The Hustler (1961)

“You know, I got a hunch, fat man. I got a hunch it’s me from here on in. One ball, corner pocket. I mean, that ever happen to you? You know, all of a sudden you feel like you can’t miss? ‘Cause I dreamed about this game, fat man. I dreamed about this game every night on the road. Five ball. You know, this is my table, man. I own it.”

‘The Hustler’, directed by Robert Rossen in 1961, is an American drama following the rise of a fall of a pool-playing conman called ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson, played by Paul Newman. Felson travels the country earning money from small time games, but then challenges a legendary player called ‘Minnesota Fats’. When he loses $18,000 he goes into a depression and starts a romance with an alcoholic woman called Sarah Packard, played by Piper Laurie. This, combined with his hooking up with Minnesota Fats’ manager Bert Gordon, played by George C. Scott, leads to a downward spiral of depression, injury, alcohol, suicide and a final confrontation between the two pool players. It’s a raw, edgy film, the black and white cinematography and the realistic performances contributing to the overall feeling of a country in a state of decay. Newman in particular is magnificent, conveying bravado, vanity and supressed insecurity throughout the film that makes his final collapse feel like a dramatic release of energy. The film also, despite the obsessional feeling of the 1960s, feels modern and this is cemented by the sequel, ‘The Color of Money’ in 1986. Watching these two film makes it clear not only how Newman’s acting power has endured, but also how Tom Cruise has adopted his performance style. The scenes of pool playing are sparing but inspiring, much as sport tends to be presented on screen, but the real quality of the film comes from the trappings around the pool: the sleazy, smoking rooms where the game is played and the run-down hotels that Felson is forced to inhabit.

Would I recommend it? Yes. It’s a good movie to watch to get a sense of that moment the 1950s turned into the 1960s, and is an alternative to the counter-cultural films of the time such as ‘Blow-Up’. I’d watch that as an unusual double bill, or perhaps ‘The Sting‘, to see the same actor in a different type of con movie.

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