As a UK script consultant and script writer for hire I caught up with The Hustler (1961) again recently. It’s one of, if not the best film about gambling and sports ever made. It’s also a character study, and shines a light on how winning, can sometimes be unpleasant.
The film is directed by Robert Rossen, and stunningly photographed by Eugen Shufftan (who had a photographic process named after him which is still in use today). You need to see this film on BluRay. Even today, very few films look nearly as good.
Rossen and Sydney Carroll wrote the script, which is a very good adaptation of the novel by Walter Tevis. Tevis is one of my all time favourite authors, a lovely writer, ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is based on his book, and he wrote ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, a wondrous novel about Chess, another game that fascinated him, that and the people who play it.
The Hustler is about a game – Pool, its set in pool halls, some like great cathedrals, no bar, no food, just pool. Others are dirty, crass and dangerous, where ‘cheaters justice’ might be handed out. The Hustler isn’t about nine ball pool (the sequel ‘The Color of Money’ is). This is about old school ‘straight’ pool, longer games, tougher, more balls and more skilled. Less flashy, more about strategy as well as skill.
It’s also about the money that comes with being a good player. The money, or the stake, is often put up by money men, with the player taking a percentage of winnings. In this film, the gambling is so serious and the competition so fierce that games can start at $1000 a frame. A huge sum of money in the time the story is set (and still a decent whack for a game of pool today, I’d say)
Paul Newman is Fast Eddie Felson, the up and coming kid, who rides into town and into the world famous ‘Ames Pool Hall’ looking for the reigning champ – Minnesota Fats (played by Jackie Gleason, who is amazing). They do battle to see who is the best player. It’s possible, that Eddie is the better player, but he doesn’t (at the start at least) have the character in himself to beat Fats. And the film is about character in the end.
So, Eddie, a loser, goes on a journey with cruel money man Burt Gordon (a career best performance by George C Scott), a journey back to being a winner again, but also learning what it takes to win. And that winning sometimes means crushing the opponent, and the innocence, in yourself and in others.
Buckle up, the journey isn’t pleasant, but Eddie learns to win again, but the stake this time is his own talent, he wins, but loses at the same time. A twisty, nasty loss, in a game that is rigged, but played to the upmost.
I saw this film in my teens, and then in my twenties and now I watch it in my mid 40s. Films change and grow with the years and your years. Newman’s Eddie is young in the film, Burt Gordon is middle aged and Fats is old. Who you identify with watching the film can change over time, who you route for. Or you can identify with more than one character. I don’t see Fats as that old at all now, and Burt Gordon is a more interesting character in many ways than Fast Eddie. Piper Laurie plays the doomed love interest well; she needs a savoir, and made a bad bet with Fast Eddie, her character seems to grow and shrivel at the same time, backing out of the limelight.
I think somewhere in hell or heaven Fats and Eddie will battle it out forever around the pool table, around the clock, drunk or sober, winning or losing they’ll both keep playing for their reputations, their living and their souls. Maybe it isn’t hell or heaven, maybe it’s just Ames Pool Hall. And maybe it’s just straight pool. …Rack ‘em.
Matthew Cooper has been a script writer for hire, UK Script editor and script doctor for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer. He’s also a leading UK script consultant and freelance script writer for hire and online screenwriting expert. You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb. You can get in touch with Matthew on firstname.lastname@example.org or hire him on Peopleperhour
His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller Markham will be released in 2020.