The Hustler

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched The Hustler in its entirety. I would guess somewhere between seven and ten. Plus I have watched clips from it dozens of times.

It’s one of the five or so movies that are serious contenders for my favorite of all time.

In my discussion of it, I will allude to developments that occur fairly late in the film, so for anyone who has not yet seen it there will be spoilers.

At the center of the film is (Fast) Eddie Felson, a hot shot young pool player who is making a good living hustling with his partner Charlie, but is intent on establishing himself as the greatest pool player in the world.

At least best pool room hustler type pool player that is, not tournament player. He doesn’t go up against the likes of Willie Mosconi (who, by the way, has a cameo in The Hustler), but instead travels to New York, to a pool room called Ames (the actual Ames Billiard Academy was dirtied up to look like a seedy pool hall for the movie) to challenge the consensus best current pool room player Minnesota Fats.

Eddie and Fats square off in two epic matches, early and late in the film. In between, Eddie breaks with Charlie, and commences a personal relationship with a girl he meets named Sarah and a professional relationship with Bert Gordon, a gambler and manager who owns a piece of Fats and is determined to get his hooks into Eddie as well.

Much of the film then plays out as a morality tale of Sarah and Bert fighting for the soul of Eddie.

There is just so much to appreciate about The Hustler. It comes about as close as any movie I’ve seen to perfection. The story is compelling from start to finish. The acting is extraordinarily good; Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, and George C. Scott are amazing, and for that matter the supporting characters are seemingly all exactly right for their parts. There is a lot of psychological and moral depth to the film. There is subtlety and some ambiguity that is a natural consequence of that depth and complexity—i.e., it’s a reflection of real life not being all black and white and obvious—rather than being gratuitously added for its own sake, as is not uncommon with lesser movies that think there’s something cool and deep about being incomprehensible.

This is a film that fully engages me every time I see it, and leaves me with a great deal to think about and talk about. As if I didn’t have sufficient reason to love this film, I had another very positive experience watching it this most recent time.

The person I watched it with, who has become quite dear to me, told me a day or two later that while at the time she had been uncertain what she thought of The Hustler and whether she liked it, once it sank in she realized that it had had significant meaning for her and indeed seeing it has potentially changed her life.

She responded specifically to what I have long identified as—especially if you leave aside the two epic matches with Minnesota Fats—my favorite scene in the movie. It’s the scene in the bar when Bert explains to Eddie why he sees him as a loser, how Fats’s superior character is what enabled him to ultimately prevail over Eddie, and especially how the ability to conjure up reasons to explain and excuse losing is what keeps a person a loser. “No problem losing when you got an excuse.”

She told me that that made her think about the fact that she had decided against pursuing a certain life dream because she saw so many reasons it wasn’t realistic to do so. She had come to excuse not trying in the way that Eddie—and losers in general—excuse losing. No problem not pursuing your dreams when you got an excuse, in other words. And she realized that she had to break out of that tendency to anticipate and explain away failure. She had changed her mind, she told me, and decided that she would now challenge herself and embark upon that path she had always wanted to take and talked herself out of, no excuses, and she told me that she had acquired that determination from the movie I had shared with her.

So now this movie that has meant so much to me for so long has a special meaning for her as well.

Moving on, let me touch on a couple of the ambiguities I mentioned above.

It never occurred to me until recently that Eddie and Bert are hustling Findley in Louisville. I always took what seemed to be going on at face value. Then I read a comment by someone online theorizing (though he presented it more as an obvious fact than a theory) that the conflict between Eddie and Bert is staged as a ruse to hustle Findley, and explaining what he saw as the evidence for his claim.

The farthest I’m willing to go at this point is that that theory is a plausible possibility. It fits what happens reasonably well, but frankly the straightforward, face value interpretation fits at least as well and probably better. But certainly it’s an interesting possibility to ponder.

