THE HUSTLER, directed by Robert Rossen, is superbly acted by Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason. All four received Oscar nominations for their performances. The film won two Oscars, one for Cinematography and one for Art Direction. It should have won for acting, directing and Best Picture, but the competition was steep. WEST SIDE STORY won most of the big Oscars that night.
The filmmakers appear to have been inspired to create a connection, if not an actual metaphor, for the cut-throat greed of their own industry, where men dispassionately take others’ last dollar because the rules say they can. It’s about power and what it does to your soul, and it’s also about the dilemma of the true artist (in this film, its Eddie, the pool shark, played by Newman) who loves to play – for him, it’s not about the money, but about proving that he’s the best who ever was – which makes him a romantic hero stuck in a world of men motivated by greed.
There are only a handful of movie characters so real that the audience refers to them as touchstones. Fast Eddie Felson is one of them. The pool shark played by Paul Newman in THE HUSTLER (1961) is indelible–given weight because the film is not about his victory in the final pool game, but about his defeat by pool, by life, and by his lack of character. This is one of the few American movies in which the hero wins by surrendering, by accepting reality instead of his dreams.
.… the characters one meets in the succession of sunless and smoky billiard halls … are the sort to make your flesh creep and whatever blood you may have run cold … the weird assembly of pool players, gamblers, hangers-on and hustlers … are … high-strung, voracious and evil. They talk dirty, smoke, guzzle booze and befoul the dignity of human beings … They have a consuming greed for money that cancels out charity and love. They’re full of energy and action … That’s the virtuous quality of this film … Under Robert Rossen’s strong direction, its ruthless and odorous account of one young hustler’s eventual emancipation is positive and alive. It crackles with credible passions. It comes briskly and brusquely to sharp points. It doesn’t dawdle with romantic nonsense, except in one brief unfortunate stretch.
There is no lonelier American movie than The Hustler, and no better a flawed hero than “Fast” Eddie Felson. Newman’s a force of energy on screen—a guy you should never love, but cannot help siding with. Adding George C. Scott’s marvelous turn as the professional gambler Bert Gordon, who hires Felson and slowly moves in between him and Sarah, the film’s story becomes part Cinderella and a whole lot more Faust. In short, this is the purest examination of an athlete’s internal struggle ever mounted for the screen.