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Film / The Hustler (1961)

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Bert: I don't think there's a pool player alive shoots better pool than I saw you shoot the other night at Ames [against Minnesota Fats]. You got talent.
Eddie: So I got talent. So what beat me?
Bert: Character.

The Hustler is a 1961 drama film directed by Robert Rossen, adapted from the 1959 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. It stars Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott.

"Fast Eddie" Felson (Newman) is a talented but overconfident and undisciplined pool hustler who tries to prove himself by challenging legendary pool player "Minnesota Fats" (Gleason). After Felson loses to Fats, he takes up with the heavy drinking Sarah Packard (Laurie) and starts a relationship with unscrupulous manager Bert Gordon (Scott) that ultimately proves costly both professionally and personally.

The movie was nominated for nine Academy Award nominations, but only won two (Art Direction and Cinematography). Newman played "Fast Eddie" Felson again in the 1986 sequel, The Color of Money, and won an Oscar as Best Actor, making him one of six actors who have been nominated for an Academy Award twice for playing the same character.note  In 2008, it was ranked #6 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 Greatest Sports Films of all time.

For the trope about Professional Gamblers who play others for money, click here. Not to be confused with Hustlers from 2019, or the 2021 game show The Hustler.

The Hustler provides examples of:

  • The Ace: Minnesota Fats is unquestioningly recognized by everyone as the best pool player ever.
  • The Alcoholic: Sarah drinks almost constantly to dull the pain of being a Broken Bird.
  • Always Someone Better: As good as Fast Eddie may be at pool, he will not be satisfied until he has beaten the one player he sees as his possible superior, Minnesota Fats. Minnesota Fats was even the Trope Namer at one point.
  • Badass Boast: This little gem after Eddie beats Fats, and Bert demands what he believes is his share.
    Fast Eddie: Boy, you better, you tell your boys they better kill me, Bert. They better go all the way with me, 'cause if they just bust me up, I'll put all those pieces back together again, then so help me... So help me God, Bert, I'm gonna come back here and I'm gonna kill you.
  • Bad Guys Play Pool: Kinda the point.
  • Big Bad: Bert Gordon.
  • Broken Bird: Sarah. She even walks with a slight limp, due to her childhood bout of polio.
  • Byronic Hero: "Fast Eddie" Felson is a milder example. He's obsessed with beating "Minnesota Fats" and proving himself the best pool player, despite the destructive effect it has on his life.
  • Calling Your Shots: Eddie and Fats are playing 14.1 straight pool and call their shots, as the rules require.
  • The Cameo: Jake La Motta, at the point where he'd destroyed his boxing career and personal life and turned to being a nightclub entertainer, plays a bartender.
  • Creator Cameo: Willie Mosconi, 15-time winner of the World Straight Pool Championship, was the film's technical advisor. He trained Paul Newman on pool techniques, and has a cameo during the first match as the bystander who holds the stake money.
    Fats: Willie, hang on to that.
  • Crippling the Competition: 'Fast Eddie' Felson has his thumbs broken by a pool shark who doesn't like being hustled.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Both Eddie and Sarah have this; she even lampshades it when they first meet.
    Sarah: Eddie, look, I've got troubles... and I think maybe you've got troubles. Maybe it'd be better if we just leave each other alone.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Bert
  • Death by Adaptation: Sarah, who doesn't even go to Kentucky with Eddie and Bert, nor does she sleep with Bert in the novel - she and Eddie just break it off. In the movie, she kills herself - see Driven to Suicide below.
  • Desperately Craves Affection: Sarah, whose desperation is only held in check by her constant drinking. It becomes more obvious when she starts falling in love with Eddie.
    Sarah: I love you.
    Eddie: You need the words?
    Sarah: Yes, I need them very much. If you ever say them I'll never let you take them back.
  • Disappeared Dad: Sarah, whose father left her when she was seven. Her only contact with him are the monthly checks he sends her.
  • Downer Ending: Eddie eventually beats Minnesota Fats, but only because he drove Sarah to suicide with his obsessive drive to play pool, and he realizes at the end that it's a meaningless victory.
  • Driven to Suicide: Sarah, after she's been rejected by Eddie and slept with Bert.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: This is Sarah's favorite pastime when she first meets Eddie.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Eddie and Sarah bond with each other over their various dysfunctional pasts.
  • Glasses Pull: Bert is the kind of guy who wears sunglasses in a pool hall indoors, but he pulls them off when he sees Eddie walk in for what turns out to be the climactic rematch with Minnesota Fats.
  • Graceful Loser: Minnesota Fats graciously accepts his defeat, if only because Eddie was going off the rails and decided that Bert Gordon was the real enemy. Eddie comes off as a good winner to him at the end, too.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: Eddie takes Sarah out to dinner, then tells her that he will be leaving town for a little while. Fearing that he's dumping her, Sarah bolts out of the restaurant and into a downpour.
  • His Own Worst Enemy: Eddie, full stop. It's illustrated in his first game against Minnesota Fats; despite being ahead $18,000, Eddie still insists on playing — whereupon Fats utterly demolishes the drunken, sleep-deprived Eddie, winning everything back, and then completely cleans out Eddie and Charlie.
