The Hustler

The Hustler (1961) is one of the best sports film ever made, though it doesn’t feel like a sports film. Gone is the pure exhilaration you feel when the hero succeeds, or the gritty resolve you experience when the hero faces a temporary setback. Director Robert Rossen’s earlier sports movie, Body and Soul (1947), hews closer to the conventions of the genre. Despite an overlay of self-doubt and personal angst, its story plays out as a competitive match where victory is still all important.

With The Hustler, character is the central focus. For pool hustler Fast Eddie (played by Paul Newman in a breakthrough role), winning isn’t just about succeeding in the game, it’s also about succeeding in life. He has the necessary skills to win, but is held back by a lack of character. When Eddie’s manager tells him he has talent, Eddie asks, “So what beat me?” Without hesitation, the manager answers, “Character.” We cheer for Eddie and want him to win, but we also see the tense relationship between an unclear head and a disciplined body, more so in this film than perhaps in any other.

Another strength of this remarkable movie is its ability to focus that same character-defining microscope onto the other strong personalities in the story. This is very much an ensemble piece, which draws equally electrifying performances from George C. Scott (Eddie’s slimy manager), Piper Laurie (Eddie’s troubled girlfriend), and Jackie Gleason (Eddie’s self-assured competitor — Minnesota Fats). The story improves with each viewing, as you pick up the subtle interactions among the characters.

All four actors were nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards (Scott declined his nomination). The Hustler earned nine nominations in all, including Best Picture, but won only for “Best Cinematography, Black-and-White” and “Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Black-and-White.” Newman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Fast Eddie 25 years later, in Martin Scorsese’s sequel The Color of Money (1986). Was it meant to be a reward for his earlier role? Probably, though we’ll never know for sure.

The Hustler
(1961; directed by Robert Rossen; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
20th Century Fox
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray), $14.98 (DVD)

Tuesday, February 9 at 1:00 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies