Grabbing Life By The Balls: The Hustler

Grabbing Life By The Balls: The Hustler

Static Mass Rating: 4/5
20th Century Fox Home Ent.

Release date: May 23rd, 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 129 minutes

Year of production: 1961

Director: Robert Rossen
Writers: Robert Rossen, Sidney Carroll

Cast: Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott, Piper Laurie, Myron McCormick

What is it about a game that lures men to gamble? A few bucks riding here and there and maybe you’re winning but before you know it you’re in over head and convinced you’re lucky streak is always around the corner.

I’m not a gambling man and I would never wager on anything that could cost me the shirt off my back or even watch a movie about a game as un-cinematic as pool. Unless of course its star is Paul Newman.

In The Hustler he plays Fast Eddie Felson, a low-life hustler who travels around the country with his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) playing pool. On one particular night Eddie gets drawn into a game where he’s convinced of his winning streak against Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), thinking he’s going to walk away with $18,000 but in one swift move he blows it all.

The Hustler

Eddie then leaves town on his own and eventually convinces big time gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) to teach him to be a better player, although at first he declares him as having potential but no character. Of course, what he wants is to challenge Fats again and restore his pride. He also meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), a girl with a limp whom he starts an affair with. Although she falls in love with him, he can’t bring himself to admit he feels the same way about her.

The Hustler is unsettling to watch as it’s a world filled with seedy characters, pool rooms, gin joints and crumby hotel rooms where they get drawn into things we’d like to think we’d be able to walk away from.

It’s also very interesting because although the film revolves around the game of pool and hustling, Eddie is a character we’re never sure of and this is a credit to Newman’s acting. Hollywood reporter and film historian Lawrence J. Quirk remarks on his performance:

The Hustler

“Newman is completely convincing as Eddie Felson, a character nothing like Tony Lawrence of The Young Philadelphians or Paul Newman himself. Newman was a winner, and Felson, despite some minor victories at pool and major moral victory at the film’s conclusion, is pretty much a loser all of the way.”

Yet, is he really a loser or is he morally better than Bert? Quirk goes on to say:

“Newman’s acting hides clues to Felson’s character instead of laying it all out on the line as other actors might do. That’s why the picture is nearly over before we’re sure if Felson is a good guy or a bad guy or something in between; Newman keeps us guessing about him, never playing it heroically or like Eddie was nothing more than a sleaze.”

  • Audio Commentary
  • Walter Tevis: The Real Hustler (18:15)
  • Paul Newman at Fox (27.11)
  • Jackie Gleason: The Big Man (12:04)


  • Lawrence J. Quirk, Paul Newman: A Life (2009) Taylor Trade Publishing

The film’s high points are always its emotional moments such as when Eddie confronts Chris, when he gets his thumbs broken or when he gives his speech to Bert at the end. Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott, Piper Laurie and Myron McCormick all give wonderful performances; the direction and cinematography capture a gritty and beat down kind of atmosphere but our minds stay on Newman’s Eddie.

In this way The Hustler isn’t so much about the game and the gambling but more about one man’s journey to find his character and that’s what makes it rewarding to watch.

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