The Hustler is a splendidly constructed entertainment, with each frame attesting to high levels of craft in every phase of its execution. Helmed by Robert Rossen, a talented writer/director of hardnosed dramas, The Hustler is at heart a sports movie that somehow manages to avoid the genre’s clichéd baggage. There’s no Rocky triumphalism, no Hoosiers man-love sentimentality, and yet its narrative building blocks, however darkly rendered, follow a similar blueprint to countless other scripts about unlikely champions. If all sports movies are basically a variation on David vs. Goliath, then The Hustler expands the theme by encompassing other elements of the David story, including his moral imperfections, blind ambition and arrogant sense of entitlement. There’s even a seductive but tragically flawed Bathsheba thrown into the mix.
Rossen, who had his promising career stifled for a decade by the HUAC investigations, felt an unusual empathy for this story of deferred redemption, and The Hustler marked his return to mainstream American filmmaking. Scoring great success early in his career with Oscar winners Body and Soul and All the King’s Men, Rossen spent the bulk of the 1950s making B-movies in Europe and Mexico, partially in an effort to avoid McCarthy’s subpoenas. The Hustler first appeared in 1959 as a popular novel by Walter Tevis, and to Rossen, in his younger days a boxer and occasional pool shark, the tale was a perfect match for his storytelling instincts.
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.
This sequence is a powerful illustration of why Dede Allen went on to become Hollywood’s most sought after editor. Here, Allen creates several time compression montages that, amazingly, don’t feel like montages. By cleverly placed reaction shots and cutting on matching movement – even movement that could be considered a continuity error by the literally minded –she created an effective illusion of real time. Pool is actually a boring sport to watch - just try to sit through it on ESPN some time - but Allen’s assembly makes the action fresh and exciting, without resorting to obvious up-cuts or dreamy dissolves. Most importantly, she perfects the pace while ingenuously convincing audiences of Newman and Gleason’s exceptional skills at shot making, enhancing the film’s rugged, streetwise credibility.
Humiliated and fed up with billiards, Newman stashes his meager belongings in a Port Authority locker and resigns himself to a quiet life of binge drinking and wallowing in self pity. A solitary redhead catches his eye at the lunch counter, a fellow wounded soul named Susan Packard (Piper Laurie) and before long they’ve set up housekeeping in a cozy flat for three: Eddie, Susan and a bottle.
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.