Hustler [1961]

Paul Newman shines as cocky poolroom hustler "Fast" Eddie Felson in Robert Rossen's atmospheric adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel. Newman's Felson is a swaggering pool shark punk who takes on the king of the poolroom, Minnesota Fats (a cool, assured Jackie Gleason in his most understated performance). After losing big and crashing into a void of self-pity, Eddie meets down-and-out Sarah (Piper Laurie in a delicate performance), an alcoholic blue blood who's dropped into Eddie's world of dingy bars and seedy poolrooms. Eddie regains his confidence and attracts the attention of a shifty, calculating promoter, Bert Gordon (George C. Scott at his most heartless), who offers to bring Eddie into the big money--but at what cost? Rossen brings his film to life with the easy pace of a pool game, giving his actors room to explore their characters and develop into a razor-sharp ensemble. Eugen Sch├╝fftan earned an Academy Award for his shadowing black-and-white cinematography, as did art directors Harry Horner and Gene Callahan for their deceivingly simple set designs. Even in the daylight this film seems to be smothered by night, lit by the dim glow of a bar lamp or the overhead glare of a pool-table light, an appropriate environment for this tale of one man's struggle with his soul and his self-esteem. Newman returned as an older, wiser, cagier Felson 25 years later in Martin Scorsese's Color of Money. --Sean Axmaker

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