Then there’s the scene where Eddie has his thumbs broken by some toughs. I saw a review by I believe it was Roger Ebert in which he matter-of-factly states that Bert arranged for those guys to do that to Eddie. That also hadn’t occurred to me before I read that. And here too while I’m willing to concede that it is consistent with what happens, I don’t see it as being so clearly established that you can simply state it as a fact that way.

What is the evidence for it? Well, Bert warns Eddie that something like that could happen. Later he admits that he knows the person who led the toughs who victimized Eddie, because he makes sure to know “everybody who can hurt me, and everybody who can help me.” And it is in his interest that Eddie suffer through that attack, as it leads him to team up with Bert as Bert desires.

I don’t see that case as being conclusive at all. It’s tempting to see Bert as a nearly omnipotent, omniscient, manipulative evil figure, but the danger is in interpreting everything to fit that hypothesis in a circular argument fashion: Why does he seem so powerfully malevolent? Because he does things like drive Eddie closer to him by arranging to have his thumbs broken. How do we know he was behind Eddie having his thumbs broken? Because that’s just the kind of thing such a powerful, borderline supernatural, figure of evil would do when it serves his purposes.

So I would say that, again, it’s at best a reasonable surmise. Because, for one thing, there was an awful lot of serendipity to Eddie’s being attacked. How would Bert have known Eddie was going to wander into that particular dive bar where it happened? (Unless you want to hypothesize that Bert had goons all over town waiting for him, so it didn’t need to be this specific place.) What about the fact that, on the surface at least, it was Eddie’s decision to cease hustling and openly play his best so as to slaughter and humiliate his opponent that led to his being beaten up in retaliation? What role could Bert possibly have had in getting Eddie to behave so provocatively?

But let’s return to the struggle between Bert and Sarah for Eddie’s soul.

That symbolism is there, but what I appreciate is that the characters are real and psychologically complex enough that there is a lot more to them than just fitting the symbolism as needed.

Bert has elements of being the devil on one of Eddie’s shoulders, as Sarah has of being the angel on Eddie’s other shoulder. But there’s much more going on with both of them than just that.

At the simplest level, Bert as the Satan figure, the egoist, the Ayn Rand capitalist, wants to harness and control Eddie’s talent and potential, and to use it in whatever way puts the most money in his pocket. From this perspective, if he says or does anything that is actually good for Eddie it is only because it happens at that moment to be in his own self-interest.

At that same simplest level, Sarah recognizes and responds to Eddie’s commitment to excellence, to his never having really been comfortable with hustling because he wants to play his best and beat the best without the little games where he has to pretend he’s doing something else. She wants to facilitate his keeping himself free from the scummy and exploitative world that Bert represents, so he can pursue his vocation for himself and for the abstract value of seeking perfection, and not as a pawn of someone who will selfishly use and discard him.

And so Bert and Sarah must be in conflict, a conflict that Bert wins, thereby devastating Sarah.

But let’s think a little more about just how Sarah’s demise plays out, and why.

Eddie, Bert, and Sarah travel to Louisville together. Bert makes it clear to Sarah that she will only be tolerated, barely, if she refrains from interfering in Bert’s plans for Eddie. Sarah makes it clear to Bert that she finds him contemptible and a bad influence on Eddie.

Things eventually come to a head when Eddie loses his temper with Sarah, and then achieves a major success that would have been impossible without Bert’s participation thereby tying Bert and Eddie closer together. Eddie has chosen the devil on his one shoulder and rejected the angel on his other.

Back at the hotel, with Eddie absent, Sarah goes to Bert’s room, it is implied that they have sex, and subsequently she kills herself.

What explains Sarah’s actions? Even given that she interprets what has happened as constituting Bert defeating her in the fight over Eddie’s soul, why not fight on? (That is, treat this as a battle he has won, in a much longer war that either could still win. Keep trying to influence Eddie away from Bert and toward freedom and greatness on his own terms.) If she thinks the war is over and her defeat final, why not leave Louisville, leave the relationship, and return to her pre-Eddie life, or move on to whatever is best for her to move on to?

I think understanding the answers requires acknowledging certain aspects of her that are decidedly non-angelic.

