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Hustler, The
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by MP Bartley

"Cool Hand Paul."
5 stars

"Cool" is a word often misused in criticism. Sure, the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt in snappy suits can look cool in the Ocean's 11 films, or a particularly well-executed action sequence may get a wide-eyed murmur of "Cool..." from a cinema audience, but they're also smug, fun and comforting. True cool is ice in your veins, nerves of steel and the ability to stab someone in the back without flinching. That's true cool, and that's The Hustler.

Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is a young pool shark. Cocky and brash, he makes a living out of hustling his way across the country's pool halls and shaking down unsuspecting opponents, then strolling away with the winnings. Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) however, is not one to be shook down. Fats has the reputation of the best pool player in the country and Eddie discovers this to his detriment in a marathon pool session that sends him to exhaustion. Broke and downbeat, he meets up with two people that soon send his life spinning in a new direction - the first is Sarah (Piper Laurie) a crippled alcoholic who takes up with Eddie despite them both being people clearly unsuitable for a relationship, and the second is Burt Gordon (George C Scott), an associate of Fats who sees potential in Eddie. They could make a living together Burt tells him, if only Eddie can find the character to go alongside the undoubted talent that he has.

Pool is not the most obvious choice to make a sports film about, which goes some way to explaining why Rossen hasn't really made a sports film about it. With its wide-angled lenses, the jazzy Kenyon Hopkins score and evocative black and white cinematography by Eugene Shuftan; it's more like a film noir than anything else. With enough cigarette smoking to make your lungs ache, Fats' entrance into the pool hall shot like a gangster coming home to his den and hoodlums in every corner, Rossen turns the sport into something vital, jolting and dark. The characters here are not your usual sport archetypes, there is no underdog, no valiant loser, no gallant old-timer working as a coach. Felson may well be the protagonist, and may well be played by Paul Newman, but that doesn't make him especially likeable. Brash and lippy, it's no surprise that he gets everybody's backs up. For all that he has a cool hand on the pool table, he has no brain in his head, throwing away a seemingly unassailable lead against Fats for sheer greed and moving in with Sarah mainly because she's too far down the spiral of alcoholism to care too much what happens to her, or who it happens with.

Yes, one constantly surprising thing about The Hustler is how dark it is and how, well, cool it is about the various lowlifes and seedy dives it exists in - like a mixture of Rififi and The Wages of Fear, we're not supposed to like these characters too much, but we are supposed to understand the impulses that drive them on - greed, addiction, the fear of loneliness. There's no judgement here, no life lessons to be learnt, just a hypnotically told tale of one young guy in over his head and how he pulls himself out of it - even though there's going to be victims on the way.

Angular, lean and impossibly handsome, it's probably the definitive Paul Newman performance, certainly of his younger days. Oozing charisma and flinty charm with a hard-headed determination, he's mesmerising. Not just a charmer, not just a pretty face, Newman was one of the greatest actors of all time, and his first outing as Eddie Felson is the definitive proof of that - a young buck who could seemingly have it all, yet his talent (and belief in it) is the thing that keeps dragging him down. As his chief adversary, Gleason couldn't be more different - corpulent, squatted in his pool hall like a bullfrog and with a monosyllabic nature to counter Eddie's rapid and unceasing patter. First time viewers of The Hustler may well be surprised how little Gleason is in it, merely topping and tailing the film, yet his shadow hangs heavy over the film. Eddie may stagger away after their first duel, but he knows Fats will always be waiting for him and Gleason is a threatening and eventually, almost sympathetic presence that Newman runs sparks up against.

Not to simply turn this review into a list of who's in it, but Scott and Laurie deserve their props, too. The two of them variously constitute the most flawed, tragic and morally vacant characters in the film - Gordon sees pure dollar signs in Eddie and never pretends otherwise, flattening out his flaws, whilst flattening out his humanity at the same time and Scott gives as intense a performance as ever - one of the rare performers who it's simply a marvel to watch (possibly the best moment in the film comes when Eddie asks Gordon to move out of his way around the pool table - Scott's acquiescence is a great "Fuck you" moment and a rare moment of great humour in the film.). Laurie meanwhile turns Sarah into an infinitely interesting character, the kind you can easily imagine a whole film about their lives before the film existing. Brave and unflinching with her addiction and mental scarring never far from the surface, it's a performance made all the more valuable by the fact that Laurie essentially retired to be a mother for 15 years after the film, not reappearing until she was the crazed religious nut of a mother in Carrie.

All four main performances are up there with the very best of any other actor's work, and are certainly career highlights for all of them. Raw and charged, they give the film a zest and energy, that together with Rossen's engrossing direction makes it a melodrama with vivid characters and a real, truthful dramatic edge. It never cops out, it never blunts its cold-blooded (or should that be cool-blooded?) world it lives in, and crucially, sees that there's little difference between winning and losing, depending on the stakes.

Yet despite all this, the Academy chose to honour West Side Story and Judgement at Nuremburg that year, whilst Newman would return to the well over 20 years later with Martin Scorsese for a lacklustre sequel that failed to recapture the magic. Now that kind of behaviour just isn't cool, man.

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originally posted: 01/19/12 08:14:50
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User Comments

5/19/12 Marty A real Newman gem. You feel very close to the characters. Cool movie. 5 stars
9/19/07 Phil M. Aficionado Captivating period piece and character study with great early-career acting roles 5 stars
8/11/06 Sepi53 Good film 4 stars
2/10/05 tatum Excellent character study...and ten times better than "West Side Story" 5 stars
6/23/04 Sean Scanlan A movie with alot of charm 5 stars
4/10/04 IP Freeley action movie fan takes it in the you know where his taste is at 5 stars
11/15/03 Ultron George C. Scott is the man. 5 stars
11/09/01 Bob One of the best ever 5 stars
4/14/01 R.W. Welch A darkling masterpiece; Newman's best, Gleason's too. 5 stars
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  DVD: 12-Jun-2007



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