Vintage Movies: “The Hustler”

MAGNET contributing editor Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’30s through the ’70s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.

The Hustler (1961, 135 minutes)

Fast Eddie Felson and longtime pal Charlie Burns walk into a tiny pool hall two hours outside Pittsburgh and set the stage by playing each other for money. As planned, Eddie loses, then begs Charlie to play one more game for $105, all he’s got. “I’ll play you for that,” says the proprietor, eyeing an easy payday. “I’ll take a piece,” says a bystander. “No, no, I want him!” says Eddie, pointing angrily at the owner.

But this pool-shark is after bigger fish at Ames Billiards. “What, no bar?’ asks Eddie (Paul Newman) as they stroll into the renowned pool room. “No bar, no pinball machines, no bowling alleys. Just pool. This is Ames, mister,” barks the manager. “It looks more like a morgue to me,” cracks Charlie (Myron McCormick). “Those tables are the slabs they lay the stiffs on.” Felson is here to beat Minnesota Fats, the best straight-pool player in the country. “Want some advice? Take your boy and go home,” a local player tells Charlie. “There’s no way you can beat him. Nobody’s beat him in 15 years.”

At eight on the dot, dressed in a sharp three-piece suit, in walks Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason, playing it straight). “Do you like to gamble money on pool games, Eddie?” asks Fats. “Let’s you and I shoot a game of straight pool, Fats. Let’s make it $200 a game,” replies Eddie. “Now I know why they call you Fast Eddie,” smiles Fats, already chalking up his cue and putting talcum on his hands.

With the ante upped to $1,000 a game, the marathon contest has lasted well into the next morning by the time Bert Gordon (a menacing George C. Scott) is called in for financial reinforcement. “Mister, you’ve been sitting in that spot for hours. Would you mind moving?” snaps Felson at Gordon, who moves his chair 12 inches and sits down again.

“We’re $18,000 ahead. Let’s quit, Eddie,” pleads Charlie. “The pool game is not over until Minnesota Fats says it’s over,” sighs Eddie. “Is it over, Fats?” Fats looks at Gordon, who intones, “Stay with this kid. He’s a loser.” Fats goes to wash his face and hands and emerges revitalized. Eddie drains another bottle of J.T.S. Brown bourbon and returns to the table.

Days later, Gordon offers to stake Felson’s hustling career. “You’ve got talent,” says Gordon, “but Minnesota Fats has more character in his little finger than you’ve got in your whole skinny body. You drink whiskey because it gives you an excuse for losing.” When Felson turns him down, Gordon warns him about freelance hustling: “You walk into the wrong kind of place, they’ll eat you alive.” No sooner is he out the door then Fast Eddie walks straight into Arthur’s pool hall—the wrong kind of place.