For one thing, I think she’s a masochist. Or at least a situational masochist who, when she loses, craves that the loss be as thorough and humiliating as possible.

Alf Landon, after his crushing defeat at the hands of FDR in 1936, explained the emotions he felt about it by invoking what he said was a classic old story from his home state of Kansas about a tornado:

It swept away first the barn, then the outbuildings. Then it picked up the dwelling and scattered it all over the landscape.

As the funnel-shaped cloud went twisting its way out of sight, leaving nothing but splinters behind, the wife came to, to find her husband laughing.

She angrily asked him: “What are you laughing at, you darned fool?”

And the husband replied: “The completeness of it.”

Sarah didn’t laugh, but she similarly gave herself up to the euphoria of total defeat and devastation. The outcome is inevitable, winning is no longer possible, so let’s put an exclamation point on it and accept the sexual humiliation of voluntarily giving oneself to one’s conqueror, one’s nemesis. When there is no way to avoid the triumph of evil, when further fighting is futile, then accept that evil, and better yet wallow in it. That’s her masochism.

I also wonder how much of a role guilt and self-doubt play in her behavior at the end.

Yes, she has elements of an angel on Eddie’s shoulder, but she has a lot of other elements too that render her far short of a pure voice for goodness and idealism, and it’s possible her awareness of these flaws generated guilt and self-loathing in her.

In general, the woman’s a mess, very fucked up. Certainly she wants to be a force for good in Eddie’s life, someone who helps him to believe in himself and to understand that he is—or has the potential to be—every bit as much a winner as Bert tells him he’s a loser. But she’s also a pathetic lush, she’s emotionally unstable, and their relationship is more dysfunctional than not where they’re apt to drag each other down deeper into the gutter.

She looks at Bert, and she sees a figure of evil whose only interest in Eddie lies in profiting from his success (as much as he profited from his failure earlier in the movie). But what does she see when she looks in the mirror? Maybe sometimes she sees what she wants to see, the angel that contrasts with Bert’s devil. But I wonder if she also sometimes sees someone similarly looking to benefit from her association with Eddie, to exploit him, to profit from him.

That’s how Bert sees her after all, as a rival competing with him to control and benefit off of Eddie, which is why he looks for an opportunity to eliminate her. Maybe she doubts her own supposedly altruistic motives. With Bert it’s primarily money, along with the psychological satisfaction of power and control. Maybe it’s not money with her—though it’s certainly possible that she’s in part motivated by wanting to attach herself to someone with the potential to come into substantial wealth through his skill, or at least wonders if she is—but instead a desire to live vicariously through Eddie, to be a part of something much bigger than her that requires the sort of extraordinary gift that she knows that she herself lacks.

She’s a very flawed person, and she may realize that attaching herself to Eddie and soaking up some reflected glory is her one chance to climb up out of the gutter that she has largely placed herself in.

So knowing that her defeat is total, and that the most personally degrading part of that defeat she brought on herself through her masochism, and not even being able to console herself with the belief that at least she fought the good fight out of pure motives to safeguard the soul of someone she loves—which I’m suggesting she might have some doubt about—and for that matter being something of an unstable drunk and kook to begin with, she sees suicide as her one escape from the ugliness. The ugliness about the situation, and perhaps the ugliness about herself that she has glimpsed.

The flip side of Sarah being much too fucked up to be a pure angel in Eddie’s life is that Bert at times deviates from what you would expect from a pure devil. Maybe I’m too much of an old softie, but I feel some sympathy for Bert. He’s not just a simplistic villain to me; I see certain human qualities in him (that I have never seen in, say, Don King and his relationships with boxers).

I see it especially in the scene that takes place in the aftermath of Sarah’s suicide. Up until this point he has always seemed in control of himself and in control of events, to the almost supernatural extent that makes some viewers interpret him as such a Satan figure. But that’s not the Bert of this scene.

He is off-balance, emotional, distraught, caught up in something of an enormity that he never anticipated.

