The Hustler was nothing like what I expected. I had assumed it would be something similar to George Roy Hill's The Sting: pool hustling with lots of twists and turns, people who don't turn out how you expected, perhaps some jaunty background music. It was nothing like that.
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Instead of a merry caper film, The Hustler turned out to be a much darker affair that defied dramatic expectations. For example, Fast Eddie's (Paul Newman) final victorious matches are barely shown, either against the high society punter who likes a bit of rough, or against Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) – and this latter rematch had been cued (so to speak) from the very beginning. The matches and even their outcomes seem hardly relevant by the end of the film as they have been overtaken by events in Eddie's life.
As though to emphasize the gap between the macho image of Eddie the unbeatable hustler and the reality of a man on the edge, he hooks up with a woman with just as many problems of her own, Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie). It takes some doing to create a female character as fucked up as Eddie is, but as an alcoholic part-time college student, giving on guilty handouts from her father after childhood polio left her partially crippled, doomed to a series of empty hook-ups with men, the writers did their job and created one.
Review continues below...
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But again, having such a damaged female lead defies expectations. When was the last time you saw a character like Sarah in a film? Her cool, disdainful refusal to be drawn into the shabby glamour of moneyman manager Bert Gordon (George C. Scott – here unrecognizable from his role in Dr Strangelove by virtue of sheer acting firepower), her dead-eyed acceptance of his power, and her lipstick-on-the-mirror summary of "Perverted, Twisted, Crippled" before her suicide are not exactly standard Hollywood tropes.
When Eddie loses his self-control and beats an arrogant poolroom chancer with the full force of his talent (rather than obscuring his pool shark intentions with a game just good enough to win) he is showing both a weakness in his character and the frustration of having to cover up the beauty of his talent – of hiding the cue that becomes an extension of his body, carrying his nerves, as he says. As a result he is punished and has his thumbs broken by thugs.
The near incompatibility between the desire to do something well, to do something beautiful, and the cruel reality of money-driven city life seems to be the message that we're left with at the end of the film. Eddie does stand up to the moneyman but must pay the price of being frozen out of the game he loves. He does find the character to beat Fats but only through experiencing personal tragedy (caused by his own betrayal and determination to win) that he'll never be able to shake off.
Personal Score: 8/10
This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.
For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.