The Hustler (1961)

I really got to work on my pool skills.

“Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) is a man that knows how to play his game of pool, win, and while he’s at it; hustle some peeps in the long-run. However, his shenanigans eventually start to catch up with him once he decides to get involved with a lady of his (Piper Laurie). But it only gets worse once his desire to prove himself the best player in the country is by beating legendary pool player “Minnesota Fats” (Jackie Gleason).

“Cool” is a word that fits plenty of films, but not as well as it fits this one. In fact, I never quite thought that a sports movie about pool would actually be considered “cool”, but there’s just something about those old school billiard lounges, filled with smoke, brewskies, and jazz music that are just able to get you in the mood for some cue-balling. Oh, and some gambling too. Can’t ever forget about that fun activity.

Actually, I wouldn’t even consider this a sports film, but more of a character-study that gives us a character, a dilemma, and a reasoning, and uses the game of pool as a background. Most movies of this nature have been using this idea for centuries, but this flick shows it in a different light that isn’t all hurrah hurrah about it’s sport, or the people partaking in it. That’s right, no Kurt Russell speeches here. Cue the tears.

This film is surprisingly very dark but it never lost me and it was pretty intriguing to see where this film went with Felson. We get to see him through all of the thick and thin where we see him at his highest, as well as his lowest. We also get a chance to see him for his flaws, as well as the aspects that make him so likable and charming, upon first-sight. Felson could also serve as the protagonist for this story, but he’s not an underdog, there’s no valiant loser, no witty old-timer that is getting the young buck for his next big match, and there is no training-montage let alone, any scenes of training whatsoever. This is what separates this sort of movie from all of the other sports movie and it’s a risky move that director Robert Rossen takes with this material, but makes it work no matter what.

Aw yeah! Strike that pose, Paul!
Aw yeah! Strike that pose, Paul!

But no matter how dark this film may actually be, there is still a certain type of coolness about it that just lingers underneath everything else. There’s all of these countless themes about greed, addiction, love, hustling, and the fear of being lonely, that could get any sports-junkie on the suicide watch list, but do more than you think. It adds a certain brooding sense of feel and style, but also enhances the mood in which you feel like the way these games of pool are set-up and played, are definitely not the type of ones you just decide to play around with, while you and your bud are drinking before the big fight. Nope, there’s more to it than that, and I have to say that it’s a bold move that I can’t see many other sports movies taking nowadays. That is, unless they didn’t want to earn any money or fans with the popular, movie-going crowd. Because honestly, let’s think about it: which person wants to see a sports movie, only to find out that it’s a whole two hour flick dedicated to one person crying, and swallowing in his own misery? Maybe this guy over here, but sure as hell not the type of people I know who want to see movies like these. Hence why it was made in 1961. A much simpler time where people had standards. Sort of.

Paul Newman is known as being cool in almost everything he does, and “Fast Eddie” Felson is the perfect personification of that. Newman brings so much cool wit and charm to this character that in almost every shot, you can just feel them both oozing out of every line he speaks. Whether he’s doing it with his eyes, his lips, or his physical-stature, the guy’s always got something to say and whether or not the other person across from him is going to like it, is wholly on their asses. The character of “Fast Eddie” isn’t a particularly likable one, considering the guy always acts like his shit doesn’t stink when he wins two games in-a-row, but Newman keeps him grounded and always worth a cheer. You never know where this dude’s story is going to lead into next, but Newman keeps you guessing and wondering just how he pulls off these acts of desperation, but still seeming to be “cool”, underneath it.

Then, on the total and complete opposite side of him is Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. Fats rains supreme as a totally different character than Felson, for the sole-fact he is just the intimidating guy you do not want to fuck with if you see him across the bar. But yet, Felson loves to do that and does just that, many ‘a times. Fats is a character that reminded of one of those old-school, big guy mob types that you can just feel the tension of. The only difference here is that this guy isn’t part of the mob (or at least so I think), he’s just regular, old-school pool shooter that just so happens to be one of the best in the country and Gleason plays this up so perfectly. Fats isn’t really in the film that much but whenever he is, it’s easily some of the best parts of this whole flick and his presence is always there throughout the whole film.  No matter where “Fast Eddie” goes with his game, with his money, with his dame, and with his high-life; Fats will always be there ready to play again.

"Come on, kid. You got it all fucking wrong."
“Come on, kid. You got it all fucking wrong.”

But I can’t just talk about these two without talking another two that absolutely knock their roles out of the park as well. George C. Scott has probably never been as dirty or greedy as he is here as Burt Gordon, one of the main guys that takes Felson under his wing, but strictly for money purposes. Scott is so damn detestable but you can’t take your eyes off of him throughout the whole movie because you know he’s going to screw Felson over, one way or another, and it’s going to hurt big time. Piper Laurie is also amazing as Felson’s love interest, Sarah, but be warned; she isn’t your normal romantic love interest all of these sports movies have. This chick has problems, BIG, BIG problems, actually. Sarah is a very interesting character because she just seems like one of these chicks that is always so drunk all of the time, that it’s easy to underestimate her, but after awhile you realize that she knows what’s up with everything that Felson is doing and what could possibly happen to him. Laurie is great with this character and makes her watchable the whole damn time, even if the ride between her and Felson isn’t always enjoyable, nor is it all that believable once you see how they act with one another, once they get drunk, wild, and rich. Bad combination right there, no matter who you are.

Being that this is an older film and a lot of the people in it talk all hip, sly, and witty, in the way that they probably thought was hip, sly, and witty back in 1961; some of it does feel dated. Not all of it, but some. Some performances go a bit over-board and I couldn’t help but feel like a lot of these dude’s who’s reactions are filmed, weren’t just because they were talented actors, but because they were the only actors around to take part of filming at the time. It’s been almost 40 years and one sequel later, so maybe my main-beef is all but idiotic, but it’s just little problems like that, that usually get to me. Don’t know why, it’s just the way I am. Go home if you don’t like it.

Consensus: The Hustler isn’t your quintessential sports movie that’s all about the happy cheers, beers, and winning championships, but more about a loner of a dude that makes money a cheap, but sly way, and gets caught-up doing so. And sometimes, in more ways than one.

8.5 / 10 = Matinee!!

“If I beat him now, it’s still breakfast at Mickey D’s. Hmm…..”


  1. I have this on DVD in a Paul Newman collection and haven’t got round to viewing it yet. Great review; it’s definitely gonna be in my DVD player soon!

  2. Brilliant review Dan, really enjoyed that. To me this is more like a 9 or 9.5. But close enough I guess.
    Once again, your picture captions are worth a thousand words. :p

  3. Nice to see you appreciate this classic, Dan. It’s a great flick. I do think it could have been a little better if they had focused a little less on the romance/depressed girlfriend angle and more on the life of Felson before he got to Minnesota Fats, but its still an excellent flick. This movie and Color of Money got me SERIOUSLY into pool for awhile when I was a younger man 😀 .

  4. I know it’s a “classic” and all, but I’m really not a fan of this movie. I enjoyed Paul Newman’s performance, but in a nutshell, I prefer The Color of Money.

    If you want to check out my Hustler review, I wrote it “to the tune of that pool hall song from The Music Man.” My bizarre mind. 🙂

  5. I was nervous because I thought it was going to be a typical sports film. I then thought ti was going to be a straight con film, but was very surprised and happy that it became more of a character study. Great reivew . I for one love the hep cat dialogue Daddy 0. Are you cool with it. If not Don’t be no Jive turkey

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