Reflections on "The Hustler" (1961)

Directed by Robert Rossen

Screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen

Based on the novel by Walter S. Tevis

Starring Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

Driven by a desire to prove himself the best, as well as the desire to win a considerable sum in bets, Fast Eddie Felson seeks to take on Minnesota Fats in a marathon pool session, but discovers there is a heavy price to pay in terms of relationships and humanity if he is to make it to the top of his chosen profession as a pool hall hustler.

Eddie learns the hard way there is more to winning than simply having talent. When he loses to Fats in their first pairing, it is pointed out to Eddie that while he has the ability, he lacks the "character" required to make him a winner. That is to say, he lacks the stamina, perseverance and discipline to pace himself in order to play the long game. For this is not akin to a tournament with set limits and clear criteria for success - this involves playing until your opponent is vanquished and admits defeat. Indeed, it might even be argued that the game is merely the means of taking on the character and very essence of your opponent in order to best him or her. It develops into a titanic contest of egos and spirit with talent and skills merely serving as the tools to decide the combat.

Eddie learns another important lesson, that there will always be money men, here in the shape of Bert Gordon, willing to help encourage and direct the careers of those who display sporting talent and ability (or indeed ability in any field of endeavour), for a substantial share of the proceeds. These are businessmen who act with purely mercenary and professional motives. They will take on managerial responsibility for organisation and administration in return for the application of sporting talent. The sportsman or player is an investment and he or she will be expected to toe the line in exchange for their highly lucrative and career-enhancing managerial services.

These money men will also be willing to manipulate situations and the emotions of their investments in order to ensure a greater return. Bert is cold, calculating and confident, but Eddie initially rejects his offer to represent him due to a sense of loyalty to his friend and fellow hustler cum manager, Charlie. However, Eddie and Charlie's relationship comes to an abrupt end when Eddie's ego and ambitions get the better of him and he fails to appreciate Charlie's efforts to protect him from himself.

At least in part, Eddie loses his first match with Fats because of his humanity. He displays human weakness and arrogance but also naivety, self-doubt, lack of tenacity and understanding, and pain. As a result of his defeat and his underlying humanity, he turns to a girl he encounters, Sarah Packard. Sarah is a damaged soul who has suffered physical and emotional hardship, and on some intuitive level Eddie may feel she can offer him some much-needed comfort, sympathy and understanding. She is vulnerable but possesses character, and these qualities seem to appeal to the tender side of Eddie's nature.

Sarah has been a victim and has been let down in life. She struggles to accept reality, or the potential ugliness and pain of reality, and tends to build a falsely positive view of the men in her life. Just as Eddie may have sensed an inherent capacity for sympathy in her, she may detect Eddie's deep-seated humanity and goodness and this gives her hope for their future together, though at one point she actually chides herself for refusing to recognise Eddie's failings.

Although it is not all plain sailing, Eddie and Sarah are good for one another and each grows in confidence and stability to the extent that Eddie once again tries some pool hall hustling without the overview of a Charlie or a Bert, and everything goes horribly wrong. Without experienced and astute oversight and guidance, Eddie defeats and humiliates his opponent who, outraged at Eddie's attempted scam, assaults Eddie with some friends, and they break Eddie's thumbs.

Sarah takes care of Eddie and is almost protective of him as she tries to foster the humanity she perceives in him and divert him from hustling in pool halls. They even discuss what it means to be a winner and a loser. A loser may be associated with compassion, a weakness according to Bert's interpretation, while a winner is rather simplistically summed up by Eddie as one who owns things. Interestingly, it is Bert who is held up as a winner in Eddie's eyes, and not Minnesota Fats. He recognises the power of money and organisation over success in terms of skill and talent, but he resists the notion of joining Bert as he holds on to care and consideration for others under Sarah's influence.

When Eddie recovers and has his casts removed, Sarah is visibly disappointed and concerned as she realises he will be able to and will wish to exercise his pool and hustling skills once more, drawing him away from her and, perhaps more importantly, away from compassion and understanding toward the hard and harsh world of winning, no matter the cost.

Eddie sees no future without pool and a mentor so he turns to Bert to guide and direct him, though he remains uncommitted to Bert's cold and ruthless outlook as he insists on bringing Sarah on a road trip to the Kentucky Derby organised by Bert.

Bert becomes increasingly frustrated by Sarah's influence which is hindering the development of a killer instinct in Eddie, so he manipulates the situation until Eddie is forced to choose between Sarah and taking a significant step toward fulfilling his ambitions by playing a socialite named Findley. Blindingly overwhelmed by his now reinvigorated taste for success, Eddie angrily rejects Sarah when she suggests they leave, and goes on to defeat Findley, winning $12,000 to be split rather unevenly with Bert.

Somewhat dispirited and despondent at losing Eddie and perhaps more generally her battle with nihilism and corruption, Sarah returns to her hotel room where Bert makes a pass at her. His advance is vigorously spurned but, on reflection and in a state of depression, Sarah abandons herself to the cold and harsh reality she has always resisted and accepts Bert's hospitality, perhaps because she feels she has lost not just Eddie but hope and self-belief as well.

However, she is unable to live with this choice and what she may have judged as her degradation and betrayal of herself, and she commits suicide.

Eddie turns on Bert and shortly afterward he challenges Minnesota Fats to a rematch, using his share of the money he won when he played Findley as his stake. Eddie ruthlessly defeats Fats, applying the cold and professional attitude Bert hoped to instil in him. However, it is a hollow victory as it has come at a great price.

Bert demands his share of Eddie's winnings and threatens him with violence if he doesn't pay up, thus revealing his true nature and philosophy in the process. Fats remains conspicuously silent during this face-off. He and Eddie compliment one another as players but he has long since accepted his place in the running of things and he will do nothing to defy or antagonise his cold-hearted financial backer and boss.

Eddie mentions Sarah and reminds Bert of the part each of them played in her fate. This appears to shame Bert, at least enough to allow Eddie to keep all his winnings on this occasion, but he warns Eddie he should not expect to be allowed to continue to play in any big-time pool halls.

Eddie is finished professionally, but perhaps he is willing to accept this punishment, and the emotional damage he has suffered, as a condition of retaining his humanity and his capacity to show compassion and understanding to others. Indeed, he even tells Bert that HE is a loser, suggesting something of a change in his priorities and his view of the world.

Although I found the script a little verbose and laboured in places, it deals well with conflict and the characters are all very well drawn. Atmosphere, tension, emotion and tragedy are all conveyed very clearly and I thought the performances were all admirable and pleasing, especially those of Paul Newman and George C Scott.

On a final note, I must say I was disappointed in the storyline of the sequel which failed to advance or even pursue the course suggested by the story development and the ending of "The Hustler". Indeed, in the sequel Eddie's character evolution seems to go in reverse as he is keen to take on an almost Bert-like role in the manipulation of a young and talented newcomer. Perhaps, with time, he succumbed to and adapted to the hard and harsh reality of life.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie ( stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk)

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