Granted, it’s possible to interpret his panicky, unsteady behavior as stemming from the threat to his continued control and exploitation of Eddie, as solely a matter of, “Oh no, Eddie’s going to blame me, and that’ll be the end of our making big money together!”

But that’s not how I read him. I think his looking and acting so shell-shocked has a partly moral explanation rather than a purely self-interested one. I think his muttering “She come in here Eddie…. Eddie, she came in here” is not just a matter of trying to convince Eddie that anything he did with Sarah was initiated by her and thus not his fault, but of wanting to convince himself.

I see someone who has developed some degree of genuine fondness for Eddie, and who feels some guilt and uncertainty over what happened with Sarah. He liked the winning, and the money, the thrills, and in this case the sex that it brought with it, but at a certain level it was all a game to him. He thought defeating her meant getting her out of the picture—and as a bonus fucking her on the way out—not killing her. I think his reaction is a sort of, “Hey, this shit wasn’t supposed to get so heavy!” and guilt and self-doubt over his role in it.

And even in the final scene when Eddie is standing up to him and lambasting him, he doesn’t come across as a Machiavellian trying to ascertain what will most work to his advantage in this situation. Nor do I see him as simply a defeated bully. I think he’s largely taking the verbal abuse and choosing not to exercise his capacity to hurt or kill Eddie in retaliation, because he thinks he might have it coming and because he has indeed developed certain feelings for Eddie that prevent him from seeing him solely as an enemy, or as a pawn to be manipulated.

Still, his pride won’t let him go all the way in freeing Eddie. Or at least when he does free him, he gets in a little final dig to let him know that that freedom comes at a high cost. But the fact that he gives in even to the extent that he does tells me that he’s accepting some of the responsibility for Sarah’s death, that he feels bad about it, and that he respects Eddie’s standing up to him and doesn’t want to just punish him for it. That’s not a Satan figure to me.

I think the tragic series of events didn’t just result in Eddie’s moral growth, but Bert’s as well. I wonder as much about what happened with him after the end of the movie as I do any other character.

Also, don’t overlook the importance of Minnesota Fats in that closing confrontation scene. As Eddie and Bert are loudly and dramatically having it out, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Fats is so often in the shot.

You can read in his face so much that he is thinking about. Will Eddie follow the same road as he has, and accept that he can only pursue his art at the highest levels if he sells out? Is he hoping Eddie’s defiance will succeed, as at least that way he can vicariously enjoy some of that freedom? Is he hoping instead that Eddie will not be able to sustain his defiance, since if his defiance were indeed successful it would make Fats feel even worse about his own choices and how he himself lacked the guts to similarly free himself?

I could write about this movie for hours and hours more, give my reaction to every scene, to every character.

But I’ll close by following up on my remarks about Fats in that final scene. I’m thinking of that classic moment when Eddie addresses Fats, and Fats looks up at him, seeking to keep his composure though he doesn’t know whether he’s about to receive an accusation, a plea for help, or what, and Eddie tells him, “Fat Man, you shoot a great game of pool,” and he hoists a glass and responds simply, “So do you, Fast Eddie.”

At that moment, with so much going on in Eddie’s mind—the death of Sarah, the confrontation with Bert, the risking of death at the hands of Bert’s henchmen, the winning of his freedom that to him vindicated Sarah and redeemed her death, Bert’s informing him that the cost of doing so was the loss of the opportunity to play big time pool in the future, and all the rest—at that moment, he returned to what he had told Sarah in that earlier scene when she had emotionally assured him in response that he was a winner after all, at that moment, what he was most conscious of was an appreciation for what pool could be, what competition could be, what human excellence could be at its highest level, at that moment, he needed to reach out to the one man in the room, in the world, who understood that. It’s like he was telling Fats, never mind about all this other bullshit, about the money, the exploitation, the slimy human context in which our experience occurred, and just appreciate with me the greatness of it.

That’s what it’s really all about in the end, that’s what really matters, and you and I shared that here today Fats. Yes, Eddie, we did.

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