I was feeling sorry for myself over the past few days, go easy on me will you, it happens to the best of us. And what better film to accompany a long, dark weekend of the soul than the sublime The Hustler (1961), by Robert Rossen? Regular readers of Picturenose will likely know by now that, when I *really* like a film, I tend to intersperse my thoughts with quotable quotes. Well, guess what?
“I’m the best you’ve ever seen Fats, I’m the best there is. Even if you beat me, I’m still the best.”
That would be young ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) from Oaklands, California, who’s speaking – after spending a few months working local towns on the road with his older partner Charlie Burns (Myron McCormick), he’s arrived in New York at Ame’s Billiard Hall, there to challenge Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), who’s widely acknowledged as the country’s finest pool player, to a high-stakes game that will end only when Fats says so. After a marathon session that sees Eddie take Fats for $18,000 before losing it all after drink and fatigue gets the better of him, our anti-hero is left busted, which is when he happens to run into the troubled Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), who falls in love with him, and evil gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), who sees his chance to take a slice of Eddie’s talent, regardless of the consequences.
“Eddie, is it OK if I get personal?” “What have you been so far?” “Eddie, you’re a born loser.”
Trouble is, the desparately lonely Sarah doesn’t see it that way:
“You’re not a loser, Eddie, you’re a winner – few men ever get to feel that way about anything. I love you, Eddie… “You need the words?” “Yes, I need them very much and if you ever say them, I’ll never let you take them back.”
And it can only really end one way. After all, Eddie has to learn about character.
Rossen’s film is nothing short of electrifying – adapted from the novel by Walter S. Tevis, the director’s screenplay, like all great adaptations, takes what it needs from its source, then goes on to accentuate the story’s key elements, namely darkness, desperation and, for want of a better word, depravity.
Sarah Packard: Doesn’t any of this mean anything to you? This place, the people. They wear masks, Eddie. And underneath the masks, they’re perverted, twisted, crippled.
Eddie Felson: Shut up!
Sarah Packard: Don’t wear a mask, Eddie. That’s Turk, Eddie. He’s not going to break your thumbs. He’ll break your heart. He hates you, because of what you are.
In a career spanning nearly some 50 years, Newman, great actor though he was, was only ocassionally within touching distance of his performance here, while Scott was never better. Plaudits must go to Piper as well, with her attempts to save Eddie from himself forming the film’s emotional bedrock. It’s heartbreaking, and singularly real.
And the pool? It’s like watching artists with cues. Who will win, do you think?
“You don’t know what winning is Bert, you’re a loser – cause you’re dead inside, and you can’t *live* unless you make everything else dead around you. Too high. The price is too high, Bert, and if I take it, she never lived, she never died. But we both know that’s not true, don’t we Bert? She lived. She died.”