Robert Rossen’s The Hustler
In Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961), we get to know an amazingly good pool player named “Fast Eddie” Felsen (Paul Newman). The film follows Eddie’s adventures in the world of being a pool shark and living on the road along with his manager-best friend Charlie (Myron McCormick). While Eddie is extremely talented in his profession, he also doesn’t have the sense god gave a mule. A lot of times, those with unique gifts have equally large flaws and Eddie definitely has his.
Fast Eddie is thrilled when he gets a chance to compete in a pool game with the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) and he’s set on beating him. Charlie tries to keep him on the right track but the wreckless Eddie just tells him to give up the stake money they’ve saved. Eddie is ahead in the game which last many hours but winds up getting too drunk and loses it all to Fats. Later that night, feeling upset, he decides to leave Charlie flat and go out on his own.
One day while in a city bus station just thinking about what he’s going to do next, Eddie sees a pretty young woman named Sarah (Piper Laurie). They talk a bit and later Eddie runs into her again at a bar nearby. She openly admits to him that getting drunk is her favorite pasttime. Eddie tells her he’ll buy a bottle and they can go back to her place. She agrees and when they get there, Eddie begins kissing her roughly but Sarah isn’t ready for this fast loving. The next day, Eddie sits in the bus station cafe again and Sarah appears. They exchange looks and leave together, the two lonely hearts have found each other.
Charlie shows up at Sarah’s apartment and tells Eddie that he wants to go back on the road again. He offers Eddie some money to take a vacation with him and Sarah to relax, then they can get back to work. Eddie asks Charlie where the money is going to come from and Charlie explains he’ll raise some money, no problem. Eddie asks Charlie if he held out on him when he was playing Fats and Charlie admits he kept some of the stake money so they wouldn’t be completely broke. When Eddie hears this he blows up and tells Charlie he could’ve won, then tells him to get out and never come back. Sarah is startled by this side of Eddie and sees that he can be very cruel and that she just may be the next person he kicks out of his life.
At a local bar Eddie runs into a professional gambler named Bert Gordon (George C. Scott). Bert is a shady character and claims he knows what Eddie is all about and calls him a “born loser”. Eddie feels insulted of course but Bert makes him an offer: he’ll stakehorse him and help make him some big money for a change. Eddie thinks about it, then agrees. Bert tells Eddie about a guy down South named Findlay (Murray Hamilton) that will play him in a game where he can score some real cash. Soon after Bert, Eddie and Sarah all travel to Louisville where Findlay is having a large party at his home during the annual Kentucky Derby.
Eddie plays Findlay who isn’t into regular pool but the more “gentlemanly” game of pocket billiards. When Sarah shows up drunk after Bert hits on her during the party, Eddie, not knowing what’s happened, is frustrated by Sarah’s needling about how Bert is just a user and angrily tells her to get off his back. Eddie wins the game easy and Findlay pays him after which Bert offers to give him a ride back to the hotel but Eddie refuses, he wants to walk back and cool off. This choice, while seemingly small and unimportant will actually change the course of his life forever and cause him to finally see the errors of his ways as a human being.
The Hustler was one of Paul Newman’s early hit films and he plays the hotheaded young rebel superbly. After the death of James Dean, actors such as Newman and Steve McQueen took up where Dean left off and really brought that unhinged spirit of living fast to the the roles they played. Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie Felsen was a perfect post-Dean role for him and an iconic film character that will forever be part of the golden age of cinema.
Newman would reprise his part as Fast Eddie again 25 years later in a film we will be covering in The Color of Money
Trivia: Look for a cameo by real life pool champ Willie Mosconi as Willie and the Raging Bull himself, Boxer Jake LaMotta as a bartender named “Mac”.