in The Hustler, a much better conceived film. He stayed in the stall for The Color of Money. Do yourself a favour and become a voyeur, sweating the action of The Hustler. It's an 'A' Game, a 'Dead Chop', so don't choke and miss it. It's perfection in every way.