You think you know it all. You think you’re the best, then you go up against what is the very best, and you are dropped down a peg. Competitive sports is one of those interesting cross sections of humanity that you either love or you hate. There are few people that can say they can take it or leave it, and it is evidenced by the billions of people in the world that are fascinated by sport. Now, with that in mind, many don’t consider pool to be a sport, and yet it is one of the hardest things that you can master, and if you don’t agree, take a look at what pool sharks can do, and can’t do, and you’ll start to see that there is a world beneath the surface of sport, that is going to knock you flat, if you enter it. “The Hustler” is a movie that is a classic for those that love gambling, pool, and of course two major stars of the past, Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. Both men put on a performance of very subdued, and very impressive fashion, with reactions, and speech that rivals any major production you’ve seen today, including your Marvel superhero movies. If you’re a fan of the fast paced, frenetic, barely a plot, barely a movie current crop, then this is not for you, and you should walk away now.
This movie from 1961 holds up today in a lot of key factors, especially when you consider two major components that hit me hard. The two is the price of being the best. Eddie Felson wants to be the best in the world, then he meets up with the best, only to find out that his bravado and skills aren’t quite up to par with the legend, “Minnesota Fats”, which knocks him down several pegs. After getting all hurt about his skill set, he meets a woman, and falls in love, only to find out that things go from bad to worse, and in order to be the best, he has to give up something big, and he does. “The Hustler” explores the notion of winning at all costs, even if it means losing the one you love, and then making a deal with the devil. Sometimes, it’s the devil you know that is so comfortable, but Eddie Felson finds out the hard way.
Secondary to the plot is the focus on love, and affection. Piper Laurie plays Sarah and she throws out some incredible lines, including one about how Eddie isn’t there to love her he’s just in it for sex, and that’s about it. “We stay in this same room, drinking, and making love, and that’s it…” which rings true to anyone that has ever been in a whirlwind affair with anyone. Even I got hit hard with that, and by the time Eddie figures it out, it’s too late, because she’s gone. It’s a powerful testament to greed, lust, and how far distractions take us from ourselves to chase down a glory that may not be meant for us.
But what if it is meant for us? What if we are meant for a new found glory?
Gleason’s reserved, serious take on “Minnesota Fats” is an incredible performance to me, but it’s Newman and George C. Scott that really throw down in the acting department. Piper Laurie is great too, and her seriousness mixed with sex appeal really drive the point home of what it means to win, lose, and love all within the world of pool hustling. It’s a movie that really speaks to the heart of the matter of competition, and one that is filmed with a pristine eye for cinema. It’s a slow moving portrait of what pool hall banter works like, and delivers on the premise so well, I’m still thinking about it after seeing it again for the first time.
“The Hustler” brings to life characters that you would expect from the hustling world, but not gangsters. These are not thugs, and those that talk about the HUSTLE of life, may relate, but really, this is a film that is black and white in direction, but is so much deeper if you have any heart at all. Paul Newman delivers one hell of a performance, and it would lead to something even greater on the next turn.
You can relate to it, it’s gritty, and powerful, the world of pool hustling isn’t glorified here. Instead, you get a morality play that mixes things like you would get with The Twilight Zone’s a game of pool, and the dramatic turns that you’d expect from Shakespeare. There are subtle moments, and there are major cinematography nods that lead this to be one of the best movies of all time in the eyes of many critics. I’m humbled by some of the lines.
“The Hustler” is a movie that showcases the greatness of American cinema and won two Academy Awards, and it shows. If you haven’t seen “The Hustler”, watch it, and then watch “The Color of Money”, which I’ll talk about next.