5.0 out of 5 stars
One of the best films ever made., Jan. 11 2004
This film has haunted me ever since I saw it (experienced it, really) for the first time in the mid-1960s. I was barely a teenager at that time (I'm 52 at this writing: 1-11-04), but despite my young years long ago, the film flooded my consciousness with unforgettable images and words of profound allegorical depth.
The Hustler uses the game of pool as a visual metaphor to represent the "survival of the fittest" realities that we all must face every day in order to live and to thrive on this planet. Some of us play well. Some of us play only well enough to get by. Some of us cheat by preying on and attaching ourselves to those who do play well. And some of us fail to acquire (or simply lose) the necessary abilities to play well enough to survive. All of this is shown brilliantly in The Hustler.
Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is an artistic genius whose medium is the game of pool. He plays for the sheer joy of the play itself, making seemingly impossible and awe-inspiring shots that transcend the cold and calculated shots of those who, as Eddie puts it, "play it safe". Eddie has no respect for "playing it safe" because to him such an approach to play violates the aesthetic that he seeks.
Unfortunately, his need for the aesthetic also blinds him to the realities of human frailty. Enter Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie in an extremely moving and unforgettable performance). Sarah, an extremely intelligent, emotionally wounded, and poignantly sensitive woman - also an alcoholic - falls in love with Eddie. What Eddie doesn't realize until it's too late is that he loves her, too.
Eddie in his self-absorption is also blind to the psychological predators who connect themselves to the game of pool for the sole purpose of making huge sums of money. Eddie falls victim to such a predator named Burt Gordon (George C. Scott). Their relationship transports both of them (along with Sarah) through a journey that ends in the anguish of tragedy, but also in the triumph of redemption - albeit burdened with contrition and heartbreak - for Eddie.
Of particular importance is the character Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). He is the crucible through whom Eddie must pass in order to attain his final and decisive victory. It is, however, a victory that turns out to be much more complex and important than the one Eddie sought at the beginning of his quest to outplay Minnesota Fats.
The final scene of the film shows Eddie attaining this victory. It is an anguished rite of passage in which Eddie is born into the full humanity of his life. Paul Newman as Eddie portrays this rite of passage brilliantly. It sums up better than any film I've ever seen the absolute essentials of personhood that a man must have if he is to earn the honor of becoming a man: Integrity, empathy, compassion, good will, respect for others and himself, the confidence attained from deep introspection and honest self-examination, and finally the absolute refusal to sell his dignity to anyone for any amount of money even if that means risking his own death in order to attain that end.
Immeasurably strengthened by the power of his great love for Sarah (whose suicide he blames largely on himself), Eddie fearlessly does risk his own death by refusing to sell his soul to the man who would own him (Burt Gordon). But Burt, like the devil he is, realizes that when a man is ready to die for his dignity and for those he loves, that man - without a doubt - is free. He can't be bought and is thus useless to those who play, as Burt put it, "for money and for glory" alone. Burt wisely lets go of Eddie because he realizes that Eddie is now completely his own man - no longer capable of being owned.
What greater attainment above the personal freedom bestowed by integrity could there ever be in this life for a man or woman? None. None at all. And that in the end is what Eddie alone walks away with.
Finally, listen astutely to the brilliant musical score composed for The Hustler by the great film composer, Kenyon Hopkins. Some of the finest jazz music on film played by musicians like the great alto saxophonist, Phil Woods and the ever-inspiring bassist, Milton Hilton (among many others) brings a tremendous depth of musical intensity and emotional power to the film. Listen to the last altissimo register saxophone note accompanied only by a plaintive guitar chord as the screen fades to black. It'll haunt you in your dreams!
What a film! Bravo forever to everyone who brought The Hustler into being!