"Hustlers of the world," William S. Burroughs once wrote, "there is one Mark you cannot beat; the Mark inside." I don't know if the makers of 1961's The Hustler had this quote in mind but it's certainly hard not to think of it when watching the film. Paul Newman and Piper Laurie star as two people on the brink of self-destruction in this surprisingly contemplative and sad film about a pool shark.
"Fast" Eddie (Newman) is a brilliant pool player and a small time hustler who wants to make it into the big time by beating a famous player called Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). He comes close but ultimately he's defeated not by lack of talent but for being a "born loser", at least according to an interested gangster named Bert (George C. Scott).
Now broke and depressed, Eddie stops for breakfast in a bus station where he meets Sarah Packard played by Piper Laurie. She has the air of doom about her, a perpetual grim smile, and a gaze that's steady not from confidence but from hopelessness. But it's kind of the shadow of confidence or pride. She pleads with Eddie not to beg for money in one crucial scene--in an earlier one, she's reluctant to take him in because, she says, he's "too hungry."
The two have an interesting relationship. You can see why she would be both initially repulsed by and ultimately enamoured with Eddie's personality. There's a scene between Eddie and Bert where Bert elaborates on his impression of Eddie's personality. Throughout the rest of the film, the viewer joins Eddie in wondering at its accuracy. Is Eddie playing against himself, are his losses due to something inside him that wants to lose, that sees loss as the only realistic outcome?
If he has a compulsion to lose, he has another compulsion to achieve the high of great play. He describes the feeling of playing to Sarah in one scene, the ecstasy of just somehow knowing how the balls on the table or going to move based on a visceral sense of the table surface, the balls, and the pool cue. You can see why her eyes shine in an unaccustomed way while she watches him talk.
It's a brilliantly shot film with terrific performances, particularly by Newman and Laurie.
The Hustler is available on The Criterion Channel.