Guest Review: The Hustler (1961)

Special thanks to my pal and regular commenter Kevin a.k.a Jack Deth for this in-depth review!

First, I’d like to thank Ruth for the opportunity to offer a guest review on her wonderfully enjoyable, informative site.

It’s not often that one is given the chance to rave about, offer insights or generally trash a film that piques my ire. Fear not. This review is positive in the extreme and a favorite film of mine.

Directed by Robert Rossen in 1961. The film tells the tale of ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson. Played flawlessly by a then, up and coming Paul Newman. Portraying the prototype of The Man With No Name made famous by Clint Eastwood under the direction of Sergio Leone in iconic ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ a decade later. Newman exudes supreme, cocky confidence and not much more.

What do we know about ‘Fast Eddie’?
He’s a pool hustler. Period. Nothing more.

Who with his partner and manager, Charlie Burns, has been plying his trade from Oakland to “The Church of the Good
Hustle”. Ames, by name. A walk up pool hall that resides in New York. Though could just as easily be Steubenville, Ohio. Hoboken, New Jersey. Or Gary, Indiana.
>>>
The pool hall absolutely reeks of atmosphere as Eddie and Charlie await the arrival of ‘Minnesota Fats’. The man of legend. Jackie Gleason at his absolute best! Introductions are made and a marathon game begins with lush B&W overlays as the camera pans through the smoke hazed, shadowy room to a coffee house, Be Bop soundtrack laid down by Kenyon Hopkins. That only adds to the cat and mouse game played by two masters. As shots are made. Balls clack and travel into called pockets. Only to be racked and travel again.

Soon, another is added to the mix. George C. Scott as the silently watching, milk sipping, Bert Gordon. Who meticulously sizes up ‘Fast Eddie’ and finds him wanting. The match continues. Eddie loses and Bert takes Eddie under his wing. Playing rich, well heeled players in assorted halls and their opulent homes across the US. Life is good for Eddie, but not great. That happens when he happens across Piper Laurie’s Sarah Packard at a bus station, who instantly sees Eddie’s flaws and senses his damages are about equal to her own. Eddie and Sarah fall in about as close to love as either can manage. Which irritates, then annoys Bert as money is made and opportunities are sought. For Bert, to make more money. For Eddie and Sarah, any way to get away from Bert.
The opportunity arises, but not in a good way. As Eddie and Sarah break away from Bert. Only to have Eddie play fast and loose and have his fingers broken in a grimy hall just west of nowhere. Eddie recovers and is talked back into Bert’s good graces for another faraway game. Of Snooker. Not pool. Allowing Bert to have more than a slight hand in Sarah’s drunken suicide in a less than five star hotel room.

Which sets the stage for the final battle.

One that is more than worthy of the wait. As Eddie comes looking not for blood, but for money. Which to Bert is the same thing. Shots are made. Eyes shift and for once, Eddie is the Captain of his own fate.It’s a wonderful thing to watch. As Fats finally concedes. And Eddie wins. A Pyrrhic victory? Almost certainly! As Bert scarily shouts “You owe me MONEY!” And Eddie uses his newly applied leverage to verbally beat Bert down on percentages and cuts of the future takes. Before turning his back on Bert amidst threats to never play in a big time poll hall again.

Now. What makes this film good?

Many, many things. The B&W cinematography is near flawless. Especially at Ames. The pool hall where Fats plies his trade. Where shadows merge amongst the silent, attentively watching, down and out crowd to as one fluidly intertwined mass. The clarinet, saxophone, bongo drum and bass soundtrack may seem out of place at first, but quickly becomes part of the grim, desperate, close to grimy atmosphere.

The secondary characters all seem born to play their parts. From Michael Constantine’s world weary, ‘Big John’. To Murray Hamilton’s slimy, arrogant, southern gentleman, ‘Findley’. To Myron McCormack’s just looking to get by, Charlie Burns. All give their roles more than their best shot. And it shows!

What makes this film great?

