Paul Newman is Fast Eddie Felson, the new pool prodigy and challenger out of Oakland; Jackie Gleason is Minnesota Fats, pool legend and reigning best at the game; George C. Scott is Bert Gordon, gambler at large; Piper Laurie is Sarah Packhard, lost soul and boozer.
Robert Rossen adapted Walter Tevis’s novel, a telling drama by an obscure novelist. Not surprisingly, in doing the film adaptation of this drama about someone with greatness, that drama evidently seemed unsaleable to the movie makers in its novelistic form. Tevis dramatized the almost all-consuming lure of the game, here pool but broadly any game or many another endeavor, which the most talented performers experience intensely and well nigh unflaggingly. There is something mystical, a purity of a kind, about how they give themselves over to the quest for the perfect performance. It’s irresistible. (Of course, usually they must do so at great cost to those around them.) The quest of the great for greatness in the act is the true drama of this film, and here the film is estimable and universal.
This drama, however, is only the shortest of the three stories it has always seemed to me are dramatized in the film, the last two being conventions of Hollywood screenplays overly played in the movie version of Tevis’s story.
The first convention: The rise and fall and then climactic rise again of the hero. The second convention: the bittersweet love story. The way Rossen stages these conventions is a morality play in which Fast Eddie Felson fails the Character Test only to Redeem Himself with a Pyrrhic Victory over Minnesota Fats near the end of the movie.
Such is what’s done in too many Hollywood films. These two conventional dramas are superbly acted and staged–The Hustler is a most memorable Hollywood film–but there isn’t really much reason for playing up the love story between Felson and Sarah Packhard; and the diabolical Bert Gordon has too much on-camera time. He isn’t a suitable obstacle, just a run-of-the-mill villain.
The two interludes distract and limit what rings true in the film, the scenes when Newman doesn’t seem to be method acting but seems authentic.
The black-and-white filming is excellent, especially in mythologizing unforgettably the cathedral-like supreme pool hall in the nation–Ames Billiards, the Madison Square Garden of pool then; the atmospherics in the lesser pool palaces and dives, and the score by Kenyon Hopkins, are likewise wonderful.
But the central drama is Fast Eddie Felson triumphantly reaching magical levels of excellence. It’s enacted in his epic dethroning of Minnesota Fats. The dream of greatness, of perfection, is poeticized in a truly wonderful and colloquially soaring passage made all the more wonderful by Newman as he muses it aloud in a reverie during a picnic lunch in the park with Sarah. Small doubt Tevis labored over this passage to preserve forever one take on that rare drama of the greats, and thereby doing his readers and luckily, for Rossen highlights it in the film, his movie audiences the great favor of making sure they take in his vision:
“When I’m goin’, when I’m really goin’, I feel like a…like a jockey must feel when he’s sittin’ on his horse, he’s got all that speed and power underneath him, he’s coming into the stretch, the pressure’s on him–and he knows. He just feels, when to let it go and how much. ‘Cause he’s got everything working for him–timing, touch. It’s a great feeling, boy–it’s a real great feeling–when you’re right and you know you’re right. Like all of a sudden, I got oil in my arm. Pool cue’s part of me. You know, it’s a pool cue, it’s got nerves in it. You can feel the roll of those balls…. You don’t have to look. You just know. You make shots nobody’s ever made before, and you play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before….”
That’s what Felson’s after. All the rest, formally well done as it is, doesn’t ring anywhere near this true.
Here is the scene from the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUxLZWWRKUI&t=6s