There’s a long legacy of sports films where the heroes are the starry-eyed, passionate lovers of the game, the athletes who play from the heart and, despite a lack of technique or formal training, still come out on top. Even Rocky emerges from his loss against Apollo Creed with the blood, sweat, tears and girlfriend to prove that, in the end, he’s the real winner. Robert Rossen’s The Hustler is not one of these movies. If you asked George C. Scott’s character, Bert, what those other heroes had in common, he’d tell you it was “character.” Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie, on the other hand, has none. The Hustler tells the story of how Eddie (our hero, if you can call him that) earned his character.
The opening scene introduces Fast Eddie, a drifting pool shark, as he executes his latest con in a small town billiards hall. Just as he’s about to put away the eight ball in a finishing move and claim all the bets, the camera decides to stay on his face, completely ignoring the action on the table. We know Eddie wins because of the sound of the ball landing in the pocket, but that’s not the sound Eddie lives for. He’s there for the shit-eating grin he gets to wear the moment he wins. For the groans of gamblers that have lost money on a rigged bet. For the wad of cash he gets to shove in his breast pocket. He’s good at pool, sure. Hell, he’s the best anyone’s seen. But there’s no indication yet that he plays pool for any other reason than that it’s a game that attracts the greasy, betting types with loose wallets. For Eddie, pool’s a means to an end of fame and glory. And this, somehow, is the protagonist we’re supposed to fall in love with.
Don’t get me wrong–with those pearly blue eyes, Paul Newman makes it so easy to love him. When he arrives at Ames Pool Hall to play the legendary Minnesota Fats (played by Jackie Gleason, retired from sending Alice to the moon), we’re ready to root for him. But in this place, quiet as the “church of a good hustler,” it quickly becomes clear just how little reverence Eddie has for the game. Several hours and too much luck pushed later, Eddie is begging, not unlike a One-Ring-hungry Gollum, for more money to beat Fats, and we know we’re seeing his rock bottom. This is 30 minutes into the movie, and we already hate him. Which begs the question: what do the remaining 100 minutes have in store?
From here Eddie falls back on Sarah (Piper Laurie), a lonely alcoholic and late-comer college student. At first they use each other as excuses to drink and screw away the pain. But eventually it turns into love, partly because they’re beautiful actors in a drama, but also because they perfectly mirror each other. Eddie’s addicted to drink, money, and abuse, and so is Sarah, usually on the receiving end. By seeing their ugliness in each other they also recognize it in the world, and this lets them rise above it, if for a short while.
And that’s a very short while, because soon Sarah caves under that ugliness, leaving Eddie with nothing but bruises, broken thumbs, and cash winnings. And of course a burning desire to play Fats one last time, not quite for fame and glory this time, but not redemption either. In a rousing closing speech, Eddie makes it clear just how messed up this world is and how much they’ve all participated in its getting messed up. It’s a surprisingly grandiose message from a guy who’s hardly seen more than the inside of pool halls across America. But despite all the proselytizing, Eddie still walks out with a pocket full of cash. He’s not so much changed his ways as he’s learned to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions.
The script is riddled with the kinds of quick quips and zingers that defined the film noirs of the ’50s, but where the movie really sings is in the quiet moments. The in-between beats where characters decide whether to have another drink, to kiss each other, to lay down one more bet (they always decide in the affirmative). The camera keeps a safe distance, letting the characters squirm under its scrutiny, coming in closer every so often to apply a little more pressure. In one mesmerizing tracking shot, Sarah wanders a roaring party in a drunken daze, until Bert whispers something into her ear that sends her into an unprecedented tantrum.
Yet no scene is ever as electric as when Paul Newman is front and center. His face tries with all its might to hold its stony handsomeness, and then suddenly cracks into a grimace, flashing all his anguish for a moment, like a firecracker, before retreating back into its trademark smolder. Like so many other leading men after him (Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis to name a couple), Newman is best when he’s a punching bag. We love watching him get pummeled because we know, or hope, it won’t be for naught. In the case of Fast Eddie though, justice isn’t possible. Not when Sarah’s gone and money just doesn’t give him the high it used to. But to be honest, we wouldn’t want Eddie to change all that much anyway. Especially with all that character he’s got now.