Film/Classic logo

The Hustler

Directed by Robert Rosssen with Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason, Myron McCormick and Murray Hamilton, black and white, 134 minutes, 1961

By Carter B. Horsley

It takes a lot of playing to begin to understand pool. Sinking a ball in the targeted pocket is only the beginning. What happens to the cue ball after it hits the target ball is more important and this part of the game is known as positioning, leaving the cue ball in a good position for the next shot.

Great players make the game look quite easy as it appears that they never have to shoot very difficult shots and that reflects their positioning skill. That skill involves the qualities of a player's stroke with the cuestick and his ability to understand and execute "English," the ability to hit the cue ball in ways that will make it twist its path effectively either before or after hitting the target ball to make it stop rolling in an advantageous position.

There are three basic types of stroke: dead stop, folo, and draw. The first usually involves hitting the target ball so that the cue ball hardly travels at all after contact. The second involves hitting the upper part of the cue ball and continuing to move the cue stick forward without a stop at contact so that the cue ball will continue to move forward, perhaps at an angle depending on the shot, after contact with the targeted ball. The third involves hitting the lower part of the cue ball and instantly pulling back the cue stick to impart a reverse spin on the cue ball to make it come back, perhaps at an angle depending on the shot. Great players, moreover, have incredible and usually very deceptive strokes that they can control with great precision in terms of how hard and fast they move the cue ball. Many players take years of playing before they can develop a soft stroke and great players seem to be able to use a soft stroke to great advantage, often making the cue ball or the target ball travel impressive distances in comparison with the hard and strong strokes that most beginners start with. One of the best hustlers I ever played had a very, very slow stroke but because of his skill with folo he was able to do remarkable things with it, although unfortunately his game deteriorated as the stakes increased despite his wonderful skills and abilities.

The elements of "English" appear simple but are not and are very much influenced by the exact position of the balls on the table, the quality or condition of the felt covering on the table and the resiliency of the cushions along its sides as well as the exact velocity, angle and type of stroke employed by the player. Initially, beginners will grasp the geometry of the table and the simple and expected ways balls will respond when they collide with a cushion and begin to temper their strokes to compensate for distances. In time, they will move on from mere "bank" shots, in which the target ball is hit into a cushion first before traveling towards the targeted pocket, to more impressive "double" and "triple" bank shots, in which the ball hits more cushions along its route.

Mastering these rudimentary skills takes quite a while as does consistency in making even "straight" shots. At this level, a player may begin to get some confidence and a good deal of satisfaction from the game, but would be easy pickings for an advanced player, to say nothing of a hustler.

The advanced, or intermediate level play, begins to be able to understand and try to execute the subtleties of "English" and "positioning." When one strikes the cue ball off its vertical center line, the stroke applies an angled spin to the target ball and when properly stroked can make the targeted ball deviate from the basic geometry of the shot. As the ball spins on the felt table, the friction can alter its path both on a seeming direct shot or a "bank" shot. When planning to hit a cue ball with such "English," however, the player must often alter his aim at the target ball to compensate for the fact that the cue ball is not being hit directly. The object of applying the "English" to the stroke is usually not to change the trajectory of the target ball as much as it is to effect the path of the cue ball after contact. Good players can "draw" the cue ball back the full-length of the table or more, or make it make quite substantial curves in its path backwards from the target ball. At this level, good player can also master making "reverse banks" and alter the angles that the target ball will take after hitting a cushion.

At this level, the player needs to apply his skills and his approach to the game to positioning. Hitting the target ball into the targeted pocket is now assumed and what is really important is having the cue ball come to rest in the most advantageous position not only for the next shot but for the game.

They are many different games of pool. The most famous and popular are "Straight," "Eight-ball," "Nine-ball" and "One-pocket." In straight, the winner is whoever reaches 50 or 100 pocketed balls first and the players can shot any ball on the table as long as they state which pocket it is going into. In eight-ball, whoever sinks the first ball on the break from a solid, triangular, 15-ball rack will then only attempt to sink balls of the same type, either solids or verticals, making sure to only sink the "8" ball after he has pocketed all the other balls of his type. In "Nine-ball," only balls 1 through 9 are set up in a diamond shape within the rack and after the break the players must should the balls in consecutive order from 1 up and whoever sinks the 9 ball wins, which can happen before all the other balls are sunk as long as the next consecutively numbered ball in play was hit first. In "One-Pocket," the players start with the traditional "Straight" rack of 15 balls but each player is allowed to sink balls in only one pocket and if he sinks a ball in his pocket and other balls fall into other pockets, but not his opponent's they come back up on the table and on placed on or directly behind the "scratch" mark. Whoever sinks 8 balls in his pocket first wins. This game requires the most skill of all the popular pool games because the strategy is not to let the other player have a reasonable shot at his pocket if you miss but also to get good position for your next shot. A major element of this game, and one that also figures in the other games but not as often, is the ability make "safe" shots. "Safe" shots are those that make sure that either the target or cue ball hits one cushion but leave no shots for the other player and most often such shots do not sink the target ball. I once was able to go 8 rounds of safe shots with the best hustler I usually played with and we were both impressed. These types of safe shots often involved shooting the cue ball almost the full length of the table and making it hit a cushion, also known as a "rail" and then returning and resting solidly against the pack of balls without disturbing, or opening them up. Usually this shot would also send one of the corner balls against a rail and then gently back to its former position. "One-Pocket" also involves a lot of defensive play not used in most other pool games. Often one player may leave a ball a few millimeters away from the front of "his" pocket and a good "One-Pocket" player can hit the cue ball in such a way as to knock it cleanly away and leave the cue ball directly in front of his opponent's pocket. At this level of play it is usually assumed that the players will sink all possible bank shots and also be able to make a goodly number of angled, separated combination shots, all the while still making sure to leave themselves with good position and their opponent with terrible position.

