The seedy atmosphere of the pool hall was never better portrayed than in Robert Rossen’s 1961 drama The Hustler.
Starring Paul Newman as “Fast Eddie” Felson, a small-time pool hustler who wishes to break into the big-time of professional high-stakes pool wagering by challenging the best player in the country, the legendary Minnesota Fats.
Eddie’s first encounter with Fats ends with him being thoroughly beaten after well over a day of non-stop playing despite being ahead at one stage.
Afterwards, Eddie meets Sarah, an alcoholic crippled woman whereupon he starts a relationship. In the meantime, he also encounters Bert Gordon a professional gambler who had seen him lose to Fats. Bert later tells Eddie that he has talent as a pool player but has no character -a “born loser”. but nevertheless offers to stake him.
Sickened by Eddie’s obsession with pool and the world he inhabits, and humiliated by Bert, Sarah commits suicide which devastates Eddie.
Returning again to challenge Fats, Eddie finally beats him forcing him to quit and despite threats by Bert, Eddie rebukes him, compliments Fats and walks out.
I’ve been endlessly fascinated by this film, in the way it captures the obsession of one man who sacrifices his friends and the woman he loves to achieve his goal but in the end realising it wasn’t worth the sacrifice. Paul Newman has never been better in arguably his best film performance. Ironically he won the coveted Best Actor Oscar he so desired 25 years later for playing the same character in the forgettable sequel The Color Of Money.
Supporting Newman is George C. Scott who’s terrific as the manipulative and cold gambler Bert and Jackie Gleason brings a real presence as Fats.
I did find the romanic sub-plot somewhat less interesting than the dramas in the pool halls, mainly because the black and white widescreen cinematography is simply outstanding in engaging the viewer in the machinations of pool.