The Tragic Hustle

by: Steve Tignor | October 02, 2008

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165952paulnewmanposters“Nobody should be asked not to like Paul Newman.” This is how New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael summed up her review of the late star’s performance in the 1977 hockey-comedy classic Slap Shot. Kael was hardly a Newman devotee, though she always appreciated his star power, if not his acting technique. It’s hard to argue with her assessment above. A famously handsome, charitable, politically active, Oscar-winning movie star and family man who was a race-car driver on the side—if you made Paul Newman up as the hero of a novel, nobody would have found him even remotely believable.

I’ve only known one person who didn’t like Newman’s onscreen persona. This was an ornery James Dean fanatic who could never bring himself to appreciate the man who essentially replaced his idol as the skinny, existential anti-hero of the day. And I suppose he had a point—Dean was the more intense onscreen presence. Newman himself, ever self-deprecating, criticized a lot of his own early performances as over the top.

That’s kind of how I remembered him in The Hustler, the 1961 movie which introduced one of his most famous characters, Fast Eddie Felson, a pool shark and consensus loser. (Newman would win an Oscar playing Felson again 25 years later in The Color of Money). I’d seen The Hustler as a kid and been disappointed. I’d wanted a pool movie, but instead I got a depressing and molasses-slow love story. So when I went to the video store this weekend looking for a Newman film, I searched first for Torn Curtain, a mid-60s Hitchcock that I’ve never seen. But the only Newman movie available at the local Blockbuster—shouldn’t they’ve had a special section carved out in honor of the great man?—was The Hustler. I wasn’t sure about the 135-minute running time, but my dad and I wanted some Newman, so we took it home.

Turns out The Hustler could have lasted 235 minutes and I wouldn’t have minded. It does move slowly—leisurely is the nice way to spin it—but in the best literary way. The director is Robert Rossen, who also did Lilith, an equally slow, somber, but moving 60s film starring Warren Beatty. Most of the scenes in The Hustler are long and static and full of talk, but the talk is of the highest order. An example: When Eddie aggressively kisses a woman he has just met (Piper Laurie) at the door to her apartment, she stops him and says, “You’re too hungry.” I knew right there that I had misjudged this movie as a kid. It had gone way over my head.

Fast Eddie is a pool hustler tired of traveling through small towns and taking suckers for small money. He wants to prove himself against the best, Minnesota Fats (the real Minnesota Fats apparently took his name from this movie), played by Jackie Gleason. The actor's control and understatement here—you’d never know he’d made his living as a Honeymooner—reminded me of Jerry Lewis’ non-comic turn 20 years later in The King of Comedy. It’s worth renting this movie just to hear Gleason put a New York accent on the word “corner”—as in “four ball in the cour-na.”

Gleason is a quiet scene-stealer, but Newman is up against more than just him in The Hustler. Laurie is superb and scary as Eddie’s troubled girlfriend. Even better is George C. Scott as the manipulative money-man who eventually stakes Eddie and takes him back on the road, in part just to enjoy watching him fail.

Scott’s character, Bert Gordon, articulates the theme of the movie (and, most likely, the Walter Tevis novel on which it’s based; I’ve never read it) when he sums up Eddie this way: “He’s a loser.” Gordon goes on to tell Eddie that while he has talent, he’ll never amount to anything because he has no “character.” Deep down Eddie wants to lose because it’s the easy way out. He’s too weak, too much of a coward to do anything else, whether it’s on the pool table or off it.

In Newman’s best scene, he tells his girlfriend about Gordon’s assessment of him. He admits that he’s bothered because he knows that there’s a lot of truth to it. Eddie has recently had his thumb broken in a pool hall because he embarrassed his opponent by bringing out his best game. Gathering steam and sounding more alive than he does at any other point in the movie, Eddie explains why he did it. He says he wanted to show the guys there what pool is like when it’s really good, when it’s played the way it should be played, when it feels like he’s got oil in his shoulder and everything’s flowing and he’s making shots no one can make, that no one has ever made before. By the time Eddie's done, Laurie can only say, “I love you. You’re not a loser.” She’s seen the man at his purest, when he’s playing for the joy of it, when he’s not hustling.

These two elements of the movie—that character counts for more than talent, and the great athlete talking about what’s it like to be in the zone and show everyone what he can do—struck me as coming straight from a tennis court. How may matches have you seen decided because one player, deep down, doesn’t have the courage, no matter how good he is or how well he’s playing, to win it? Rather than strokes or speed, that simple, but exceedingly difficult to find, courage to win is the difference between champions and everyone else.

The final scene is basically a battle between three actors at their very best. Scott personifies the evil of the almighty dollar when he screams, unhinged, “You owe me money!” Gleason’s Fats is revealed to be no grander or freer than Fast Eddie. And Newman does some of the best contained seething you’ll see anywhere. My favorite line comes when Eddie and Fats, great talents and great men brought down by the hustler’s life, salute each other.

“Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool,” Eddie says with a touchingly innocent sincerity. A tired Gleason looks up and answers with the only words necessary: “So do you, Fast Eddie.” In a perfect world, it would be all that mattered. It’s tragic that there's so much more to life.

Below is the movie's final scene. (Don't click if you want to watch the whole thing eventually.)

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