My greatest personal achievement in pool occurred at Ames Pool Hall on the second floor in the Claridge Hotel in Times Square, long since demolished, but the real scene used quite often in "The Hustler." In the early 1960s, Ames was a no-nonsense, serious but seedy pool hall with a very mixed clientele. When I walked in at 3 AM after work at The New York Times, which was nearby, no one was playing. I asked for a table and was setting up a rack when I was approached by a rather scruffily dressed young man, who demanded a game. I respectfully declined, saying I only want to shoot a couple of practice games by myself and had no money. He said, "Let's play!" as his friends looked on and smiled. I declined again, but he persisted, leaning aggressively against "my" table. I said, "all right, one game. I've got $10 dollars and need $5 to get a taxi to go home so we can play for $5. He said "OK. What do you want to play?" I said my only game really was "One-Pocket." He smiled and said "OK," and taking out a coin to flip on the table, said "Call it" to decide who had the choice of making the break shot. I said "Tails," won, and said I would break. Most people don't want to break because they were leave too many shots open for the opponent and therefore when they have to break try a fancy safe shot. My best hustler friend had once dazzled me with an incredible break shot in which he shot the cue ball first into a side cushion and then into the middle of the rack on the side near his pocket, driving the corner ball on the other side into his pocket and having the cue ball bounce back from the now broken rack and then, because of the very strong English used on the very hard break shot, and return to hit the rack a second time and then to slowly move towards the rear cushion with no balls near the opponent's pocket and a few near his. The shot is very difficult and even my best hustler could not make it all the time. I would suppose he could make it about 3 out of 7 or 8 tries. I was resigned to losing the $5 and all I wanted to do was to get out of Ames safely and in one piece, but I was a little annoyed at being interrupted so I tried this break shot and made it and I even had called the specific ball for my pocket, which is not necessary in "One-Pocket." I had made the shot a few times before but my average was more like 2 in 10 or 11. Naturally, I could not help but smile, but it was a short smile because I had just gotten the very intense attention of my opponent and everyone else in the hall. "Some shot!" my opponent exclaimed with a mixture of admiration and extreme annoyance and surprise. I got very nervous and tried to smile and sqinch my shoulders as if to say I was lucky and it wasn't my fault, but then that was not likely after having called the shot. Worse, the shot had been nearly perfect and I had plenty of shots and there were no balls near his pocket. I then proceeded to sink seven balls in a row in my pocket with a modicum of difficulty and the game was over and he never had a chance to shoot. I took out a five-dollar-bill to give him as a well-meaning gesture, explaining that I had never done that before but my elation was mixed with great fear as it was a spectacular run and if I had been looking for trouble this was the place, unfortunately. "Kid, you got guts! You come in here and put a stunt like that! Man, that's crazy. You want me to set up some action for you?" Relieved at his non-violent reaction, I laughed and tried to explain that I really had never done that before and that I really was not a good player, I was not a hustler, and that while I knew the game well I was very erratic and missed a lot of simple straight shots and thanks a lot and sorry, but I really have to go. He offered me the $5 dollars he owed me as well as the $5 dollar I had put on the table for him, but I smiled and said thanks but not necessary and good night and ran to pay off the time for the table and leave. When I got outside I walked quickly a few blocks north looking back to see if I was being followed and luckily hailed a cab and went home. It was one of the greatest and scariest moments of my life because I had seen "The Hustler" and remembered the scene when "Fast Eddy" Felson, played by Paul Newman, got his thumbs broken by a group of players who had hustled in a bar.

It was a pool player's dream to run the rack from the break in "One-Pocket," a game usually only played by the very best players, most of them hustlers. I had told my challenger at Ames the truth. I was not a good player and not a hustler. I had been playing a lot with hustlers at McGirr's, a much nicer pool hall a block away on Eighth Avenue in a large basement, a place often frequented by actor Peter Falk, who was a very good player. I got to know the game well, but I never played often enough to get my skills up to real excellence. My highest run in "Straight" pool was only 32 and most hustlers can often run 100 and the greats, like Willie Mosconi, who appears in "The Hustler" and did most of the trick shots in the film, got up to 500 or more.