  • Hope Is Scary: Sarah Packard has been scorned and rejected so many times that she holds herself back when she starts falling for Eddie.
  • Hustler: Eddie, of course.
  • Hustling the Mark: Being a pool shark, Eddie frequently does this.
  • In Name Only: The film is a reasonably close adaptation of the book of that name. They each have a sequel called The Color of Money, but the film and the novel have almost nothing in common.
  • An Insert: Willie Mosconi served as technical advisor and performed some of the trick shots, though not for Jackie Gleason who made all his own shots.
  • Lactose over Liquor: Even though he frequents bars and pool halls, Bert's beverage of choice is milk.
  • Large Ham: George C. Scott, previewing a future role.
    "You owe me MONEY!"
  • Like a Son to Me: Charlie sees Eddie as this, having managed him since he was sixteen.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Bert Gordon, a dangerously subtle version. Everything he says and does is used to manipulate and control others — there are no innocuous comments anywhere. Worse, even after the other characters know not to trust him, he's still able to goad them to his ends and ultimately drive Sarah to commit suicide.
  • Monochrome Casting: Nearly everyone in the movie is Caucasian — the few exceptions are a mute black man at Ames' pool hall who sweeps the floor, and a black gambler and his family at the races.
  • Mythology Gag: While at the Kentucky Derby, the race announcer lists some of the horses racing. One of them is named "Stroke of Luck", a proposed alternate title for the film.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Inverted — Real Life pool player Rudolf "New York Fats" Wanderone claims that Minnesota Fats is based on him. After the film was released, he adopted the nickname for himself and became better known by it than the movie character.
  • "No More Holding Back" Speech: It's clear from the beginning that although Fast Eddie is a talented pool player, his attitude is holding him back. It's no surprise that he eventually gets his speech. Now, how he gets it, on the other hand...
  • Oh, Crap!: Eddie's non-verbal reaction to seeing that the game he'll be playing in Kentucky is not pool but three-cushion billiards, which requires a totally different approach.
  • Pre-Asskicking One-Liner: After more than 24 hours of straight pool playing against Minnesota Fats, Eddie is exhausted and rather drunk. Then Fats, well-groomed and smiling, says, "Eddie, let's play pool." Fats proceeds to utterly destroy him at the table.
  • Precision F-Strike: This was one of the first mainstream films to use the word "bastard" (Sarah calls Burt one).
  • Professional Gambler: While Eddie is one to a degree, he's dwarfed by Bert, whose entire lifestyle is built around his gambling wins.
  • Prone to Tears: Sarah has been rejected and scorned so many times that she needs to drown her sorrows to get through the day. Needless to say, she's prone to this trope whether drunk or sober.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Eddie gives one to Bert at the end:
    I loved her, Bert. I traded her in on a pool game. But that wouldn't mean anything to you. Because who did you ever care about? Just win, win, you said, win, that's the important thing. You don't know what winnin' is, Bert. You're a loser. 'Cause you're dead inside, and you can't live unless you make everything else dead around ya.
  • Second Place Is for Losers/To Be a Master: This is Eddie's primary motivation throughout the film — it's not enough that he's already a great pool player, he must defeat Minnesota Fats and have Fats acknowledge him as the best.
    Eddie: You can't see it, can you, Charlie? I mean, you've never been able to see it. I came after him. And I'm gonna get him. I'm goin' with him all the way. The pool game is not over until Minnesota Fats says it's over.
  • Sell-Out: What Eddie does when he agrees to let Bert manage him.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Minnesota Fats shoots pool wearing a nicely fitted three-piece suit and a big carnation in his lapel. During his first marathon match with Eddie, he actually pauses to shave.
  • The Social Expert: This is Bert Gordon's most important skill as a Manipulative Bastard; he can quickly size up someone and identify their innermost weaknesses. He's so good that even after losing a fortune to Eddie in a marathon session of pool, Minnesota Fats cheerfully agrees to keep playing just because Bert identified Eddie as a "loser" — and then proceeds to win it all back.
  • Solemn Ending Theme: Most of the movie is devoid of any sort of music or background theme, but the end credits are accompanied by a mournful jazz piece.
  • Suddenly Shouting: Bert is calm, collected individual, right up until the final game.
    You owe me MONEY.
  • The Teaser: This was an early example of a Hollywood movie with a pre-credits sequence, a rarity at the time.note 
  • Technician vs. Performer: Refined, calm Minnesota Fats compared to arrogant, spontaneous Eddie Felson.
  • Tragic Dream: Eddie wants to beat Minnesota Fats and be recognized as the best pool player ever. He eventually succeeds, but derives no pleasure from it.
  • Tragic Hero: Eddie. His Fatal Flaw is his ambition to beat Minnesota Fats, which blinds him to everything else.
  • The Unfettered: According to Bert, this is what Minnesota Fats becomes when he plays, which allows him to be a top-tier pool player. Eddie eventually learns the same skill after Sarah's death.
  • Violence Discretion Shot: Eddie is dragged into the restroom before his thumbs are broken. However, you still hear his pained screams and see his face pressed against a window.

Eddie: Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool.

Alternative Title(s): The Hustler