A wise person once observed that we are our own worst enemy. Writer/Director/Producer Robert Rossen dissects the observation in his 1961 gritty, black and white film, "The Hustler."
Paul Newman is Fast Eddie Felson, an up-and-coming pool hustler. And what is tragedy absent a romance? Piper Laurie plays Sarah Packard, a sometime student slowed by a polio disability but anchored by her melancholy life. The two portray down-on-their-luck persons who encounter each other in a bus depot and delicately weave a relationship web.
Fast Eddie and his manager Charlie Burns, played by character actor Myron McCormick, travel across the country seeking hustling patsies in billiards rooms. Fast Eddie, an artist with his pool cue but more accomplished as a hustler, dupes unsuspecting players into pocket billiards games that they cannot possibly win. Then Burns and Fast Eddie are off to their next conquest.
Fast Eddie and Burns seek larger stakes in New York City. There they encounter the greatest, and in American entertainment circles, The Great One, Minnesota Fats, who is effortlessly and understatedly played by Jackie Gleason. Gleason plays an unbeaten, polished hustler who enters every poolroom with his cue and leaves each contest with his homburg full of money.
Minnesota Fats is managed by a quiet but caustic manager Bert Gordon, played by George C. Scott. It is Scott’s performance and character that elevate the film to status of a Greek tragedy.
Fast Eddie breaks up with manager Burns, challenges Minnesota Fats, falls into Gordon’s sphere of influence but, more importantly, struggles in his raw yet genuine romance with Sarah Packard. In the world of hustling, nothing is true, but it seems that two societal misfits, Fast Eddie and Sarah, might just be the real thing.
Can Fast Eddie focus on sincerity, let Sarah into his mind and heart and shun the glory of money? Is this an American success story of boy meets girl, who reject all that is evil and build something out of the tenement lifestyle in which they met? Or is Fast Eddie the proverbial moth that is consumed by the flame lit by the sinister Gordon?
George C. Scott was nominated for a best supporting actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Satan… err… Gordon but refused the nomination based on his belief that acting didn’t merit awards, it merited the audience’s appreciation. As many know, Scott was a man true to his beliefs as he later rejected his best actor Oscar for the title role in “Patton” for the same reasons.
Gleason, also nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar, plays it straight, cool and understated to the extent that if one did not know The Great One he wouldn’t believe Gleason had comedic talent. The film is full of excellent character actors like Michael Constantine, Murray Hamilton, Vincent Gardenia with cameo appearances by billiards great Willie Mosconi and the raging bull himself, Jake LaMotta.
Newman and Laurie lost Best Actor and Best Actress competitions as did Rossen for Best Director and the film for Best Picture. From nine nominations, the film won for best cinematography and best art direction. Newman’s performance was rewarded 30 years later in his only Oscar win -- for the reprise of Fast Eddie in the sequel, “The Color of Money.
As in church, the viewer’s time may be spent asking and answering (for yourself) whether you are your own worst enemy, but remember, this is the “Church of the Good Hustler.”