The Difference Between Remembering and Watching an American Classic: ‘The Hustler’

For many Americans of my generation who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, the cultural significance of The Hustler (1961) is likely out of proportion to the number of viewings. More than anything, the film is responsible for giving the game of pool a certain glamour and for making kids aware of Minnesota Fats, who is still the only pool player I can identify by name.

I don’t remember when I first saw the movie, or, honestly, if I ever did, but watching it now, with memories of thinking pool was kind of cool and Minnesota Fats a kind of a legend, I was struck by how un-glamourous the game is in the film and how small the part of Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) is, at least in terms of on-screen time.

As filtered through multiple viewings, many times removed, the film is often remembered as a battle between Fats and “Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), but while Felson is fixated on defeating the other man, and their first encounter is shown to be an epic 25 hour contest of wills, Gleason’s Fats is, ultimately, a minor character in the drama. Indeed, when he does return in the final scene, he is summarily dismissed by a sober and focused Eddie, and made to seem small by George C. Scott’s Bert Gordon, a gambler who makes his fortune, in part, by staking pool players and taking a share of their winnings in return.

The film’s, and in some sense Minnesota Fats’ reputation, rests on the grandness of that first tangle, which editor Dede Allen compresses into about 40 minutes of screen time. Allen uses a dizzying series of dissolves between table and clock, between the two players, and between the players at the table and faces in the crowd to establish a particular economy of space and time that makes you feel as if you are in that pool hall for the duration. The impression given is of two equally matched, equally competitive players, with little margin between them, making for an electric, but potentially endless, game.

The match only ends after Eddie is incapacitated by alcohol and hamstrung by his own refusal to quit, even when ahead. It’s Fats’ grace and professionalism, impeccably embodied by Gleason, that does in Eddie, not any lack of skill, which maybe why the younger man seems to want to lay the older player low in addition to winning at the game. Instead, he is the one who ends up adrift and dealing with the personal and financial consequences of losing.

This match, and a heartfelt discourse by Eddie to Sarah (Piper Laurie) on what it feels like when you can do no wrong at the table, are the only moments where the film conveys the sense of glamour I remember associating with pool as a kid. For the remainder of the film, the game is made to seem seedy and disempowering, the Eddies and Fats of the world, the real players, subject to parasites and predators like Bert, or even the relatively mild-mannered Charlie (Myron McCormick), Eddie’s first “stakehorse”and partner in running pool hall cons. The constant suspicion, or fear, of being hustled also contributes to a sense of pool as a less than honorable field of play, as well as one that exists in culturally marginal places where men go to drink and to wrestle over money and power.

When Eddie returns to face Fats again, the “cost” of his victory, and his unwillingness to submit his winnings to Bert, is effective expulsion from the game. The movie’s final scene, which shows Minnesota Fats doubly defeated, once by Eddie and then again by the money men, and ends with a long shot of Bert, alone in the pool hall, implies that Eddie is better off for getting, or being cast, out by the powers that be.

As much as The Hustler is a “man’s film”, the audience has Piper Laurie’s Sarah Packard from which to see the dark underside of the gaming and gambling subculture inhabited by the male characters. Introduced to viewers and to Eddie as a loner and a drinker, Sarah desperately wants to be loved, telling Eddie at one point that she needs those words from him, “… and if you ever say them, I’ll never let you take them back”. By implication, Eddie does not utter, “I love you”, to Sarah until after she kills herself in Bert’s hotel bathroom, an act she takes after scrawling, “Perverted”, “Twisted”, and “Crippled” on the mirror in lipstick.

Those three words reflect her self-image as much as how she sees Bert and Eddie in that moment. Walking with a pronounced limp, Sarah lives with the idea of “crippled” and “twisted” everyday, but she also sees herself as a drunk and as, essentially, a prostitute, telling Eddie at one point that she owes her livelihood to the last “rich man” she dated. She also sees herself as a fabulist who tells herself stories to feel better about feeling, and drinking, alone.

Sarah represents an inventive twist on the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope, not only in the sense that only she would to think to call herself a “hooker”, but also in the sense that instead of her love bringing redemption to Eddie, it’s his steady companionship that redeems her, at least for a moment. She stops drinking, and starts writing (on what, exactly, isn’t clear, but short fiction is implied). Eddie also elicits what appears to be a true story from Sarah about having polio as a kid and a cold, but wealthy father who buys off her affections with money, funds that allow her to live a low-intensity and detached life, but also one where we she feels like a “kept woman”.

Unsurprisingly, once he senses that he owns Eddie, Bert also seeks to lay claim to Sarah, whispering a proposition in her ear at a party. Sarah, at this point, seeing Eddie back in his element, and not just in their personal bubble, has been drinking steadily. After sleeping off the champagne, and feeling abandoned by Eddie, she accepts Bert’s proposition, and then commits suicide.

Her death causes Eddie to notice her in the way she needed, but too late for her to feel his love in the way she desired. He sobers up and goes to Minnesota Fats for a rematch, but his primary target now is Bert, who he sees as his unconfessed co-conspirator in Sarah’s demise. In defeating Fats he takes away Bert’s power over him, which stems from Bert’s conviction that Eddie is a natural “loser”. Being forced out of competitive pool playing is the penance that Eddie will do for not responding to Sarah’s entreaties to leave that world together while they still could.

The Blu Ray of The Hustler comes with a range of extras, including:

  • A commentary track pieced together from interviews and direct comments on the film from a variety of subjects, including Paul Newman and Dede Allen, and ‘hosted’ by film historian Jeff Young;
  • two features on Paul Newman;
  • a feature on Jackie Gleason;
  • A feature on Walter Tevis, author of the book on which the film is based;
  • A series of shorts on the film and on pool hall culture, including expert shot analysis;
  • Original English and Spanish language trailers.

For those who own the “Two Disc Collector’s Edition DVD”, the features on Gleason and Tevis, and one of the profiles on Paul Newman, “Paul Newman at Fox”, are the only new pieces related to the movie.

In addition to the digital features, the new disc also comes with a booklet that profiles the film and its primary characters and actors. Collectively, the extras with the Blu Ray provide a critical, but largely celebratory, reflection on the film.

The Blu Ray transfer looks and sounds pristine, offering a bright, clear picture and sound that does well by Eugen Schüfftan’s Oscar-winning cinematography. The only digital artifact of note is an occasional electronic coldness to the image, particularly in wide angle and well-lit shots. These are brief and transient.

The nuances to The Hustler maybe lost in the way it i’s often remembered and retold, but the fact that the film still resonates in the imagination after fifty years is a sign of its endurance as a classic of American cinema.

RATING 8 / 10