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.