The Hustler (1961)


God, guts, and green felt?

The Hustler brings American individualism to the pool hall. Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is a born loser, the sort of fellow who finds anyway to louse up a sure thing. He’s got talent for miles, but his cocky attitude gets in the way. Driven to beat Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) and prove that he is the best pool hustler in America, Fast Eddie has to hit rock bottom before he can pull himself together and beating Fats.

Like most American film heroes, Fast Eddie operates outside of the establishment and ultimately bests the establishment. He does it with swagger and attitude that he misinterprets as heart. Other than being charming and handsome, Eddie is a pig-headed, compulsive, gambler. His addictive personality stretches from the pool table to the bottle to his heart and back again.

Downbeat for its time, The Hustler depicts a dingy world of booze, desperation, and gutter dreams. A hint of the Beat lifestyle runs through the billiards room battles and the bus terminal romance that brings together Eddie and Sarah (Piper Laurie). What person can’t love her as she plainly states that she only goes to college because she’s got nothing else to do, other than drink?

Stylistically, the film is masterfully shot in black and white, and with a level of production design hard to trump, all adding an odd beauty to a darkened subculture. However, for all its aesthetic attempts to tell the story of a born loser, The Hustler ends up being just another tale about a winner; a true American. It’s sad that Fast Eddie has to win, even if he loses his girl, even if he may never play pool again. His win, cocky and brash, only further perpetuates a truly American notion that winning is all that counts.

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