The Hustler (1961)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jim LaMotta is one of Pittsburgh’s premiere wrestling announcers, as well as a great writer. This article originally appeared on Steel City Underground. You can follow Jim on Twitter.

In another example of the “Mr. Braddock classics,” I originally saw The Hustler a few decades after its 1961 debut as my dad recorded it from the Turner Classic Movies channel, a network that shows films uncut and unedited, and had the name of the movie written in blue pen on the VHS tape. A side note, my uncle, the late legendary, Willie Visconti actually ran a pool room in Braddock, PA in the 1970s. The Braddock Free Press once ran a note about his birthday, January 7th, describing him as “the popular proprietor” of the Braddock Recreation Center. As mentor to my dad in many ways, Uncle Willie let him run the hall when he was busy, despite the fact that my dad was still in his teenage years. Between the Pepsi machine, pool tables, and some concessions, the venue remained popular for most of that era before Uncle Willie decided to sell the building and take part ownership in a small convenience store in Braddock until he passed in the early-90s. To this day, my dad really enjoys telling stories about his late mentor and it’s always comical when he recounts the many times that Uncle Willie would “randomly” show up to visit when he knew my dad was cooking. “Oh, Jim, you cookin?” “Yeah, Will, why don’t you come in and eat?” “Oh well, I guess so, I’m here now.” I have to say up front that this film is really an incredible example of American cinema and those much better versed in the interpretation of film have done much better analysis of the movie, but after I saw it in my middle school years, my appreciation for the complex narrative has only grown since that time. Initially seeing it more than half my lifetime ago, the Robert Rossen-directed drama went from just a cool movie about pool with charismatic characters to an example of some of the resounding themes of life as I watched it through older eyes. Based on Walter Tevis’ 1959 novel of the same name, the film unites an all-star cast to chronicle the turbulent travels of “Fast” Eddie Felson, a pool hustler brilliantly played by the legendary Paul Newman. Before he had a “Cool Hand,” made sauce for charity, or buckled up as a race car driver, Newman took aim with a pool stick to portray “Fast” Eddie, who some have speculated was based on real-life pool shark, Eddie Parker, but even before this iconic role, Newman, who has dozens of notable titles on his resume, was already considered a major name in the industry with roles in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Exodus, and other films.

The opening scene is simplistic in its presentation, but reveals the theme of the film to the audience, it’s all about the hustle. Fast Eddie and his backer Charlie, played by Myron McCormick, stroll into a small bar that has “pool” advertised in the windows. The pair of pals claim they are appliance salesmen on their way to a convention in Pittsburgh the next day, but stopped off on their drive for a drink and some retreat from the muggy weather before they complete the final two hours of the trip. They start a friendly game, with Felson indulging in an occasional whiskey between shots before the supposed salesman wants to wager a few dollars against Charlie. The games continue as the two exchange wins before an apparently intoxicated Felson makes an incredibly difficult shot to finish a game. Charlie wagers that Eddie can’t hit the shot again and his near staggering pal misses before protesting that he wants to make another bet. Charlie, not wanting to take advantage of his bumbling buddy, declines and heads to the car. However, the spectators in the bar are more than eager to take some easy cash, including the hard-nosed bartender. The stumbling Felson empties his pocket of $105, a week of commission for the biggest bet of the afternoon as the bartender matches it right from the cash register, not wanting to let the chance at easy money pass him by before Felson sobers up. With the cue ball and the eight ball in place, “Fast Eddie” gives up a slight smile before he connects on the trick shot, taking the cash with him. The next shot shows Eddie with a smile as he hands Charlie his portion of the winnings, inviting the audience in on the game, the partners worked the spectators into believing that Felson was drunk, but the facade was only to get them to put their money on the table before he took them for the most money possible. It’s all about the hustle.

In a direct contrast, the next scene finds the two pool partners at their actual next destination, the next pool hall on the road to find some action. However, this particular establishment has “Billiards”  printed on the windows instead, the proper name alone suggesting it’s a more serious venue. Upon their arrival, a sign at the front desk ironically says, “no gambling allowed” and the gruff manager informs them, “no bar, no pinball, just pool” as the gullible onlookers from the previous day are replaces with unimpressed viewers around the room this time. Without booze as a potential set up, the two have to look for another angle and Felson finds it as he begins to confidently brag about how much money he’s going to win, proclaiming a goal of $10,000 in one night. One of the locals walks over and lets Fast Eddie knows the patrons of this pool room are well aware of his hustling reputation, and that if he’s there to play Minnesota Fats, the kingpin with legendary status among the smokey nine-ball tables, he should think twice about it. The gritty guy attempts to insult Charlie, who Felson fiercely defends, setting the record straight that Charlie is an equal partner, an aspect that provides some insight into their friendship. But with Felson’s pride insulted with the notion that he can’t defeat Minnesota Fats, he becomes determined to show up the well-known player.