Everything that makes it good. Plus watching three cinematic greats laying down their foundations early. Newman has never been more hungry and desperate. Planting seed that would flourish in later films, Cool Hand Luke and The Verdict. Gleason has never more completely owned a role. Physically or otherwise. It’s a treat to watch him waltz around a pool table. His eyes constantly seeking an unseen angle. While George C. Scott radiates silent, sinister evil. Rarely using his voice, but when he does. He scores!

Kudos to Robert Rossen for his screenplay and superb direction. Black & White works like a hand inside a glove for this film. Much more so than Martin Scorsese’s choice of color for his later, The Color Of Money, which has about one tenth the atmosphere. More than worthy of its two Oscar wins for Best Cinematography and Art/Set Direction. Though Newman, Laurie, Gleason and Scott were robbed of their Lead and Supporting Actor Oscars.


Have you seen this film? We welcome your thoughts in the comments.

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34 thoughts on “Guest Review: The Hustler (1961)

  1. Wonderful article for one of the all-time great films, Kevin. There’s so much to love about this drama and character piece. And there are so many fantastic characters (and actors portraying) in this. You’d expect greatness from Paul Newman, George C. Scott, and the rest, but Gleason (the comedian/musician) was the eye-opener for me in this. That he could hang, let alone around the pool table and these experienced film performers, was a testament to his talent. It’s a pity he didn’t do more dramas (though his stint as the boxing manager in ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight’ is also quite memorable). Superb tribute post. Thanks.

  2. Hi, leo0pard:

    The great hook of ‘The Hustler’ is Jackie Gleason. Who comes out of nowhere and begins the slow, yet complete theft of each scene he’s in. Not just holding his own opposite Newman and Scott, but being the focus of attention.

    Granted, Newman needed Willy Mosconi’s hands to double for trick shots. Gleason performed all of his shots on the pool table all by himself. He was wonderful playing a mute in ”Gigot’ and Anthony Quinn’s manager in Requiem for a Heavyweight’. A great under appreciated actor.

    Thanks so much for your thoughts!

  3. What a great review. I just watched this for the first time myself a few months ago and really liked it. This is the film that made me appreciate the awesomeness that is Paul Newman. I still want to check out The Color of Money, though my expectations will be dimmed a bit.

  4. Ted S.

    Very nice review Jack, I’ve never seen The Hustler myself but if I remember correctly, The Color of Money was a sequel to this film right?

    I might have to check this out soon.

    1. Hi, Ted, Ruth and company:

      Yes, ‘The Color Of Money’ is a sequel to ‘The Hustler’.

      Set 35 years later. ‘Fast Eddie’ runs a liquor distributorship and sees something in small time hustler, Tom Cruise at a local pool hall.

      Eddie takes Cruise and his girlfriend, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio under his wing and teaches them all they know, but not all that he knows.

      A worthy sequel, though shy of the original.

      Thanks for your comments and chance to post a review, Ruth. Your editing and final touches make me look good!

  5. THANK YOU again for this review, Jack. I really want to see this as I haven’t seen too many of Newman’s earlier films. I always remember Scott in Dr. Strangelove, such an iconic role. But he looks sinister even from the still of this film. Newman is soooooo good looking in his day, the great thing is he’s got the talent to match his looks.

    1. Hi, Ruth:

      One of the things I love about ‘The Hustler’ is the way Rossen uses shadows playing across his actor’s faces. And George C. Scott had a face made for rarely benevolent shadows.

      Paul Newman, I believe understood that he was Hollywood’s heir apparent to Brando. And kept himself in remarkably good shape and repair throughout his career to that end.

  6. Hi, Eric:

    Paul Newman is superb in his role as ‘Fast Eddie’. Pulling out all of the stops in a film where he’s at the top of his game.Though there seems to be a palpable sheen of the sweat of desperation about him during his first game with Gleason. That’s replaced by brass, hubris and revenge in the final showdown.

    I believe Newman’s anguish when Eddie tells Sarah about his just broken hands was revisited later in ‘Cool Hand Luke’. When Luke breaks during the digging and refilling of ‘The Captain’s Hole’. It’s almost painful to watch, but Newman handles it masterfully.

