Paul Newman stars as “Fast” Eddie Felson, a man looking to take on Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in a high stakes pool game. Fats takes him on for forty straight hours, where at one point Eddie was up eighteen grand and loses it all back. It’s a hard blow that leaves him broke, both in the wallet and spirit. He keeps his few possessions (a suit, a suitcase and a pool stick in a case) in a locker at the bus station. That’s where he meets Sarah, a girl who claims to go to college on Tuesdays and Thursdays and is always either drunk or drinking. Romance flares up and Eddie moves into her modest one room apartment. They’re strangers, openly keep secrets and an emotional distance. Eddie lies, says he goes out to museums and concerts and that there’s a machine gun in his case. Sarah doesn’t say where she gets money for food and college never materializes either. Sarah learns that he’s a pool hustler when his old manager, Charlie, pays an unexpected visit. Eddie still wants to go after Minnesota Fats, but Charlie doesn’t believe he can take him and offers to manage him while playing for lesser stakes. They fall out over that and Fat’s manager offers to help Eddie, and eventually challenge Minnesota Fats again. But when the time comes, it’s more than revenge against Fats that Eddie is out for.
Newman is rightfully nominated for best actor for his brilliant portrayal of a young man who doesn’t now when to call it quits. Eddie’s got talent, but no character. The look on his face during their first match is great admiration, he says Fats plays, “Like he’s playing a violin.” But there’s that hint of a smirk that becomes his downfall. When Eddie’s mad, he’s raging. When he’s drunk, he’s wasted. Newman plays Eddie with every nerve within him and gives Eddie a real soul among petty hustlers.
I also must commend Piper Laurie in her nominated role as Sarah. She and Eddie are able to bond because they’re both a type of bum. What type she is, a lady does not say. She’s a lady and a lush, sometimes one more than the other. Two scenes that I believe lead to the nomination were where Sarah is drunkenly using her typewriter on the floor and is caught in a weak moment with Eddie. Here, defenses she’s built through alcohol and her own imagination are torn down and for once her emotions are pure and naked. Laurie plays these moments up so beautifully that the viewer is much more engaged when…well, I will not give that away.
One of my favorite things, and the reason I believe The Hustler won best art direction and cinematography is the way the shots are set up. Every set, and nearly every shot is set in layers. Characters and props are spread across the screen like billiard balls across a sprawling pool table. Movement is done more in depth within the sets than horizontally across the screen. We are grounded in one room, but can see through three open doorways and action is brought closer and taken further way thought them. It really is ingenius film making and brings the theme of pool outside the billiards room.
I thought about comparing The Hustler to a sports movie, you know because he’s playing a game, wanting to take on the best and the odds are against him, but it’s not that wishy-washy. It’s not that kind of movie and I would feel like a jackass if I compared it to anything with a training montage or sweeping music at the big game. This is more about the souls of men, rather than their game.
Watch this movie after you’ve played too much poker. Or anytime really, I cannot recommend this movie too much.
“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.”
***Not that I didn’t like West Side Story, but I pick The Hustler as my personal winner for 1961. Sorry Academy, we don’t always agree.***