Fast Eddie: How can I lose?
This line, tossed off with Paul Newman’s deceptively casual nonchalance, contains at once the bravado and the curse of poor Eddie Felson, a pool shark riding the whirlwind in Robert Rossen’s haunting film.
Though it was released in 1961, last night was the first time I had ever seen this legendary movie.
Newman plays a pool prodigy from Oakland who’s on the prowl to match his skills against the king of the pool halls, the great Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Along the way he encounters a world so dangerous and dark that even love seems to have poisoned teeth.
This is one of those films that makes you want to kiss the casting director. The losers who hang around the bar are so incredible looking, so real, so sad, that you can’t take your eyes off of them. Combined with Harry Horner and Gene Callahan’s production design and Eugen Schüfftan’s cinematography (both Oscar winners for the film), the scenes in seedy pool halls are elevated to a dreamy, mythic grace.
In addition to the bit players, the film is full of wonderful supporting actors like Michael Constantine, Myron McCormick, William Duell and Vincent Gardenia.
But it’s the leads who knock it out of the park. Murray Hamilton is astonishing as an oily, creepy southern rich guy with a pool fetish, giving a performance every bit as memorable as his famous turns as Mr. Robinson in The Graduate and Mayor Vaughn in Jaws.
George C. Scott, three years before Dr. Strangelove, is scary, intimidating and perverse as rich gambler Bert Gordon.
Jackie Gleason, known for comedy, has barely a dozen lines as Minnesota Fats but is quietly great. The fact that he actually was a superb pool shooter surely helped his confidence in the role. He comes off as sort of a pool hall Godfather – he’s irresistible.
Paul Newman is, of course, superb as the doomed Fast Eddie. Beyond his gobsmacking looks, dangerous eyes and ripped physique, he’s an actor of enormous feeling and earnestness. Eddie is justifiably one of his most famous roles.
But it’s Piper Laurie as Sarah who is the soul of the movie. Sarah is a drinky, polio-lame aspiring writer with casual morals who gets under Eddie’s skin more than he ever suspected was possible. Laurie had languished as a contract ingénue in the 50s, and she got offered The Hustler after being seen in an off-Broadway production of the Actor’s Studio. With a voice like liquid amber and an almost other-worldly poise and allure, it’s easy to understand how Eddie cannot get away from her.
Curiously, after the release of the film, Piper Laurie dropped out of the film business completely, only returning fifteen years later when Brian De Palma, to his everlasting credit, coaxed her back to play Margaret White in Carrie (a character and performance that would easily make my top ten in the history of film). As she had been for The Hustler, Laurie was again nominated for an Academy Award for her unforgettable work in Carrie.
In all, The Hustler receiver nine Oscar nominations, winning two. If you are a film lover who, like me, had somehow managed to miss seeing it before, I heartily urge you to seek it out. You’ll be glad you did.