As promised, Jackie Gleason struts into the pool hall at exactly 8 PM with a lavish overcoat and his hair slicked, nothing out of place to distract from the presence he brings to the smoke-filled room. After introductions are made, the terms of the game are agreed upon and Fast Eddie gets to square off with Minnesota Fats. Gleason’s work here is top-notch because with Fats’ introduction to the film, his lines aren’t anything profound, but the way he presents the character brings depth to the persona. When he glides around the table, finding the perfect angle for each shot and calling them in the process, his body language projects that pool isn’t a game for him, it’s a serious business. As he focused in on a shot, he put down his lit cigarette because it’s not a leisure time for him, it’s his work as he precisely dust the cue stick with chalk to ensure a clean shot.

With an upbeat jazz tune to accompany it, a montage shows the hours wear on with the shots, the racks, and the money exchanged. Gleason has the advantage before his opponent gets a chance to take over the game, but “Fast” Eddie begins to spout about his skills while he aggressively sinks shots in each pocket, suggesting this exhibition is more about ego than business for him. The jazz rejoins us and the montage continues, this time with odds tilting in Felson’s favor. When Charlie tells Eddie that he won $1,000 so far, the hustler wants to up the bet, asking Fats’ if they can wage a thousand a game. Gleason accepts, calling for a drink and the arrival of his financial backer, George C. Scott’s Bert Gordon, who arrogantly sips a glass of milk in the pool room as he viewers the game. More jazz brings along another montage of called shots, racks, and Charlie nervously chain-smoking from the sidelines. After 25 hours and $18,000 of profit, a weary Felson is slumped in a chair. Fast Eddie refuses to conclude the game until Minnesota Fats says it’s over. Despite Charlie’s pleas, Eddie angrily grabs his cue stick while he chugs more whiskey. On the flip side, Gleason is diligently washing his hands and getting cleaned up before he slips the suit jacket back on to continue the game. Felson ignored the most important rule of gambling, you have to known when to walk away. Bert Gordon smirks from his chair, knowing that Eddie is in over his head and he looks to take joy in Felson’s downfall.

Not surprisingly, Felson loses everything except his original $200 start up cash. Ironically, the actual intoxicated Felson couldn’t keep pace with the pro that Gleason was. As Eddie stumbled around the table, Minnesota Fats looks on with a combination of concern and disappointment while Bert gleefully enjoys the foolish display. Gleason rejects the offer to play a final game for the remaining $200, mercifully sparing Felson some money and leaves the pool hall. Still drunk and almost delirious from the lack of sleep, Eddie collapses, prompting Charlie to check on his fallen protegee. Back at the hotel, Eddie stays true to his word, leaving his partner half of the remaining cash and goes to the bus station, where he meets Sarah Packard at the diner. Still hung over, Felson falls asleep in the booth, but when he goes to the bar at the bus station he runs into Piper Laurie’s character again. With booze to replace the coffee from earlier, the two actually get to know each other, revealing that they both ended up at the bus station that morning simply because they had no where else to go. Sarah explains she enjoys a drink and attends a few college classes during the week, sounding as if her plan was more to pass the time than to pursue any higher education.

Without much in common other than a lack of direction in life, the two lonely souls decide to get a bottle of scotch and go to Sarah’s apartment. They kiss at her door way before she reconsiders the plan, and Eddie leaves quietly, finding a cheap dingy hotel room for the night. He hustles a few dollars at a low-end pool hall the next day before he goes back to the diner for coffee when he’s reunited with Sarah. This time they go back to her apartment and the next scene finds them discussing their plans the next day. Again, they seem to be brought together more by desperation than anything since Eddie is too embarrassed to meet up with him mentor and Sarah seems to be hopelessly lonely. With her school books, groceries, and booze in tow, Sarah arrives home the following day and we find that Eddie has brought over his belongings from the shady motel room. Despite barely knowing him, Sarah allows Eddie to stay with her. Eddie insists on paying for his share of the groceries, providing a level of depth to the character. He might be pool shark, but he believes in fairness for those not involved in the hustle. He even suggest that Sarah shouldn’t drink and get help before a knock at the door reveals that Charlie found Eddie.

A tense discussion shows that Felson wanted a rematch with Minnesota Fats while Charlie wants to go back on the road. Charlie explains that he doesn’t care about the money Eddie lost in the game, showing that their friendship isn’t just about dollars and cents. Charlie reveals that he saved some of the winnings for him, but Eddie refuses his offer to return to the road, ending their partnership in the pool rooms. With sadness in his eyes, Charlie leaves the apartment, a sign of the end of their friendship as well.

