The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)

The Hustler

Sometimes the expectations that you have color your reception of a movie. Up was a perfect example. Warned about the film’s dark content, I came to the conclusion that protagonist would die at the end. I also became convinced that the sequence at Paradise Falls was a dream, and that the movie would end with Carl waking up in a ruined house. That made watching the movie quite thrilling. But the non-realization of any of these notions was just a little disappointing.

So it was that when I watched The Hustler for the first time in a dog’s age, I was convinced that Fast Eddie Felson loses in the final contest with Minnesota Fats. The sense of impending defeat makes the movie an even rawer experience.

Felson turns up at Ames’s Pool Hall gunning for a showdown with Fats, the greatest pool player around. The Hustler ends up beginning witrh something akin to an explosion–a 40-hour game of pool that Felson insists should not end until the Fat Man calls it. In one corner, Fast Eddie as played by Paul Newman–young, beautiful, just a little crazy, talking way too much, and in doing so displaying his naivete. Which isn’t to say that brash youth doesn’t appreciate professional grace. Felson admires the way that Fats appears to dance around a table. In the other corner, Minnseota Fats, hands chalked up, a man who grooms himself for the game of pool, who works a pool hall like it’s his office, silent, implacable. Fat. A mixture of sagging dissolution and cherubic beauty as only Jackie Gleason can bring to the character. Watching is a group of bettors whose faces really look like they’ve watched many, many games of pool. One of them is Bert Gorden (George C. Scott), a professional gambler who wears sunglasses indoors. Sunglasses are always bad.

Felson is destroyed, so humbled that all he can do is haunt the bus station, where he meets a girl who is drinking her way way through college and has a variety of explanations for her lame leg. Soon Felson has moved in with her–gaving traded in his pool cue for a life of rehabiliation.

Pool halls, bus stations, all nights eateries in bus stations, women of an incertain reputation … while watching the film, I was struck that its world was a beat world, that its beautiful losers were in a sense beat characters, living lives of a certain compromised manner in the corners of an America that previously even been unexamined by cinema. The Hustler seems like the kind of movie that the couple in Revolutionary Road would have gone to see. Its characters would have reminded them uncomfortably of themselves.

Scott tells Felson that for all his skill, he is at heart a “loser” that with his finance and guidance could become a winner. He sets Felson up with a match against a dilettante player in Lexington, Kentucky. The girl comes along for the ride.

The Hustler‘s cynicism breaks down the world into winners and losers, and Felson’s tragic frlaw is that he doesn’t know when he’s finished. It’s a perversion of the American Dream. The path to success becomes a matter of knocking balls arpoound a table, although like Felson, one of the movie’s strengths is its admiration at how well some people can do that. Felson raises his a stake playing during the annual pageant of the Kentucky Derby, another sign that sport is shorthand for American success.

In Lexington, the double meaning of the title becomes apparent. Felson isn’t just trying to pot balls over at the table. His service to Gorden and his games with others are a form of prostititon. The girl becomes disraught at how Felson embraces this life. Just as Felson admired Fats’ performance at the beginning of the film, the young player loses his perspective in a game of billards against an effete gentleman during an orgy. Felson insists on staying in the game, even when he’s not sure he can play it (an analogy to gay sex?). He’s convinced he can somehow come out on top, even while Gorden is sure his boy will remain on the bottom.

With the scales lifted from her eyes, the girl submits to Gorden the pimp’s advances, then kills herself. Felson’s final match against Minnesota Fats becomes a kind of road to Golgotha in keeping with 1950s films in the Method Manner. I was ready for Felson to lose–completing his humiliation–but in fact Fats gives in early. The besmirched hustler is able to leave the scene with his head held high after verbally tearing Gorden apart.

The film has its Biblical moments–Fats remarks that Ames’ pool hall is a kind of “cathedral”–and it ends with the money-lender’s table kicked in, although Felson doesn’t have much left to live for. Robert Rossen is unstinting in his direction, refusing to hamper the resonance of his material. Working with cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, fresh of Les Yeux Sans Visage/Eyes Without a Face, he creates a world where light comes from unexpected directions. This nightscape of dead spaces, transient spaces, feels unreal.

It’s an all-male environ, but more attention should be paid to the complexity of Laurie–the only girl in the film. She is admittedly ready to play with the boys, being the drinking type. But her very aimlessness makes her somewhat unique in the films of the period. The movie suggests that the majority of lives are neither victoriousness or defeated. Instead, there are many who are simply unwilling to play the game.

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