The Hustler

Dir: Robert Rosssen
1961
Most excellent and gritty drama that made a well-deserved star out of Paul Newman,
but also has fine performances by George C. Scott and Piper Laurie, as well as a “guest star” appearance by Jackie Gleason, saying few words and dominating the screen. Who could do that now?
The film has a surprising structure, with an opening 10 minute “tease” that sets up Fast Eddie (Newman) and his manager Charlie (Myron McCormick) as pool hustlers. Then for the next 30 or so minutes Fast Eddie goes up against reigning champion Minnesota Fats (Gleason), winning, then losing all his earnings in a show of hubris (and booze). It’s such a long scene it surprising they thought they could lead off with it, but it’s engrossing nonetheless. Fast Eddie rehabilitates with the help of Piper Laurie’s Sarah, an alcoholic trust-fund baby with a habit for picking up men to share a bottle with. Bert (George C. Scott) becomes his new manager and the second half of the film follows the three as Bert uses Fast Eddie and destroys Sarah in the process. Nobody in this film is a dunce, but they all have their weaknesses. And its in recognizing the weaknesses that make the characters strong–ignore weakness at your own cost…
This a film about father figures and father issues, a psychological drama as only they could make ’em back then. (Psychological dramas now have somebody say “I love you, Dad” in the third act.) Fast Eddie spends the film looking to topple the father (Minnesota Fats), leaves his manager, finds another one even worse (“When did you adopt me?” Fast Eddie asks Bert after one spectacularly written scene in a bar), and in doing so, kills off the feminine. His maturity is revealed at the end when both Fats and Fast (anagrams of each other, notice) size each other up as equals, not a high/low equation. Great performances all ’round–no wonder Newman became such a star.

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