An American Sports Tale: The Hustler

by Kevin Hopkins ’22

Source: Letterboxd

Published May 13th, 2021

In the tradition of great American sports epics, which includes films like Rocky and The Pride of the Yanks, director Robert Rossen’s The Hustler brings a unique spin on cinema to the silver screen while depicting the trials and tribulations individuals must go through to become the most feared pool hustler.

The film starts when Eddie Felson, played by the legendary Paul Newman, challenges Minnesota Fats, played by the larger-than-life Jackie Gleason, to a long series of pool games in which thousands are traded between the two players until Fats is able to decisively dominate Felson and come away with all the winnings. Felson’s identity is challenged numerous times following this disastrous loss when players around the country become completely aware of his talents and are unwilling to be swindled into the playing pool.

After another crushing loss against a small-time pool shark, Felson regroups with the help of local misfit Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie) and the mischievous Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), who guide him to a critical victory at the Kentucky Derby.

The film climaxes with a Fats and Felson rematch. In an epic scene between giants, Felson walks away with the victory while earning the respect of Fats and challenging the greedy Gordon. 

In directing The Hustler, Robert Rossen chose to forgo the increasingly popular technicolor standard to bring to life Walter Tevis’s 1959 novel of the same name. The film itself is viewed as a semi-autobiographical work by Rossen, who fell victim to the blacklisting and hysteria of the early 1950s. He later worked to showcase the failures one endures when selling out for material well-being, which Felson needs to do to succeed.

The Hustler fundamentally deals with the issue of success and one’s difficult path to achieving it without being taken advantage of by other weary figures. For Felson, success is only achieved when he sets aside greed and self-indulgence in the quest for victory and respect. The film also debates the nature of character in one’s search for meaning in the world. Felson’s shift from deceptive practices towards more honest strategies represents the importance of honor in achieving respect from others, which he eventually receives from the mythical Fats.  

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