The Hustler - 1961
Paul Newman’s The Hustler, is the story of a young pool player, hustling his way across the states looking to dethrone legendary player Minnesota Fats. Directed and co-written by Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men -1949) adapted story from a novel of the same name. This movie is ultimately about human ambitions and the sacrifices we make to succeed in life.
I love how we get introduced to our main character “Fast Eddie”. We simply see him pull-up in his car, go into a bar and start playing pool with a stranger. The stranger wipes the floor with him, and as Newman tries to bet more money, the stranger walks away. After five minutes of him “drunkenly” playing pool he hustles the bartender into a $200.00 bet (that he wins). Newman grabs the money walks out of the bar and gets in the car with the stranger. Without any backstory, voice over intro or scroll script of what the story is or will be, we understand who Newman’s character is, as the title of the movie suggests.
This movie has a great cast, and the Oscar nominations show it, but this is by far a Paul Newman movie. He walked and talked with a level of confidence all should envy. Newman always had a smirk on his face, as if he was thinking of a joke, or the next move his about to pull-offs to impress the audience. Reading up on this movie’s background, I learned that Newman had never played pool before and to prepared for the role he installed a pool table in his home to practice for hours. That level of commitment shows in the movie, and gave the character an air of confidence around the table.
When having a great “hero”, you need a great “villain” to balance out your movie and in comes Minnesota Fats. Played by Jackie Gleason from the Honeymooners, Fats is a legendary pool player among the hustler circuit. Gleason matched Newman’s confidence, going toe-to-toe with him from the very start. I loved how calm and collected his character was, never raising his voice or bragging about his skills. Fats had a routine of washing his hands, fixing his hair, putting on his jacket (with a carnation on it) and applying powder to his hands before playing pool (for real). This routine made his character look like a surgeon getting ready to operate on a patient.
So, be honest so far you have read the premise of this movie and thought to yourself… How good can a movie about pool-players be? All I will say is watch their first match and get back to me. The first time they play each-other is riveting. We sit back and watch them hit trick shot after trick shot. The editing is fast and makes the pool-game feel like a heavy-weight boxing match between to evenly match opponents. Gleason, having played pool all his life, did all his trick-shots, while Newman also did most of his own. Sad to say that if this movie was made today all the shots would be CGI instead of practical and it would lose a lot of the effects in the process.
This movie takes a dark look at obsessions and addictions. The best example is Eddie’s love interest, played by Piper Laurie. Having a corky personality, with a broken soul behind her eyes that is always pushed back with alcohol. Sarah is an alcoholic, with what we can only assume is a dark past and Newman’s character slowly stars to discover it as their relationship grows. The scene that caught me off guard between them is during their fight, Newman slaps her and she just stares at him and asks him “you expect me to cry?”. This lets the audience know, that sadly this isn’t the first time she has been struck and has become jaded to the entire experience.
This movie gripped me from the very start; but it let me go after the first thirty to forty-minutes. Newman’s character goes into a depression after his defeat to Fats and the movie gets bogged down. Don’t get me wrong the cinematography, the editing and the acting never suffers during the slow parts of the movie, it just never lives-up to the impressive start. It has great moments between the first pool match and the last one (that I don’t want to ruin), but I wanted him to play Fats again so bad that I just wanted to fast forward to that moment. The ending is great and gives Newman a vehicle to deliver a powerful monologue that gave me some goosebumps, bookmarking the movie experience with a solid beginning and a solid end.
Overall, I truly enjoyed this movie. The acting is on point, the direction is impressive, cinematography is beautiful and the writing is tight, all of them recognized by the Academy. I completely understand why this movie is considered a classic and it has aged beautifully with time. I was 100% enthralled by a pool-game and that’s why I love movies.
The Hustler is currently streaming of Netflix and you should watch it.
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