What’s surprising to modern audiences is how adult “The Hustler” feels more than a half-century after it first hit theaters.
I’m not talking in terms of violence, sex or language. Released in 1961, “The Hustler” was released under the watchful eye of the Motion Picture Production Code, so any mature material had to be careful hidden. But the movie feels adult in a way that few movies from that era can match. The characters seem like grown-ups, their lives seem lived-in and their problems aren’t something that will be solved when the end credits roll.
In an instantly iconic performance, Paul Newman stars as “Fast” Eddie Felson, a cocky young pool shark eager to play — and beat — the best in the game. When he meets the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason in a masterfully subtle dramatic performance), he figures this is his big chance at glory. But Eddie, while loaded with talent, lacks character, and soon he’s broke and alone, forced to live out of a bus locker and scrounge pool games for pocket change.
All that changes when he meets Sarah (Piper Laurie), a fellow broken soul who takes him in. They fall in love and carve out a semi-happy (and mostly intoxicated) life together. But Eddie can’t resist the lure of the pool room, and when he pushes a group of toughs too far, they break the only things that he really values — his thumbs.
During his recovery, Eddie learns both humility and sobriety, but when amoral stakehorse Bert Gordon (George C. Scott, mesmerizing in an early role) offers to finance his return to pool sharking, he can’t resist the lure of easy money and actual competition. So he returns to the road — with an unsure Sarah coming along for the ride.
It’s not exactly a tight plot, but “The Hustler” isn’t about the story. It’s about the people themselves, all broken in a sense and desperate for something — anything — better than what they’ve got. And it’s about the places they haunt, dingy poolrooms with “No Gambling” signs mocked by the constant wagering and lonely bus stations that feel like the least romantic places on Earth. Director Robert Rossen makes them feel both lived-in and vaguely threatening, like the sort of places you frequent if you’ve run out of options.
It’s hard to put your finger on just why “The Hustler” works so well. Obviously the performances are top-notch, and the look of the film is breaktaking, with those evocative sets and gorgeous cinematography creating a completely believable world. But it’s more than that. The film never makes a wrong step, never takes the obvious or easy way out. It feels like a film that could have been made this year — except modern movies are never quite this good. It certainly doesn’t feel like a movie made 55 years ago.
“The Hustler,” incidentally, was recognized as a classic right out of the gate. The film was nominated for nine Oscars, including nods for Newman, Gleason, Laurie and Scott, with additional nods for Rossen’s directing and screenplay, and the film itself was nominated for Best Picture. Though “West Side Story” took home most of the top prizes, “The Hustler” did win Oscars for Art Direction and Cinematography, both in the black-and-white division, back when the Oscars divided certain categories into color and black-and-white.
And there was a sequel made 25 years later. “The Color of Money,” released in 1986, caught us up with “Fast” Eddie Felson, now running a liquor distributorship but still yearning to get back in the pool room. It’s not a bad movie — how could it be, with Paul Newman returning to his iconic role and Martin Scorsese behind the camera? — but it’s no match for the original.
Few movies are. “The Hustler,” like Fast Eddie himself, shoots a great game of pool.