Film criticism is no exact science, and favoured texts change by the day, but one name that would be quickly down on the team-sheet for all-time classics would be Robert Rossen’s poetic, thoughtful and electrifying romantic-drama The Hustler. Released the same year as Hitchcock’s ground-breaking Psycho, another game-changer that paved the way for modern cinema, The Hustler’s credentials remain immaculate; Rossen was already a sports movie whizz via his boxing drama Body and Soul, while the deep-focus black and white photography of Eugen Schüfftan means every frame is a picture, with a style that we’d now recognise from Scorsese and his many imitators. Is that enough?
Not even started, bud. Let’s pile on the virtues. Love Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit? This comes from the same writer, Walter Tevis, adapting his own 1959 novel, and with a similar theme in mind before writing a rather different ‘ingénue against the capitalist world’ trope The Man Who Fell to Earth. Fans of The Breakfast Club should get a kick out of seeing how editor Dede Allen sculpts in time here, capturing the ebb and flow of city life around the tables, described in a burst of downbeat lyricism as ‘the slabs they lay out their stiffs on’. There’s classic support from George C Scott in shades as a demonic money-lender, and Jackie Gleeson as aging pool-shark Minnesota Fats. There’s also a stunning, Oscar-nominated and prescient performance from Piper Laurie as Sarah Packard, an alcoholic writer who proclaims herself emancipated, but can’t inure herself to the pains of the world via alcohol and sex, although she makes a pretty good fist of it. And at the top of the pile, there’s Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, pool-hustler, athlete, rebel and establishment toppler, young, angry and with the killer moves to usurp the reigning king if he ever gets the right cue.
‘What can you cook?’ Eddie asks Sarah ‘Eggs. How’s do like ‘em?’ she replies. ‘Raw,’ comes his answer; if you can’t dig that kind of subversive attitude, don’t bother applying here. The Hustler starts with a marathon 40 minute pool match that takes 25 hours in the fictional world the characters inhabit, a sequence edited brilliantly by Allen, and then settles down to look at the people involved in depth. Eddie is an idealist who lacks character; getting his thumbs broken teaches him something, but what? Sarah tries to write her way out of depression with a typewriter on the floor and alcohol in her bloodstream; she knows what she wants and she just can’t have it. ‘If you ever say you love me, then I’ll make sure you never take it back’ she tells Eddie, but he can’t find the words. She ends up writing ‘perverted, twisted, crippled’ on a bathroom mirror before, spoilers, taking her own life. Felson returns to the table, defeats Fats, but walks out on his debts and the game as a result of her tragic actions; it’s a transcendent yet worldly ending unlike any other sports movie, and reeks of bitter experience.
The Hustler belongs up there with fist-punchers Slap Shot or Rocky as an ultimate sports movie, but it’s also a deadly serious drama that Miller or Williams would have killed for in terms of naturism and sharp, loaded meaning. It’s one of the great black and white mood pieces, and yet the story rattles along; the billiards scene with Murray Hamilton from Jaws is a cracker too. It’s a truly great star vehicle, back when stars meant a damn, enshrining Newman as a box-office draw for decades to come. But most of all, it’s a story of character, standards, and corruption, and the suggestion that money works against the potential for greatness is refreshing, particularly in the cinema business where money came to dominate and eventually nullify creative decisions. The Hustler is a sordid, beautiful, wordy, visually austere experience that views all human life with compassion and derision in equal measure, giving aspiring hustlers nothing but cold hard truth before the final pocket drop.