  7. Another fab review, Jack. A film about pool isn’t something I’d normally go for but I do like the sound of this. ‘Fast Eddie’ is a great name for a character, too.

    PS. Ruth, Newman was extremely good looking in his day! 😀

    1. Thanks so much, Claire!

      Really enjoyed your recent ‘Magnificent Seven’ post and theme music!

      Granted. Pool doesn’t top the list in every film, but in this one it does. Extremely well.

      Another film that you and the other ladies in attendance may be interested for it young and handsome lead is ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ from 1965.

      Where Stud Poker takes the place of Pool and a wonderfully tense showdown between the young Turk, Steve McQueen and the debonaire, wizened master, Edward G. Robinson.

    1. Hi, Castor:

      Thanks for dropping by.

      TCM is probably your best bet for catching ‘The Hustler’. Especially with their ‘Essentials’ and months devoted to specific actors. Once you sit down and watch. You’ll discover that it was worth the wait.

  8. Great review Jack!

    You really painted some pictures with words. I felt like I was in the pool hall with Eddie and Fats.

    I have seen the film from midpoint till the end. Piper Laurie’s suicide always stood out in my memory.

    I will have to go back an watch this from beginning to end.

    There is something about these type of claustrophobic atmospheric films that B&W only enhances. Now I have not seen The Color of Money and not apt to because I think the story of The Hustler stands well enough on its own.

    The 60’s really were the decade of Paul Newman!

    1. Hi, iluv:

      Thanks so much for your lovely comments.

      B&W is the superior medium for playing with suspense, tension and shadowy fear. There’s something dreamlike and other worldly that plays to
      human emotion and instinct much more than color.

      The 60s were Newman’s decade. With great roles that placed the mantle of Brando into his more than capable hands.

  9. daveackackattack

    Wow. I’m amazed at how many of you haven’t seen The Hustler. I can’t
    recommend enough these early Newman films for any serious film buff.

    The Hustler
    Hud
    Cool Hand Luke – From the Guns & Roses song:

    Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
    The Sting
    The Verdict – Directed by Lumet, screenplay by Mamet who wrote one of the
    great monologues on film.

    That takes up to the 80’s. Check ’em out.

    1. Hi, ackackattack:

      Great catch!

      Newman was nothing if not prolific. Latching onto roles in the 1960s and making them near iconic. Then taking that credibility and talent to become the go to guy for many heavy hitting films of the 19070s and 80s.

      I still think his work opposite Patricia Neal in ‘Hud’ is some of his best. Very reminiscent of James Dean’s Jett Rink in ‘Giant’.

      Thanks for dropping by with such a memorable clip!

      1. daveackackattack

        Yeah JackDeth,

        while Newman was certainly prolific he was brilliant all the way through his career unlike some actors who are only diminishing their careers with each succesive film they make (*cough* DeNiro… *Cough* Pacino).

        Hud is not a very sexy movie at first glance because I think most people think it’s a movie about the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Boooring. No wonder this is a little seen film. Lol. It’s definitely worth seeing for Newman’s and Patricia Neal’s performances together. To borrow your “what makes a film great” here’s why it’s a great film besides Newman’s performance. It has Martin Ritt directing (who most famously directed Norma Rae), early cinematography pioneer James Wong Howe behind the camera who won the award for Best B&W Cinematogtaphy and Larry McMurtry providing the story (The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment, co-adatapting Brokeback Mountain), Elmer Bernstein’s lovely nylon stringed score reminescent of Claudia’s Theme from “The Unforgiven” soundtrack and of course Neal who won Best Actress.

        If you want to see her best scenes start at the beginning then go to
        3:25-4:43 and 8:30-12:30. “I’ll stay in, I don’t like pigs.”

        Some things I didn’t know about Neal was that she won a Tony Award, at age 21, the first year the were given out in ’47, along with Ingrid Bergman, Helen Hayes, Frederic March, and José Ferrer. Pretty good company. Interestingly enough her husband was Roald Dahl author of such stories such as James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox and Matilda.

        1. Hi, Dave and company:

          Good catch on Martin Ritt!

