THE HUSTLER (1961)
In this noir melodrama, the tortured and self-destructive pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) plays for money and glory, out to prove he’s the world’s greatest pool player by beating the reigning pool champion Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). But, as high-stakes gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) puts it, the most talented pool player can still be a “born loser”. Eddie Felson’s loneliness is eased by Sarah (Piper Laurie), an emotionally unstable drunk. What happens in a love affair between born losers? Everybody loses.
It’s hard to figure out where to start in talking about how great this movie is. I mean, even this movie’s noir jazz musical score is the coolest. I’m pretty obsessed with the script by writer/director Robert Rossen. All these characters could easily have been written as flat stereotypes, but this script has a rare humanity and an empathic love for flawed, tragic people. I’m in love with every character. And when you give character-writing like this to actors as brilliant as Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, and Jackie Gleason (and many others in this impossibly brilliant ensemble cast), everybody milks their parts like crazy. This story also kills me because I relate to it so much. I have no personal interest in competitiveness, pool, or gambling and could not be more bored by the idea of a bunch of men trying to beat each other at some foolish game. But this story about pool hustling, to me, is more about the self-destructive tendencies of artistic people. I relate a lot to Eddie Felson. Though I’m often able to find rare happiness there’s a special self-torture and self-destruction reserved for artistic people. This sort of pursuit of money and glory inevitably breaks one’s heart in a million ways, no matter the talent or the results. And you don’t just break your own heart; you break the hearts of the people you’re with too. That said, I find this devastating story so romantic and glamorous. It’s incredible that they’d cast Piper Laurie as Paul Newman’s love interest when she isn’t particularly pretty— but Sarah is one of the sexiest characters ever, the only kind of woman who can break a closed heart like Eddie’s. Did I mention this movie is insanely hot? Paul Newman’s unparalleled hotness is a given, but since when is George C. Scott so sexy?