A few weeks later, we find Sarah next to a half empty bottle of scotch and as Eddie gets ready to go to the next local dive bar to find some action, even intoxicated, she finally makes some realistic statements about their relationship and the fact they don’t really know each other. Instead of finding pool, Eddie runs into Bert Gordon at the bar, who offers to become his new money backer with the proposition that takes a hefty portion of the winnings for fronting the cash. When Bert won’t budge on the percentage of the offer, Eddie refuses before Bert gives him a warning about walking into the wrong pool room. That night, Felson goes to hustle at the wrong place and a group of thugs breaks both of his thumbs, taking him out of the pool scene indefinitely.

The next scene finds Eddie at the door and when Sarah answers, she finds him bruised with the broken appendages. The next few weeks show her finding stability through caring for Eddie, as she opts not to get a drink when she writes an assignment for class. The two enjoy a picnic and Eddie discusses the possibility of defeating Minnesota Fats if he stays focused. After that we see him approach the apartment door with his hands out of the casts and his thumbs healed as he surprises Sarah with the news of his recovery. He thanks her for caring for him through the injury. She might be an alcoholic, but this sequence shows that a flaw instead of necessarily someone’s defining trait. The same way Eddie’s mishaps in the game against Fats didn’t define him as a pool hustler.

Speaking of the game with Fats, Eddie is back at the bar where the original game took place to practice, attempting to get some flexibility back in his hands. He runs into Bert Gordon, who heard about the incident at the dive bar. Bert emphasizes the importance of character in winning, offering again to back him on the road and eventually in another game with Gleason. This time, Felson accepts and tells Sarah that he will be traveling to Louisville with Bert to hustle some games against wealthy businessmen at a lavish party. Sarah gets drunk and hysterical, as she fears Eddie will decide to leave her. In the drunken rant she reveals that her father left the family when she was young and now sends her money to make up for it, but won’t be involved in her life so she has financial security, but feels completely unwanted by her family. This scene reveals just how flawed and fractured she is from the trauma in her life.

To reassure Sarah, Eddie makes arrangements for her to take the trip with them. Upon their arrival, while Eddie is practicing, Bert takes the opportunity to tell Sarah that he only tolerated her on the trip because of the money to be made from Felson’s pool hustling. After they attend some horse races, the trio meet up with Findley, played by Murray Hamilton, who famously had the role of Mayor Larry Vaughn in the 1975 classic, Jaws. Bert arranged the game with Findley, who invites his guests to the party that evening. Knowing that Eddie is being exploited, Sarah gets drunk at the party while Eddie loses, by design, to the snarky businessman. She begs him to leave, but after Eddie sends her back to the hotel, Bert agrees to back him for $1,000 a game. At the end of the night, Findley owes $12,000 and Bert looks satisfied while Eddie seems disappointed because of the argument with Sarah earlier in the night. Even getting his share of the cash, Eddie is disgusted with himself because he argued with Sarah just to win money. Despite the arrival of a cab, he opts to walk to the hotel, which meant Bert arrived first. Finally showing what a coward he is underneath the tailor-made suit, Bert takes a drink before he enters Sarah’s room and fabricates a story that Eddie wants her to leave. When Felson gets back to the hotel, he finds the authorities in his room and that Sarah committed suicide in the bathroom because she thought she was abandoned again. Bert sheepishly tries to explain what happened before Eddie jumps at him, pummeling the shady businessman before the police restrain him.

Back at the billiards hall, “Fast” Eddie shows up to challenge Minnesota Fats in a rematch at $3,000 a game, his share from the Louisville trip that led to Sarah’s death. With Bert watching from his usual spot, Eddie, focused more on a form of self redemption than proving anything to anyone else, takes Bert to task. As he sinks each pool ball with precision, Eddie tells the businessman that his lavish lifestyle doesn’t make up for his lack of character, as he only knows how to exploit others for his own personal gain without knowing the true value of anything. Eventually, Minnesota Fats hauls the games, acknowledging that Eddie is the better player on this occasion. As the pool shark puts his stick back in its case, Bert Gordon has the audacity to attempt to collect a percentage of the winnings, referencing their deal in Louisville. Gleason looks concerned for Eddie’s safety when Bert reveals that he was the one who had Felson’s thumbs broken in the dive bar. Newman does an incredible job in this scene with lines where Eddie explains that Bert could get his thugs to break his thumbs again, but he would come back to kill Bert if there was anything left of the broken pieces. Knowing the hustler was serious, Bert agrees to let Eddie walk, but cautions him that his career as a pool shark is over.

Eddie’s run as a hustler was finished anyway because he realized the value of friendship and companionship were much more important than his reputation as a pool hustler or the money that came along with it. In some ways, Eddie has to lose everything to understand what was actually important in the first place. Almost 60 years after its original release The Hustler remains one of the most stellar examples of character development, storytelling, and drama in the history of American film.

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