#18 — The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)
It’s helpful that Paul Newman eventually paired famously with Robert Redford onscreen, a teaming that was so renowned and beloved that it obscures the little detail that it only happened twice, in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and then four years later in The Sting. Both were ludicrously handsome and carried a star power charisma that singed the screen, but Redford had a carriage that suggested an ease with the world, undoubtedly developed through years of things coming too easily to him. His best performances are colored by a melancholy that emanates from disappointment still existing within that sort of blessed existence. Newman, on the other hand, carried the agitation of a man who was resentful of and even shattered by the shortcomings he found in his life. If Redford could be tinged with sadness, Newman excelled with anger, with rebellion, with ferocious passion, especially in the face of his own self-sabotage. Newman is great in far more roles than Redford, in large part because of the added complexity he found in his characters’ inner lives. And few roles allowed for that more than “Fast Eddie” Felson in Robert Rossen’s The Hustler.
Adapted by the director and Sidney Carroll from a Walter Tevis novel published two years earlier, The Hustler tells the story of a small-scale pool hall maestro and scam artist who has impatient plans for greater things. The film opens with Fast Eddie challenging a famed pool player named Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), a match in which he seems to have the upper hand for much of its timespan that covers more that twenty-five hours. Eddie’s compulsion to not only win but to deliver humiliating defeat–he won’t stop until his opponent withdraws in humiliation–leads to him to, borrowing from a different gambling pursuit, overplay his hand. Besides standing as a compelling scene in its own right–and somewhat inverting expectations, beginning with a major conflict instead of narratively staid set-up–it establishes everything the audience needs to know about Eddie, particularly the damaging way his talent and hubris collide to tag him as an easy target for those who’ve been around the particularly shady block a time or two. As much as anyone Newman ever played, Fast Eddie steps onto the screen as a doomed soul. More problematically, he stubborn assumes he’s in complete command.
Much as The Hustler is a showcase for Newman, the film belongs to Rossen, who directs it masterfully. Armed with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Eugene Shuftan, Rossen burrows into the soiled world of men who make their living with big bets on bank shots. He doesn’t level judgment against this subculture, but there is just enough journalistic remove to provide an honest assessment of the allure and peril of the life Eddie edges through. Rossen shoots it all beautifully, but also doesn’t pretty it up. There’s some of the blessed moodiness of film noir, but developed with a sharpness that refuses to let Eddie recede into the shadows. There’s nothing particularly romantic about Eddie’s brand of self-destruction. Newman is Rossen’s ideal partner in this. Compelling as the actor is, he doesn’t beg for sympathy through his performance, letting Eddie’s damage carry the drama in a way that reinforces Rossen’s thesis. Neither of them was afraid to explore the darkness at the core of Fast Eddie and The Hustler. In fact, they embraced it. There were miles to go in the evolution of American film from the safety of the fifties to the revolution of the sixties, but The Hustler can be seen as a key opening step.