My three favourite things about The Hustler (by no means a comprehensive list):
1. The cast. Paul Newman shows his star power as protagonist Fast Eddie, sure, but it’s the three major supporting players who truly make the film. Jackie Gleason tells you everything you need to know about Minnesota Fats with only a little dialogue. A great dramatic turn from a comedian. Piper Laurie gives Sarah self-awareness and fierce intelligence that make her weaknesses, and Eddie’s manipulation and mishandling of them, all the more tragic. George C. Scott is cold and powerful as Bert. When he screams “You owe me MONEY!” at Eddie, it sounds like the shattering of something expensive. But Scott can be threatening without raising his voice (and without Eddie realising it, either).
2. The structure. We open with a five minute sequence that shows us how Eddie hustles. (The best part is that we don’t even need to see him make the winning shot.) It’s not necessary to the rest of the story but, if I recall correctly, Rossen hung onto it to keep this from seeming like a gangster movie. After the credits, we have a sequence of about twenty minutes in which Eddie takes on Fats for the first time. It’s an amazing bit of storytelling all on its own, showing how the game progresses over the course of more than a day, and how Eddie defeats himself.
Things get looser after that as Eddie latches onto Sarah and their romance develops. This section does feel too long, but what I like about it is that on first watching I didn’t know where it would go. The premise of the movie alone suggests that Eddie will take on Fats again, but it doesn’t happen. When the plot picks up again, it’s because Eddie is working for Bert now, and the next big game is against someone else entirely. Eddie doesn’t play Fats until the last part of the film, after he’s undergone character development that we know has decided the outcome of the game before it even starts.
3. The bleakness of the ending. I don’t just mean what happens to Sarah – I mean what’s revealed about Bert after the final pool game. We already know he’s a bad guy, yes (though surprisingly, he may not be not rotten through and through: look at his reaction to Sarah’s death, and the clear guilt in the way he says to Eddie, “We’re going to make a lot of money together,” knowing that won’t be enough and that, as recompense goes, it’s pathetic).
But Bert is also inescapable. He had Eddie’s thumbs broken, and he can make sure Eddie is kept out of the big time for good. If you want to be the best and use your talent, you need him to back you. You need to work for him. And Minnesota Fats’ silent expression through that final argument shows what it’s like to have made the compromise and to have Bert on your side.
Maybe Eddie now has enough character that he can lay down his talent and stay out of the game. Maybe that’s better than putting it to use in a world of twisted, perverted and crippled people like Bert, Fats and Findley. But with his skill, with how well he can use it, that’s a sad path to have to take.
I haven’t watched The Color of Money yet. I have an inkling that it won’t live up to the feeling I get from The Hustler’s ending.