Paul Newman is a pool player known as Fast Eddie Felson.
He’s a hustler with heart. He likes the game of pool more than the winning. Like many of the greats (in any sport), he relishes the moments that aren’t necessarily tallied up in the final score.
Newman lights up the screen in this black & white feature. You can almost see the glow in his blue eyes. And his cocky smile beams brighter than anyone else’s. His character is pure light matter in this otherwise dark, gritty world. He is special.
“You’re a winner, Eddie, and I love you.” are the words spoken by Piper Laurie’s character Sarah after hearing Eddie speak about why he loves pool, how it makes him feel Great.
This is after Eddie and Sarah meet in a bus terminal late one night. They are both wanderers: Sarah, a drunk, angst-ridden part-time college student and Eddie, a broke traveler, living out of his suitcase, looking for a place to crash. You get the feeling that this isn’t the first time Eddie has had to rely on his wits and charm for food and shelter. And Sarah may know it as well. But so it goes.
They sleep together, she buys him food, they drink. You quickly get the impression that the solitude they create is the easiest time either of them have had it in a while.
Of course such solitude doesn’t last. The game calls to Eddie in the form of a challenge from a pool shark named Bert, played by George C. Scott. ”You’re a loser, Eddie,” he says after having watched Eddie lose to Minnesota Fats earlier in the film. (Fats, played by Jackie Gleason, is a fat man who appears to play pool, look sharp, and not do much else.)
Bert provokes Felson with this remark. And where Sarah sees an exceptionally brilliant quality in Eddie, perhaps his soul, this manager-for-hire Bert sees a certain weakness to eviscerate and prey upon.* He tells Eddie that it takes more than talent to beat Minnesota fats; it takes character. Bert wants to manage him, but for a hefty commission that’s insulting to Eddie.
Enraged, and with something to prove, Eddie finds the nearest pool hall and runs his game against a couple of hoodlums. But after he’s caught hustling them, the group breaks Eddie’s thumbs to prove their own point. (Whether or not the hoodlums were Bert’s doing isn’t made quite clear.)
Now humiliated, and more eager than ever to get back into high stakes pool, Eddie accepts Bert’s offer to become his manager. So they hit the road. Sarah joins. Despite her distrust of Bert’s intentions, her love for Eddie compels her to stay by his side. Immediately, Bert see’s Sarah as a source of Eddie’s weakness and he tries to get rid of her.
Bert is the villain here, ruthless, almost demonic, and Sarah is a victim. ”Feeling sorry for yourself, one of the best indoor sports.” Bert casually says. In a way, he’s referring to Sarah. A tug of war ensues between the two of them over Eddie. And against the ruthless backdrop of seedy pool halls and abandoned bus terminals, there is not enough room for both of these personalities to exist in Fast Eddie’s conscience. Because he is young and temperamental and doesn’t know what he wants until it is too late, the tragic ending to The Hustler seems almost inevitable.
The Hustler is one of my favorite movies. I think it does something that most American films don’t really have the courage, or intelligence to do: it presents a very real, complex story of a character trying to be the best.
This is a speech Eddie makes to Sarah halfway into the film:
“Cause, ya see, twice, Sarah… once at Ames with Minnesota Fats and then again at Arthur’s, in that cheap, crummy pool room, now why’d I do it, Sarah? Why’d I do it? I coulda beat that guy, coulda beat ‘im cold, he never woulda known. But I just hadda show ‘im. Just hadda show those creeps and those punks what the game is like when it’s great, when it’s REALLY great. You know, like anything can be great, anything can be great. I don’t care, BRICKLAYING can be great, if a guy knows. If he knows what he’s doing and why and if he can make it come off. When I’m goin’, I mean, when I’m REALLY goin’ I feel like a… like a jockey must feel. He’s sittin’ on his horse, he’s got all that speed and that power underneath him… he’s comin’ into the stretch, the pressure’s on ‘im, and he KNOWS… just feels… when to let it go and how much. Cause he’s got everything workin’ for ‘im: timing, touch. It’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a real great feeling when you’re right and you KNOW you’re right. It’s like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. The pool cue’s part of me. You know, it’s uh – pool cue, it’s got nerves in it. It’s a piece of wood, it’s got nerves in it. Feel the roll of those balls, you don’t have to look, you just KNOW. You make shots that nobody’s ever made before. I can play that game the way… NOBODY’S ever played it before.”
He comes off a little arrogant and hotheaded, but he’s touching on some big ideas.
There are people, in countless professions, who find great meaning in what they do. It takes years, but if a pursuit is left to the devices of the person, whose instinct and determination shine through undeterred, the very practice of a craft (and it is a craft) becomes its own reward. Initially, that’s what shooting pool is to Eddie.
But there are a lot of things that get in the way. Obstacles arise, sacrifices are made. And you are evaluated and criticized and deemed flawed in some way, people poke holes. You need to rise to the occasion and the culture dictates that if you do not rise to the occasion, you are weak. At least that’s what a young, uninitiated talent like Fast Eddie would be led to believe.
Put another way, to be the best, you have to beat the best. Eddie has to beat Fats. Despite being the most talented hustler, he won’t be a “winner” until he beats Fats. Yet, we’ve already seen Fats. Fat’s is a ‘winner’ because he wins in the pool hall. But we know nothing else about him. Maybe because there is nothing else. He is a ghost. Is that what Eddie must become?
And also, to an audience, is Eddie weak? Is he weak for falling in love with Sarah, is he weak for turning his back on her, is he weak when he finally beats Fat’s? I don’t know.
All I know is that there is a preoccupation with being the best in this country. I think, of anywhere in the world, we have a bit of a complex, maybe an insecurity. In other parts of the world, cultures are mutually respected and admired and valued for reasons not oft reduced to labels of Best or Worst. Weak or Dominant. Yet we thrive on the ‘Best of’ and the ‘Top Ten.’
Maybe The Hustler is a lesson: that there is more to being the best than meets the eye. It’s more than the winning and the money. Being the best is a comfort in your own skin, and the prize is in the feeling, not the object itself.
Eddie learns that the hard way. And when he wins his prize at the end of the film by beating Minnesota Fats, it no longer means anything.
*At one point in the film Eddie refers to Bert as having ice in his veins. Although this is often a revered quality in contemporary sports. Here it’s not exactly admirable.