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.