The film The Hustler can easily mislead you into thinking that it is basically about Pool’s game – most of the action occurs in pool halls and billiard rooms. However, Pool is as central in this film as boxing is the key theme in the film Raging Bull by Scorsese. The main character in the film, Eddie Felson, played by Paul Newman, plays the role of a pool shark. The funny thing about this film is that he can play any character, and still the film would be great.
The film has as much to do with the character’s war with his peers as it does his war with his self and his quest to find the real definition of the term character. The film is powerful in a provocative manner and will attract serious admirers because director Robert Rossen’s work is satisfying. That said, the film is well outside of Hollywood’s usual story requiring 20th-century fox to put in some work to get it noticed.
With this film, director Rossen is back to his roots – his usual genre. He has a way of telling life’s story in black and white, including the seamier brutal bits. In the film, Newman plays the film’s title – a pool player who makes ends meet through hustling innocent locals. His life’s ambition is to win against the untitled yet overarching champion Jackie Gleason. He loses the first game because he is a neurotic loser in George Scott’s words. And with that, Scott makes Newman a dangerous winner. But when he wins against Gleason, he realizes that there’s more to life than running an unworthy race.
In short, this is the bare plot. Everything else that follows is just an incident. The director’s mission wasn’t to make Pool popular to appeal to a select few. The film’s theme is about success, the negative effects of the glitter of one goal that, once dazzled, forgets what life is really about.
Other than a few transitional scenes in the film, there are simply about two games, one long and the other short-lived. The plot is quite daring, but the director, who also scripted the contents of the film with the assistance of Sidney Carroll, made a good job of it.
I could not help but notice that Newman’s play was somewhat modulated, restraint if you like, something Rossen achieved with just gesture, voice, and intensity. We see Piper Laurie and the other loser also get destroyed even as Newman is toughened by life. Her role is achieved with a measure of vocal inflection and physical reactions, giving a great portrayal of a character whose life went down the drain.
Then, Gleason, whose roles are somewhat dapper and intense, makes him a character that we need to see more often on screens. Gene Shufton, in charge of the camera, did great work in excellent locations with art from masters craftsmen like Harry Horner, which give a glimpse into the director’s mood at the time. I loved the pool shots, which are arguable realistic, especially because Gleason and Newman showcase more than just a passing familiarity with the game.