I was looking forward to watch ”The Hustler”. Probably because I was confusing it with something else, but even then, the first movie of the list with Paul Newman and a whole bunch of Oscar nominations. This cannot go wrong.
And it doesn’t. “The Hustler” is a great movie by any standard, but it is also a very different movie from what I thought it would be. This is not an easy action comedy about hustling (which was what I thought it would be), quite the contrary, actually. There is a lot of pool playing going on and according to the extra material a lot of fans of the game thinks that this is what the movie is about. I disagree. The pool playing is just the framework of the actual story. Shortly into the movie I was thinking this could be another Whiplash story about a coach and a talent working towards perfection at the exclusion of everything else. That is not entirely wrong, there are certainly similarities, but I do not believe this is the heart of the story either.
To me this is a story about egoism. It is a story about people who have nothing but themselves and their own gratification at interest. That is never a nice and comfy theme and in this installment it is chillingly cold and repelling. None of the characters are particularly likeable, not even the smooth Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), but that is not the same as uninteresting.
Fast Eddie Felson and his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) are travelling pool hustlers who hustle small time players of small money by pretending to be poor players and then thrashing them when money is on the table. Eddie has a talent for pool and he knows this so he seeks out the legendary pool master Fats Minnesota (Jackie Gleason) to best him. In an epic 25 hour battle Eddie is up 18.000$, but loses it all in the end. From now on Eddie can think of nothing else than beating Fats Minnesota. Eddie leave Charlie and strikes out on his own and soon after meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie). Sarah is a miserable, alcoholized girl with a lot of self-loathing. Somehow the monomanic Eddie and the dazed Sarah become an item.
Eddie also meets the professional gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) who proposes to be his manager with a 75-25 split in Bert’s favor. After an intermezzo involving broken thumbs Eddie accepts and together with Sarah they go to the Kentucky Derby where the story culminates with (SPOILER!) Sarah killing herself.
Eddie’s sole consideration is himself and measuring himself against the best. Sarah is more a convenience. She needs him to love her, but he cannot spell it out. She will always be second to him and in a crisis he will only go with himself. Charlie represents Eddie’s humanity, his surrogate father, if you will, and in a poignant scene Eddie is pushing him and a life that does not only involve himself, aside. Only when it is too late does Eddie realize what this ego trip has done to him and he is powerless to anything about it but being bitter.
Bert is another character with nothing but his own interest at heart. To him people are business to be exploited and he is the master with entitlement to do the exploitation. He may not be as much of a monster as Sarah makes him, Eddie is a willing target after all, but it is pretty clear that his interest in other people is not humanitarian.
Even Sarah is essentially on an ego trip. She is so lost in her own misery that all she sees are confirmations of her bleak world view and fuel on her self-loathing. She is in desperate need of other people, but she merely plays theater with them. When she finally lets down her guard Eddie is unable or unwilling to fill that hole in her. Admittedly this is a very deep and all-consuming hole and I am not sure any sane person would try to fill it. Her suicide in the end is the greatest ego trip of them all as any suicide is. To get to that points means that there is not a single thought for anybody else left.
With three characters who care for nobody but themselves thrown together it is clear that this is going to explode, one way or another. When it does it is strangely anticlimactic as if it is an implosion rather than an explosion and it is a chilling thing to watch.
This is an extremely well-made movie that manages to convey the story perfectly. Especially the cinematographic and the lighting in those pool halls is spectacular. Newman was perfectly cast for this, charming on the surface but hollow inside and I am not sure Sinatra, the original first choice, could have nailed this as well. George C. Scott is just awesome and I expect nothing less from him.
And the pool stuff? Well, they play a lot better than I do but that does not take a whole lot.