          Not to get too far off topic. One of my favorite Ritt films is ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’. A B&W Cold War classic from John leCarre.

          With Richard Burton excelling at playing a seedy, squalid little man who works for British Intelligence and is ordered to defect as part of some larger, more convoluted scheme.

          Ritt gets more than he desired from his solidly British cast who use the power of words to great effect and extended silences even more so.

          Patricia Neal was a solid, versatile trouper who could handle any stage or film role and consistently deliver more than what was required. Still think she rocks out loud in ‘A Face In The Crowd’.

          Newman had the ability to upgrade and ply his craft. While DeNiro and Pacino hit their zeniths years ago. Have not aged well and have been content to add their bankable names to increasingly questionable projects. More’s the pity.

          1. daveackackattack

            You know the reason I never saw ‘A Face In The Crowd’ was because of the Andy Griffith factor. I just read that rumor had it that he was a real bastard like the character in ‘A Face In The Crowd’ in real life. Ron Howard, as the narrarator of ‘Arrested Development’, once joked that he would never make fun of Andy after an character onscreen made a slight toward Andy in a courtroom scene. “No one was making fun of Andy Griffith. I can’t emphasize that enough.” For a show rife with in-jokes it makes a lot of sense now. Wow. Hilarious.

            Now that I think about it Fred McMurray was great in ‘Double Indemnity’ playing the heavy but he was playing against type for me as I had seen first in ‘Fubber’ and ‘My Three Sons’ even though that I’ndemnity’ came first.

            ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ is now in my queue. Netflix says there’s a long wait for the dvd. Probably because of all the interest for the upcomming ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ movie.

    2. Hey Dave, I LOVE that scene! I’ve just seen Butch Cassidy recently, both Newman and Redford are so gorgeous, ahah. I like Newman better though, not into blonds 🙂

      Yes I’m ashamed I haven’t seen more of Newman’s classics. Perhaps after my Gregory craze I’ll jump on his films.

      1. daveackackattack

        Hey Ruth just wanted to let you know that my blog’s almost up. WordPress finally worked out the technical problem they were having with it. It’s going to be called I Have Seen The (((((O))))). (sun). It’s taken from my avitar which is from the movie Sunshine. Also my name’s now daveackackattack so I don’t have to keep identifying myself as Dave. I wanted to ask a small favor. Can I do a guest post on your site to kind of get people to check out my blog? Be warned my first post is pretty long, as you could have probably guessed, and has 25 videos in it. Bring a lunch. Hey film is a visual medium so I like to use a lot of video. “A picture says a thousand words.” I just wanted people to get to know my tastes or lack thereof. Besides I tried to do 10 then it snowballed to 20 where it finally stopped at 25. Lol. You can hit me back at ack_thpt@yahoo.com if you want. BTW ack_thpt is the sound of a cat throwing up a hairball. Phonetically sound it out. Stole that from Bill the Cat of Bloom County fame.

  10. A great review Jack. I love the “what makes this film good” and the “what makes this film great” segments!

    Paul Newman is one of the greats of cinematic performances! Great write up!!

  11. Hi, ScarletSp1der:

    The ‘What makes this film good?’ question kind of happened naturally. Already asked and half answered before my fingers caught up with my brain. A chance to fill in gaps and profess opinions after laying out the film.

    The “What makes this film great?” is its natural progression. Since we’ve all sat through countless good films. Which makes great ones all the more rare and personally satisfying.

  12. Beautifully written recap and review of this classic Jack.

    I’ve always loved the atmosphere created by the sound and cinematography in those dingy pool hall scenes. You can even almost smell the cigarette smoke.

    1. Hi, Bonjour:

      Thanks so much for your lovely comments.

      I could have waxed long and poetic about Ames. The pool hall where young Turks came to battle and bleed before Jackie Gleason’s Fats.

      Having spent many sticky Summer evenings in halls. Whose slow moving ceiling fans fought a losing war trying to move the haze of myriad cigarettes. Though Eugene Shuftan’s meticulous, atmospheric cinematography does it so much better.

  13. Pingback: Classic Flix Spotlight: Steve McQueen – Acting vs Reacting

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