I love the feeling of a well-adapted novel to film. Scenes have breathing room and the traditional three act structure of a movie gets abandoned for a greater focus on character rather than plot. Even though it’s an original screenplay, it’s one of the reasons I love Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, which, I think, has a similar feel. The story of Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie as he rises, falls, and rises again in the world of the poolhall gives so much room for Fast Eddie, Sarah, and Bert to breathe that it feels alive and vital in very key ways.
The central idea is about the difference between a winner and a loser, at least as Bert Gordon, the gambler, makes it out to be. But winning isn’t everything about being a winner. In this movie’s parlance, a winner is the one who wins it all, implying the best at something. And the best at pool in the world is Minnesota Fats, played by Jackie Gleason, a hulking titan of a man who keeps his suit in pristine condition even after over 30 hours of straight pool. Fats isn’t really a character in this. He’s an ideal, a goal, for Fast Eddie to overcome. If this movie were about a runner, Minnesota Fats would be the three minute mile. He’s a monolith, and Fast Eddie has to beat him.
The movie’s first quarter is dominated by the first meeting between Eddie and Fats. It’s an extended poolhall sequence that covers that more than thirty-hour match between the two. Eddie is determined not to just beat Fats, but to beat Fats so badly that Fats throws in the towel himself. And yet, even when Eddie is up by more than eighteen thousand dollars, Fats just keeps on taking his breaks to the small washroom where he combs his hair, puts his suit jacket back on, and puts baby powder on his hands, coming back ready to play with poise. Eddie slowly deteriorates, though, and it’s obvious that he wants it too much and too badly. As Bert Gordon, who observes most of the match, says, Eddie is a born loser, and it was obvious that he was going to lose. And lose Eddie does.
So dejected by his loss, Eddie abandons his partner Charlie and hangs out in a bus stop where he meets Sarah, played by Piper Laurie. Sarah is just like Eddie. Living off of checks from her estranged father, she attends college two days a week and spends the rest of the time drinking. Eddie moves in almost instantly, and the two develop a certain co-dependent relationship of shared misery. Neither has any real interest in pulling the other out of their melancholy, but they seem content to remain in their own with someone else who shares similar feelings. He starts hustling on the side, making a few dollars here and there, with the ultimate aim of facing Fats again.
One day, he meets Gordon again who tells Eddie that Eddie is a born loser, that he lacks the character to become a winner. After healing from an incident where some of Eddie’s marks break his thumbs for hustling them, he agrees to Gordon’s terms where Gordon will front the money for Eddie’s rematch with Fats in exchange for 75% of the take. First, though, Eddie must prove that he has the character to win by facing a socialite named Findley during Derby Week in Louisville. This is where Sarah and Eddie have their break.
The implication of a winner in this film is that winning is the only thing important to him. In order to win, Eddie has to forget about everything else and focus on the game. That’s one reason that Fats himself isn’t really a character. We can’t know more about him, about where he’s from or who he loves, because he can’t have that baggage. His life is pool, and nothing else should matter. In order for Eddie to get to that same level, pool must become as important to him, so when Sarah needs his help when Eddie is on the verge of proving that yes, he can turn the game around and beat Findley, he has to ignore her because the game is more important to him. This sends Sarah into her final depressive spiral, leaving Eddie with nothing but his game. Finally, he’s ready to face Minnesota Fats again. He has the character to do it.
What makes this movie work is what I started talking about at the beginning, its steady and generous focus on character. Eddie has a lot of time to develop, to make himself and his desires known to the audience and the people around him. What he wants, the contradiction of him finding someone he could love in Sarah and needing to cast her off at the same time in order to accomplish his goal of becoming a winner, it’s all given time to make itself known through character interactions and without direct exposition. The character relationships end up feeling more real because of the time, and when Sarah tells Eddie that she loves him and he can’t quite say it back, it makes sense and feels like a genuine extension of their characters. The ultimate tragedy of Sarah’s fate feels all the deeper because of the work dedicated to her in the movie’s first two hours.
With Eddie final victory over Fats, he reclaims his own humanity by rejecting the game afterwards. He’s done what he wanted, become a winner, and with that he’s going to look for a way to get back what he had lost. He’s had his taste. He’s gotten Fats’ respect. And that’s all he really wanted.
Newman is great at Fast Eddie. Piper Laurie is very good as Sarah, the broken woman on the edge and finally finding someone in Eddie. George C. Scott is fantastic as the manipulative and underhanded Gordon. Jackie Gleason is a pillar of a man as Fats. It’s filmed impeccably, reminding me of the exacting method of framing from movies like Marty and The Big Country, a testament to Robert Rossen’s professionalism and approach to filmmaking.
The Hustler is a great character study that delves into the world of the poolhall with intelligence and energy.