The ego is at the heart of every great character, and nothing fuels the ego quite like the simple binary act of winning and losing like this one Paul Newman made one of the greatest films ever with the 1961s the hustler. There’s no denying that Newman is an all-time icon, best known for his super-slim and macho “man-man” roles, especially in his heyday in the ’60s. But even simply calling the man “legendary” doesn’t give him enough credit for the amount of work he’s put into reinvigorating the collective audience as not just someone who wants to be entertained, but who wants to think.
Whether it Cool hand Luke or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (to name but two of dozens of classics) Newman’s roles continually question the values his characters originally espoused and articulate their costs. What is unique in his extensive body of work is that his films do not sell fantasy a la James Bond, but instead the reality of this fantasy. There is arguably no film that captures the importance of reality for talent, charisma and success better than the hustler.
Directed by Robert Rossen Adapted from the 1959 novel of the same name, the film focuses on Newman’s character, Fast Eddie, a small pool player who tricks competitors into playing him when he’s the real deal Michael Jordan from billiard halls. In his obsession to win every game at any cost, Eddie is corrupted by money and ego as he climbs the ladder for a chance to face off against local legend Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason out of The honeymooners). while on the surface, the hustler Perhaps it’s about a billiards player’s rise to the top and the resulting moral decline, but the subtext involves a story about humanity and masculinity, particularly in the context of gambling where winning turns you into a monster of arrogance as you go through Losing vulnerable will be castrated beyond repair.
“The Hustler” shows how difficult it is to achieve your dream
Given that director Robert Rossen was a former Communist Party member and twice asked to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (the first time pleading for the fifth, the second time naming names), that’s far from exaggerating to say that the man was not a fan of capitalism. Luckily, this harsh condemnation of money and its corrupt implications gave him a chance to heal his guilt about botching ex-party members. Money may never be the primary motivation for Fast Eddie’s monstrous pool wins, but his need for it to stay competitive puts him in dangerous hands. This is evident in his relationship with Bert (George C Scott), a professional player who offers to bet 75% of his winnings. It’s a terrible deal, but after his thumb is broken by a rival pool player and he subsequently recovers (with some severe existential crises in between), the toxic combination of ego and desperation forces him to accept Eddie.
The fact that Eddie’s underclass status is forcing him into the hands of gambling sharks reduces his dazzling talents to someone else’s investment and sells himself as if he were a stock option. However, monetary value is not the only element of capitalism that Rossen and Newman criticize. Relatively early in the film, Fast Eddie actually achieves his primary goal: defeating the Minnesota Fats in a fair game of billiards. After beating him and raising over $11,000, Eddie has a chance to get away. Of course, he doesn’t, since he’s no longer interested in winning an easy game. Instead, he is determined to break Fats’ spirit and cement his status as the world’s greatest billiards player. They play game after game until Eddie succumbs to his mistakes and loses everything in the early hours of the morning. In keeping with the reality of capitalist fantasies, the moment one dream is realized another must be formed, for realized fantasies are never as sweet as the dream itself.
The Hustler shows that addiction affects not only the victim, but also those closest to them
Piper Laurie plays Fast Eddie’s love Sarah. As an addict and alcoholic, she represents the greatest tragedy that results from Fast Eddie’s obsession with winning and the moral compass he consistently fails to follow. While most of the film sees horribly manly men struggling for the worth of their own egos, Sarah is the only one who sees this frenetic world for what it is: “perverted, twisted and crippled”. These are the words she writes on a mirror with lipstick before taking her own life. One of the most poignant phrases she repeats to Bert relates to his lack of concern for the well-being of the talent he invests in. “There is no tomorrow,” she says. “Now you buy them all, and cheap.” Whether it’s her insistence that Eddie isn’t begging Bert for more money (all because his ego can’t handle a simple loss) or her affirmation that Eddie is a winner (though not for the reasons he believes he is one), Sarah represents the horrifying magnitude to which addiction of any kind drags down those closest to the victim.
It’s passion, not winning, that makes Eddie a winner in The Hustler
After Eddie breaks both of his thumbs, Sarah nurses him back to health while he remains obsessed with the games he lost. The broken thumbs in this case symbolize his castration, the inability to see himself for the man he once was. In a heartfelt dialogue between the two that forms the emotional core of the film, Sarah insists to Eddie that he is a winner, not because of the money he cheats from fewer pool players, nor because of his immense talent. It’s his passion that makes him a winner as most people in the world don’t have feelings that intense about anything in their entire lives.
The scene recounts a conversation between Eddie and Bert earlier in the film, where Bert insists Eddie is good but lacks character. Eddie spends most of the rest of the film pondering what that means, and tragically only realizes it after Sarah’s death. Character is feeling and character is understanding (just like the Minnesota Fats) that a game of pool is only worth a finite amount. In the film’s highly cathartic final scene, Eddie finally hits Fats the way he wanted, but takes no pleasure in the trivialities of his victory. Instead, he simply acknowledges the “hell game” between the two underground titans. When Bert fights for a chunk of his winnings, Eddie calls him the real loser because he’s dead inside. Bert bans Eddie from every major pool hall, which Eddie humbly accepts as his ego has collapsed under the weight of what it has cost him.
One of the most remarkable things ever the hustler is the fact that it is one of the first major sports films to end on a note of surrender, emphasizing the importance of having to accept reality rather than succumbing to the subjective extremes that victory and defeat entail for the individual bring. In gambling, most wins result in boastful character degradations, while most losses radiate far beyond the material. True victory doesn’t even mean getting back up and fighting to your last breath like so many sports movies do. Really winning means knowing when to walk away. It’s just a game after all.