The Hustler

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of drinking, much of it to excess; smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Eddie beat up (in shadows); Sarah commits suicide (off-screen)
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 1962

Plot: “Fast” Eddie Felsen (Paul Newman) is a pool hustler. He and his partner, Charlie, go into pool halls and set the local players up. Eddie pretends to be a pool player who likes to make big bets. When he beats them and takes their money, he makes it look like luck, so they can’t tell they have been hustled. Eddie’s dream is to beat the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), the champion. He challenges him to a contest. At first, Eddie is ahead. But he gets cocky, drinks too much, and is finally worn down by Fats. After more than 24 hours, Eddie realizes he can’t win. He leaves Charlie the money and the car, and goes off on his own. Eddie meets Sarah (Piper Laurie), an alcoholic, and moves in with her. When Charlie finds them, Eddie tells him to go. Charlie wants to make enough money to set up his own pool hall. Eddie wants more; he wants to win, and to be a winner. Angry at himself and the world, Eddie hustles some young punks, and shows off, humiliating them. They beat him up and break his thumbs. He has time to reflect, and to grow closer to Sarah. He agrees to go into partnership with Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), a silky gambler who sees everything in terms of dollars. Bert sets up a game with a decadent rich man. In a mirror image of the game with Fats, Eddie loses at first, and then, defying Sarah’s appeal to quit, persists, and wins $12,000. At the hotel, Bert and Sarah acknowledge that in the tug-of-war for Eddie, Bert has won. Sarah commits suicide. Bert once told Eddie that he needed more than talent to beat Fats — he needed character. He shows that he has developed character when he goes back and takes Fats on again. Fats concedes, “I can’t beat you.” Bert says that Eddie owes him his piece of the proceeds, but Eddie refuses. Bert allows him to go, but says he will never be able to play in a big-time poolhall again. That doesn’t matter. Eddie has what he wanted. Discussion: Despite the seedy settings (so evocative that they are almost a character in the story), this is almost a traditional morality play about humility and redemption. In the beginning Eddie is, as Fats notes, as fast as his nickname, slick, cocky, superficial. He wants to win for the kick of it. But inside him, there is someone who wants to win for the beauty of the game, and the honor of doing something surpassingly well. He is really not so far removed from Eric Liddell (“Chariot’s of Fire”), who feels God’s pleasure when he runs. But before he can be a real winner, he must get rid of the part of himself that wants to lose, that is afraid to take a real risk. For that, he has to experience real loss, the beating, the damage to his thumbs that could have ended his ability to play pool, the loss of Sarah. As Nietzsche said, “That which does not defeat me makes me stronger.” Eddie is strengthened so by these experiences and by what he has learned, that he can no longer be contained by what had once been his entire world. Bert’s threat that he will no longer be able to play big- time pool is meaningless to him. Even if Bert had offered him a 50-50 deal, he would not have taken it. That world is too small and self- contained for him now. Most of the movie takes place in smoky, dingy bars and pool- halls. The scenes at the rich man’s home in Louisville are just as squalid in their own way. There is only one scene in which Eddie and Sarah are outside together. They are having a picnic. It is in that scene that they first reveal the truth about themselves to each other. Sarah confesses the real source of her money (her father) and her limp (polio), contrary to what she has told him before. And she tells him that she loves him. Eddie tells her what he barely admitted to himself, the way he loves the game of pool, the way it makes him feel to play it well. Understanding what it means to him is what enables him to begin to go back to it. The relationship between Eddie and Sarah is a weak part of the movie, mostly because her character is the least well-crafted in the otherwise all-male movie. It is hard to feel sympathetic towards her because she thinks so badly of herself. Yet her willingness to love Eddie is what causes him to recognize what is best in himself. It is also interesting to look at this movie from Fats’ perspective. He represents one direction Eddie could take. He could become the new champion and take on every tough kid who wanted to topple him, until one finally would, just as he toppled his predecessor. This is the theme of “The Gunfighter,” in a life-and-death context. Questions for Kids: · People in the movie have different ideas about what makes someone a winner or a loser. What are those ideas? How do they fit with others you have heard about, or with your own? · What made Eddie different between his two games with Fats? · Why didn’t Sarah want Eddie to keep playing Findlay? · How do Sarah and Bert represent two different parts of Eddie that fight with each other? Connections: “The Color of Money,” also starring Newman as Eddie Felsen, is a sequel made twenty-six years later by Martin Scorsese (rated R). Felsen becomes a mentor for a young hustler played by Tom Cruise. Both performances are outstanding (Newman won a long-overdue Oscar), but the script is weak, especially in the second half.

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