The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)

“The pool game is over when Fats says it’s over… I came after him and I’m gonna get him. I’m going with him all the way”

Introduction

The idea that sequels are merely cashing in on a brand is obviously rooted in truth, but that does not mean sequels lack artistic creadability. Martin Scorsese has made English-language remakes of foreign films (Infernal Affairs turns into The Departed) and he has remade classic Hollywood cinema (Cape Fear becomes another Cape Fear). Interestingly, he made a sequel in the film The Color of Money – a sequel to The Hustler. Both films star Paul Newman – and both have an insightful subtext about what it is to be human and, in The Hustler, what it is to be an American.

Small-Scale Big-Ideas

Paul Newman has a young, effortless charm and his good-looks contrast against the vast majority of the characters with old, weathered faces. ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson (Newman) with his Father-figure Charlie Burns (McCormick) shows how, whilst Charlie is aiming to retire and relax, Eddie still wants to win and be the best. Eddie has a self-destructive edge that also plays against the calming-love from drunkard Sarah Packard (Laurie Piper) – he has to balance the two and, with an agent like Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), it is a dangerous balancing act. Roger Ebert notes how what makes Newman so effective in the role is how “He doesn’t look like a hustler, but then the best ones never do.” and this is true.

Furthermore, in Eddie, the first act depicts a child who has managed to sneak by on his charm for far too long – only to come up against Minnesota Fats (Gleeson) who is ultimately more mature and level-headed. Fats takes his time, he patiently sets-up and prepares and does not brag. Newman is arrogant, self-satisfied and smug about the game – so much so that this is his downfall as he cannot keep up with the steadypace of Fats. Losing the game. But think of the broader-scope of life – those many sayings about life. “An obstacle is often a stepping stone” or “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall”. We initially see someone who does not believe he can fail – and who often beats the obstacle without effort. The entire narrative is built upon how ‘Fast’ Eddie loses a game and is desperate to make it right – and in the process learns lessons about relationships, business and what it is to be human. Things which he did not care for before. We learn from our mistakes and, indeed, Eddie does just that.

USA and Business

My initial thought when Eddie played Fats was how Eddie may represent America: likeable, arrogant, keen to make money (“What other country will let you make $10,000 in one night?”) and yet we see him lose. Fats is much more calmer and respectful. Even the comparison between Eddie and Bert is two opposing-ends to business – Bert is a cold-hearted success-is-money man whilst Eddie is, by the end, defining success as love. He loved Sarah Packard and the business is what destroyed his success. Ebert explains how what makes the film a touchstone of cinema is how “This is one of the few American movies in which the hero wins by surrendering, by accepting reality instead of his dreams”. Put this in the context of the American Dream – the fantasy that working hard ensures financial success. It is clear that this film shows how this is not neccessarily the case and, moreso, that financial wealth is achievable by choosing to treat others with disrespect: unfair profit-margins that exploit the worker (Bert splits money 75:25 as Eddie shoots pool… despite Eddie holding the skills, it is Bert in a position of power to exploit Eddie) and ‘hustling’ tactics as you present yourself in a false-light to make the most profit.

The Future is Pool


This film created a huge buzz in the pool community – creating a huge culture of pool players and succesful gamblers (Notably a New York player who took on the name ‘Minnesota fats’ to become incredibly successful in the process). The traits of Eddie are also applicable to masculinity and, unlike many films of the time that present men as ‘the strong, silent type’, this film presents Eddie as much more in touch with his emotions. He cares or Sarah, but he finds it difficult to admit his love for her. Sarah is a fascinating character too as she is an alcoholic and, the attraction both characters have towards each other, is their state of self-destruction. Through the film, we begin to see how she becomes less interested in drink when she falls deeper in love with Eddie – but it isn’t long until Eddie is drawn back into the hustling game alongside Bert, whereby Sarah loses her way again and it ends in tragic consequence. Even Eddie, as his thumbs are broken, is seen through a window as we cannot clearly see the men, in shadow behind him. Though there is no clarification of rape – and it is only noted that his thumbs were broken – I believe that the way the scene is shot has this dark undercurrent that implies how Eddie’s masculinity is abused when he has had to drop so low to merely make a little money. Not to mention how the characters have an unsettling nature in their localised language – using “friend” and “boy” when referring to Eddie. The characters recall the rapist hicks in John Boorman’s Deliverance, while the depraved depths Eddie finds himself in recall the slums that Jon Voight sinks to in Midnight Cowboy.

Unforgettable


The first 30-minutes of the film is almost exclusively one game between Eddie and Minnesota Fats. As I watched it, I considered whether the film would be entirely within one-night. In fact, I hoped it would be because the characters, situation and sequence is so engaging. Inevitably, it moved on, but it was fascinating to see this brilliant face-off between characters. In this one sequence, we meet every cast member – except Sarah. Throughout the film, there is a constant reference to how Eddie is a “born-loser”, but I think there is hope to be pulled from this story as we cannot expect our ambitions and goals to come to us, we need to reach the goals. As a teacher, I find myself raising constantly stating how “you learn from your mistakes” and there is always a pessimism in the nature of a mistake – you have completed something ‘wrong’ and you have to accept that. But learning from mistakes is what is optimistic. Like the term ‘loser’, you need to accept the loss, learning from mistakes, and work on how to win. Ideally without becoming a cold-hearted, soulless, money-obssessed man like Bert.
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