Lately, there’s been a bit of a lament amongst some film and TV fans, about how a lot of the films being made today are either reboots or sequels or relaunches of earlier works; the Candyman series got a sequel this year, as did The Matrix and Halloween and Sex And The City and Dexter and The Wonder Years and even Doogie Howser, and on and on. But this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened – in fact, I remember there being a similar relaunch/reboot/sequel craze in the 80s and 90s. In my review for Psycho I mentioned that I was already “spoiled” for a lot of it – part of how was spoiled was from remembering the reviews about the 1983 sequel, a much lesser-quality film. The 1980s saw sequels to plenty of other classics – Rocky, Grease, Alien, Caddyshack, and others – and while some caught the right spirit of the original (or in some rare cases even surpassed it), others looked a bit more like money grabs, leaning on the reputation of the more famous original to bring in viewers while simultaneously missing the point, and potentially ruining the originals for future viewers.
And I came very close to having had The Color of Money ruin The Hustler for me (see, that’s where I was going with this). What maybe saved me is that I never actually saw that sequel – only the clips used in the music video for Eric Clapton’s song from the soundtrack, which was in heavy rotation on MTV when I was about fifteen. From what I can see in those clips today, and what I’ve read since, it looks like that film is more about the pool playing and the hustle for money – and to my mind, The Hustler is about something quite different entirely.
Don’t get me wrong – there is pool here. “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) is a young-and-hungry player, teamed up with his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) and traveling the country doing low-level hustles. But Eddie isn’t into the money so much as he’s into the love of the game – he is good at pool, and he knows it. He’s just into the thrill of doing what he knows he’s good at. In fact, he’s so good that he’s convinced he can beat the famous pool shark Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), and turns up in Minnesota’s pool hall to challenge him towards the beginning of the film. Minnesota ultimately beats him, of course – but it takes him 24 hours to do so, and Eddie goes down swinging, only dropping out when he has no more money to lay down as stakes for any further games. But Eddie later discovers Charlie withheld some of their money for safety’s sake, and abandons Charlie, striking out on his own for New York.
Along with getting his feet wet in small pool halls, Eddie meets Sarah (Piper Laurie), a part-time student and part-time barfly who ultimately takes him in. Sarah seems to have him pegged pretty quickly – “I’ve got troubles and I think maybe you’ve got troubles,” she tells him early on, wondering aloud if they should “maybe leave each other alone”. But these two troubled people end up fitting together – he encourages her to give up drinking, she nurses him through some broken thumbs after rubbing some poolsharks the wrong way. She opens up to him about her sad past. He opens up to her about why he loves the game so much. They truly start to heal the broken bits in each other.
So that’s why it’s all the more tragic when Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) drops by; Bert is a professional gambler friendly with Minnesota Fats who heard about Eddie’s game, and wants to bring him back out on the road. He’ll be able to get Eddie back in on a game with Minnesota, for sure…
I know that still sounds like a lot of pool. But for me, the heart of the film is actually Eddie and Sarah’s relationship, and how Eddie is torn between joy in what he does and disgust with what he has to do just to do it. There’s a lengthy speech he has in the middle of the film, while on a picnic with Sarah, where he discusses how his love of the game is at odds with the hustling he has to do: “Just had to show those creeps and those punks what the game is like when it’s great, when it’s really great. You know, like anything can be great [….] brick-laying can be great if a guy knows what he’s doin’ and why and if he can make it come off.” Pool playing is Eddie’s flow state – but the only way he’s ever known where he can exercise that flow state is to make a devil’s bargain with gamblers who exploit him for money. Sarah comes close to making him realize he doesn’t need to do things that way – but the lure is too great, and he gets pulled back towards his older habits, unaware what the cost might be until it’s too late. That’s the same story as The Red Shoes, in a way – and that’s how it landed with me.
Piper Laurie and Paul Newman are of course heartbreakingly excellent here. But the real standout for me was Jackie Gleeson as Minnesota Fats – I’d only ever associated him with his TV role in The Honeymooners, all words and bluster, but here he is completely different – stoic, quiet, an oasis of perfect calm. He’s a Poolroom Buddha who’s obtained the very kind of enlightened state where pool is all he needs to worry about – the very state Eddie wants to reach. But Eddie misunderstands the path he needs to take to get there – which makes him a sucker for the tips and tricks and abuse that Bert and Charlie try to foist on him. But tips and tricks don’t get you there – it’s tapping into that flow state, only speaking when you need to and only doing what you need to, and knowing when to stop. Gleason speaks and does very, very little, but when he does, it’s flawless – and so when Minnesota praises Eddie’s playing, eventually, we know it’s sincere. The tragedy is that it also comes too late.