The Film… The Hustler (1961)
Director… Robert Rossen
Entering From Stage Left… Jackie Gleason in the role of Minnesota Fats.
What Makes it Special… The class.
In the world of pool there are many kinds of players. There are those who don’t bet, and are therefore of little consequence to us. There are the hustlers, guys who are all about money and suckering people into big bets till a few “lucky” shots come their way. And then there’s the suave, smooth motherfuckers- the guys who play as well as they look, who are the best in town and everyone knows it, who will take your money with a little smile and a little shrug and be there tomorrow to do it all again.
The Hustler starts off with a small-time hustler named Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) ending up in a nice, no-nonsense pool joint in NYC. He’s traveled cross-country to challenge the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), a man who they say hasn’t been beaten in 15 years. Once he gets there there’s none of Eddie’s usual tricks for reeling in suckers, no feigning that he doesn’t really play. He start knocking down the balls and in a little while he’s approached by a man asking if he’s interested in playing Minnesota Fats for money. Eddie responds in the positive and the shady character lets him know that there’s no way he could possibly beat Fats but if he wants to lose his money, he comes in every night at 8 o’clock.
At precisely 8:00 a man walks over and opens the doors, and sure enough, here comes ol’ Fats walking up the stairs. He nods at the man and walks in, pausing long enough for you to see his slick clothes, hat, and lit cigarette, a carnation sticking in his pocket perfecting the image. He walks through the room like he owns the place because he does- he’s a God here and you can tell it. He pauses long enough for that shady guy to nod towards the evening’s victim. Silently Fats walks over to one of the workers and hands him his hat and jacket, smoothing out his suit and pulling another cigarette out of a fancy case, lighting it while checking out his prey.
He walks over to get a closer look at Eddie and watches him quickly sink a couple of balls before remarking “You shoot a good stick.” Eddie plays dummy and asks him if he plays straight pool- “Now and then. You know how it is.” They banter a little bit and then Fats gets down to business.
“Big John?” he yells over his shoulder to the owner of the place, “Do you think this boy is a hustler?”
He laughs at his own rhetorical question, and Eddie laughs, and the trap is set.
Why it Resonates… Before a word is even spoken you understand everything about this character. After he speaks and asks his question, you immediately know that Fast Eddie is in trouble, that this guy is for real. Everyone in the pool hall stops what they’re doing and gathers around.
It’s a slaughter from there… Eddie never stood a chance.
Other Grand Entrances… Look ahead 25 years into the future and you see Paul Newman repeating his role of Fast Eddie in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money. Eddie’s experience has mellowed him out some, but his love of money is as strong as ever. He doesn’t play pool anymore but he’s got a knack for training and funding hustlers. In the very first scene he’s immersed in a conversation about whiskey with a woman in a bar when he’s rudely interrupted by a hustler named Julian (John Tutturo, in one of his first roles) who needs more money for a pool game. He claims to have a guy on the ropes and it’s here that the long opening shot finally ends, as we cut to see his mark Vincent (Tom Cruise), playing an arcade game.
That’s right, it’s the introduction to one of the stars of the film, one of the hottest actors at the moment and they don’t even show his face. This is another perfect intro, as we soon find out that Vincent is all about the game. He doesn’t care about the money like Eddie does, he gets high off playing.
Eddie gives Julian a $20 bill and goes back to his conversation. Less than a minute later Julian is back trying to snatch another 20 from Eddie’s stack on the bar, stating that he slipped. Eddie gives it to him and returns to his conversation briefly… until he hears Vincent’s “sledgehammer break”, and that’s it for him once again. He’s immediately entranced by this kid, thinking about his old life, and the money he can wring out of this one.
Watch both films back to back if you haven’t- you won’t regret it.