The Hustler: The Genre’s Masterpiece

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The irony of writing about The Hustler, the most critically acclaimed and well-known billiards movie, is that for many, it was not really a movie about pool.  As film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “Billiards is the arena for the movie’s contests, but…the film could be about any seedy game depending on bluff, self-confidence, money management and psychology.” And critic James Bernardinelli, who, like Ebert, also gave the movie his highest rating, said, “this movie is no more about pool than Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is about boxing…the film is far less about Fast Eddie’s confrontations with other players than it is about his war with his own demons and his struggle to define the intangible meaning of ‘character.’”

The Hustler - Billiards MoviesOne thing is certain: Robert Rossen’s 1961 B&W film, based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, is a masterpiece.  The movie received 3 Golden Globe nominations, 2 Oscars (for Art Direction and Cinematography), and 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.  All four stars got Oscar nods, as did the director and screenwriter. The movie is on multiple American Film Institute lists. And among most pool movie fans (who really don’t understand what these critics are yammering about), The Hustler is far and away the best of the genre.

In brief, the movie is about small-time pool hustler “Fast Eddie” Felson (played by Paul Newman) whose amount of cockiness and bravado is only matched by his skill with a cue stick.  His desire to prove himself the best leads to a 40-hour straight pool match and loss against legend Minnesota Fats (played by Jackie Gleason).  Humiliated, Felson bottoms out and gets involved first with a hopeless alcoholic (played by Piper Laurie) and then with a vicious manager (played by George C. Scott). Felson ultimately has his rematch against Fats, but not before paying a terrible price and learning much about his own character.

Aside from the incredible acting, direction, screenplay (jointly written by Sidney Caroll and Robert Rossen) and jazz score, the film succeeds because of the unbelievable pool.

For starters, The Hustler was the first full-length movie to prominently feature pool (excluding the 1935 romantic comedy Bad Boy, which I’ll discuss in subsequent post).  Though filmed in 1961, the movie heralded an earlier era, when pool halls were far more common and the place where regional, if not national reputations, could be cemented.

The Hustler also brought gritty realism and respect to the filming of pool through the many choices the director and producer made. They set much of the movie in two now-defunct New York City pool halls, McGirr’s and Ames Billiard Academy, that were great establishments of the time.  They hired pool legend Willie Mosconi to personally coach Paul Newman and to serve as the movie’s technical advisor. (For a great breakdown of some of the key shots in the movie, including the opening frozen 8-ball on the rail shot, check out Dr. Dave’s write-up in the August 2004 Billiards Digest.) They also gave Mosconi a cameo as the man who holds the initial stakes.  Gleason, of course, needed no such coaching, as he was already an incredible billiards player, which only added to the movie’s realism.  And finally, they devoted 20 uninterrupted minutes — an inconceivable amount of time back then — to filming the initial pool match.

But, perhaps the greatest aspect of The Hustler is what it did for the game of pool itself.  According to the article “Reel Life: The Hustler“:

Pool was very popular from the turn of the century until World War II. According to one estimate, in the late 1920s there were about 40,000 pool halls in the U.S. But after the war, the game went into a steep, rapid decline, with many poolrooms closing. “By the end of the 1950s, it looked as though the game might pass into oblivion,” writes pool historian Mike Shamos. The Hustler created a resurgence in the game in the 1960s, and its sequel – The Color of Money — which came out in 1986, spiked another pool revival.

So, whatever foibles the movie may have, The Hustler deserves great respect from the pool-playing community for its representation and respect of the sport and for the future impact it had both on pool-playing and on the genre of pool movies.  As it is said in the film’s final lines:

Fast Eddie:  Fat Man, you shoot a great game of pool.

Minnesota Fats:  So do you, Fast Eddie.

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