At my level, then, I was always too tempted to make the flashy combination, or bank, or trick shot and was bored with simple straight shots which I often missed. Also, my stroke was still generally too hard. Moreover, I began to get nervous after running a rack. Despite such failings, I was able not a few times to really get in sync with the table and the game, to become one with it, just as Fast Eddy would declare about his cue stick and his arm, a euphoric sense of cosmic oneness and concentration and flow and tempo. You're on!

Unfortunately, I did not achieve this electric level very often. This is a level in which you are not even really conscious of aiming, or planning your position. They say that great chess champions can play their games 8 or 10 moves ahead. In pool, I could usually plan my shots 4 or 5 ahead. The great players probably plan about 8 shots ahead. At the "electric" level, everything is in "balance" and "balance" is something very important in pool, just as "footwork" is in tennis. In "electric" level pool, one doesn't scan the table for the best shot and bend over and take a few "line-up" practice strokes. One simply walks to the table, leans over, and takes one practice stroke and shot. The shot was perfectly lined up by the walk to the table. Needless to say, in this euphoric state one's aim and stroke and positioning are "on."

I continued to play pool on and increasingly off for the next several years, but have only played a handful of games over the past couple of decades. The knowledge is still there, but the execution stinks. I probably should have stopped after the game in Ames, but then pitchers who throw "perfect" games don't usually quit their careers. There is a deep, very deep satisfaction, however, in knowing that you have at least once done something perfect.

"The Hustler" is about such things, and much more.

It is a story about ambition, and drive, gambling, love, betrayal, and honor. It is a story not about elegance, but about insufficiencies, selfishness and self-doubts. It is about the lows of life even more than it is about the highs of life.

The movie's greatness is not its themes, or its very fine direction, but its sensational acting. Paul Newman's performance is the best of his long career, full of enormous energy, yearning, confusion, hatred and love. He deserved an Oscar for it which he did not get, although he got one for his role as an older "Fast Eddy" in a "sequel" 25 years later entitled "The Color of Money," a much weaker film. Piper Laurie is exceeding poignant and terrific as his lover, Sarah Packard, and she too deserved an Oscar which she did not get. George C. Scott is evil incarnate in the role of the gambler/manager, Bert Gordon, a role that made his career and stands with "Patton" as his greatest role. Jackie Gleason, the great comic, is fabulous as "Minnesota Fats," a real, legendary hustler. Gleason shot all his own shots and is known to have actually been able to shoot runs of about 80 in "Straight" pool in real life. Gleason's "Fats" is elegant, cool, confident and human.

Fast Eddy is hustler who thinks he is good enough to take on Minnesota Fats, the best there is. He is obsessed with his goal and when he gets his challenge in the middle of the film in a very long scene he loses because he gets cocky while Fats stays cool. He tries to recover and has to start over trying to raise a "stake," and Scott, who sees his talent, takes control of him while insisting on the lion's share of the profits he believes can be made. Scott is ruthless and very corrupt and splits Fast Eddy from his lover who commits suicide. Fast Eddy hardens and succeeds in his comeback that ends in another memorable game with Fats and an ending that is riveting when Scott demands his huge share of the winnings.

The film's script is sensational and Myron McCormick and Murray Hamilton are superb as Fast Eddy's manager and as a dandy gambler, respectively.

The movie is high personal drama that stays forever in the guts of the viewer's minds. Are we strong enough to go for what we want? Is what we want have any value? Can we live with what we do to get what we want? What is there after perfection? Can we live with ourselves if we don't give it our all and seek to be the best? Is personal self-fulfillment more important than love? Can we tolerate cruelty? Can we have no regrets? How will we act under fire?

"The Hustler" racks it up. Newman, Lauri, Gleason and Scott received Oscar nominations. The film was also nominated for best picture, best director and best screenplay. It won Oscars for Eugene Shuftan for best cinematography and for best art direction.

Newman claims to have never picked up a pool cue before the film and was tutored by Mosconi for four weeks before filming began.

This film, which was based on a novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, ranks 28th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films.

This film ranks 148th in the Top 250 list of the Internet Movie Data Base as of December 27, 2000.

Click here to see the very extensive and fine review by Tim Dirks with poster reproductions of "The Hustler" at http://www.filmsite.org/hust.html

Click here to order the 2 disk DVD for 25 percent off its $19.99 list price from Amazon.com with commentaries by Paul Newman, Richard Schickel and several fine documentaries about the film

Click here to see The International Movie Data Base entry on "The Hustler"

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects

 

Home Page of The City Review