Directed by: Robert Rossen. Written by: Sidney Carroll, Robert Rossen. Based on The Hustler by Walter Tevis. Starring: Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott, Myron McCormick. Cinematography: Eugene Shuftan. Editing: Dede Allen. Music: Kenyon Hopkins. Certificate: 12. Running Time: 134 minutes. Year: 1961. Rating: 9.2
It’s perhaps a touch unfair, but Paul Newman’s 1986 Oscar for his performance in Martin Scorsese’s The Color Of Money has long been held-up as an example of the Academy attempting to rectify a past mistake: Newman was reprising his role of ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson – the pool shark first seen in Robert Rossen’s hard-boiled 1961 film The Hustler – in Scorsese’s patchy update, and supposedly took advantage of a weaker field that year, aided by the fact that two leading actors in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger) were both nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category. Newman did receive a nomination for his earlier portrayal of ‘Fast’ Eddie, but lost out to Maximilian Schell for his work in Judgment At Nuremberg, a film that was nominated 11 times in all categories but barely gets a mention today. The general consensus afterwards was that the Academy got it wrong by failing to award Newman an Oscar in 1961, and thus the later win was seen as belated recognition of his earlier work. All of which is, of course, pointless conjecture, but it is undeniable that the actor is superb in The Hustler, delivering a performance that would become a template for his later rebels in Hud and Cool Hand Luke.
Rossen’s film, adapted from Walter Tevis’s 1959 novel of the same name, follows the fortunes of small-time pool hustler ‘Fast’ Eddie as he attempts to enter the pool hall major leagues by beating the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). The plot has been copied by countless other ‘sports’ movies since, from Rocky to Rounders: young pretender goes up against wily old pro, loses everything, and spends the rest of the story building back up for that second shot at the title (though really there’s no trophy on offer here, just money and presumably a word-of-mouth acknowledgment that will spread from one pool hall to another across the USA). In tandem with his two stage battle of the baize Eddie must juggle the concerns of his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick), alcoholic girlfriend Sarah (Piper Laurie) and professional gambler Bert (George C. Scott), a trio of characters who all make the mistake of relying/depending on Eddie in one way or another.
The film has a relentlessly bleak worldview, as per Tevis’s book, and Rossen focuses almost entirely on a group of characters who are living within the margins of society: drifters, barflies, poker sharks and others out for a quick buck, some of whom appear to be homeless (or at least are choosing not to be at home). It’s within this world that Eddie meets Sarah; first in a station cafe and then, later on, in a bar, after which they enter into what appears at first to be a normal loving relationship. However, ultimately neither character is able to ‘save’ the other or able to turn their partner’s life around, as their characteristics and their two addictions – gambling and drinking respectively – are entrenched by the time they have met. In fact they seem like a doomed couple from the outset; he falls asleep during their first meeting, indicating an inability or unwillingness to listen to or deal with her problems, while her alcoholism also obscures the lines of communication.
In The Hustler people are either winners or losers and there is no in-between. The screenplay by Rossen and Sidney Carroll also questions what it is to be a winner within this world: by the end all of the characters – even those who manage to prove themselves to be superior at the game of 9-ball – have actually lost out in one way or another. It may be a cliché but there is a high price to pay for winning, and the rewards for success do not represent anything like adequate compensation; the presence of ‘Raging Bull’ Jake LaMotta in a cameo as a bartender reinforces the idea that sporting prowess and personal happiness do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, while the views of Tevis and Rossen on the matter can perhaps best be summed up with reference to the film’s ending: The Hustler plays out with a series of negative notes that cradle a very hollow triumph.
Set mostly in artificially-lit, no-frills bars and pool halls, Rossen’s world is generally cold and unfriendly; a spartan landscape filled with places that exist merely to sate the needs of degenerate gamblers and heavy drinkers. Strangers are generally not welcome in these joints, are barely trusted (with good reason, it would seem) and are not respected unless they’re identified as a source of income that can be milked: witness the attitude of Bert – the ultimate hustler – towards Eddie as he labels him a ‘loser’ on their first and second meetings, thereby enabling him to take advantage with unfavourable terms when he volunteers to be Eddie’s backer later on.
As the characters go through upturns and downturns in their fortunes, the jazz score by Kenyon Hopkins varies in tone and tempo to signify ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ streaks. The editing by Dede Allen is also a key feature of the film, particularly during the involving early battle between Fats and Eddie, in which several hours’ worth of games are cut and concatenated into a montage that shows the ebb and flow of the match while also revealing much about Eddie’s greed and selfishness. The film is at its best during these early hustles and clashes, with tension cranked up as a result of the high stakes nature of the games; Eddie is cocky and there’s a degree of schadenfreude to be had while watching him lose to Fats at the beginning. During filming, however, Rossen decided he wanted to concentrate more on the love story between Eddie and Sarah; it’s quite an involving romance, although the film noticeably goes up a gear when Eddie returns to hustling and, later, when Eddie’s rematch with Fats takes place.
The Hustler is packed with good actors acting well: Gleason, Laurie and Scott all received Oscar nominations (though Scott refused to accept his and also rejected his nomination/win for Patton several years later) and, as stated earlier, the magnetic Newman is on career-best form. It’s arguably Rossen’s greatest work as well, surpassing the earlier Oscar-winner All The King’s Men, another film with noir-ish leanings and also another that is concerned with the subject of alcohol abuse. Sadly he would only make one more feature before his death in 1966, following a number of illnesses, and if you think that’s a sour note to end on all I can say is ‘watch The Hustler’. A downbeat classic that sees nothing but misfortune, unhappiness and struggle in the decade ahead.