But picking a good source was not Rossen’s only sage decision; in fact, The Hustler must be considered one of the most perfectly cast films in Hollywood history. Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, a brash young magician with a cue stick, is nothing short of a revelation. Felson is on the fast track to the top of the shadowy world of big money pool hustling, and Newman radiates the cocky charm such a journey would require. Here we see the genesis of the sarcastic, smart-ass edge Newman would later perfect in some of his most memorable roles. Whether it’s Butch Cassidy or Henry Gondorff in The Sting, it was Fast Eddie who taught Newman how to play a lovable rogue.
And Eddie is not easy to love. In his first marathon attempt to knock off the legendary Minnesota Fats, Eddie proves that he is incapable of handling success. After dominating early, Eddie succumbs to ego, gloating and his own destructive addictions, and eventually staggers away a penniless loser. Fats is played by Jackie Gleason, who exhibits not a trace of Ralph Cramden’s sloppiness. Cool, calm and intensely focused, Gleason’s approach is laced with the quiet reverence born of experience; a man at the top of his game, who knows how hard it is to stay there. Although renowned for his outsized characters, here Gleason shows the patience and restraint of a minimalist. Gleason moves around the billiard table with the efficient grace of a jungle cat, and Newman is left a withered husk who can only marvel with defeated blue eyes.
As the only female character in this film, Laurie is charged with a heavy dramatic load. Her Susan shares many of Eddie’s dour destructive tendencies, without his playful, charming counterbalances. Laurie also doesn’t look the part; she appears much too refined and elegant for a morose young woman in the process of slowly drinking herself to death. But Laurie takes these obstacles and turns them into powerful performance enhancers. By confounding our prejudices, she becomes an even deeper and more tragic figure than could ever be conveyed by dialogue alone. Just as Newman’s eyes emanate a sensitive but impish wit, Laurie’s reflect guilt and wrenching disappointment; the distorted, crackled contours of a life defined by empty bottles and lonely winter nights. Laurie transmits all this and more, with an effortless conviction that elevates her performance from innovative to extraordinary. On the mid-century transition timeline from June Cleaver to Bree Daniels, troubled Susan Packard is an evolutionary highlight.
As the film moves into the final act, there are two other rich performances to be savored. A newly weaned George C. Scott reappears – as a sort of pool hustler booking agent – to entice Fast Eddie out of self-imposed exile. Scott, ever the immensely talented sensationalist, emits deadly toxic sleaze convincingly disguised as matter-of-fact business acumen. As Eddie slowly falls under his sway, alarm bells sound in the besotted soul of Laurie, who realizes her love for this self-centered pool shark has reached the point of no return, and she makes a fateful decision that will require the ultimate sacrifice. Meanwhile, consummate character actor Murray Hamilton, as a closeted upper-class Southern homosexual, strikes glistening chords, breathing decadent life into a character that, in 1961, could only be portrayed through heavy coding and subtle innuendo. And as Eddie, now a purified and chastened spirit, resumes his climb to the top, he finds whole new wells of strength to draw upon. But that strength presents an imposing new challenge. Eddie must now succeed not only for himself, but to honor those who have paid dearly for their faith in him.