The Hustler begins with a great hustle. Eddie Felson, brilliantly played by a young and gorgeous Paul Newman, leans low over a barroom pool table, inspecting the cue ball and another ball pinned together on the side rail less than a foot from the end pockets. An impossible shot, and to add to the fun, Felson’s drunk. Good thing no one told him; stumbling over to the facing side, he lines up and drains the ball. His partner in this con game is a pudgy fellow named Charlie (Myron McCormick), who has the perfect look of a man so well-acquainted with losing he can see it coming a mile down the pipe and who lays a bet against his boy repeating the magic shot. Eddie tries and misses. Within seconds he has the whole pool hall betting on his chances at his third go-round.
It’s a divine trick, the kind of first-scene con that quickly sets up a great many con movies. The difference here is that it’s a hustle on the audience as much as the drunks who fall for the game. While Felson looks like a polished, controlled villain, he has no control. He loses more than one match on his hot-headed emotions. He alienates his only friend Charlie, and escapes his humiliations by going home with a woman he meets in the bus station. When she admits she loves him, he cannot return the favor. The only thing he feels for—which he voices in a fantastically written speech—is the poetry of his chosen game, and the chance at being the best there is.
In this way, there is no lonelier American movie than The Hustler, and no better a flawed hero than “Fast” Eddie Felson. Newman’s a force of energy on screen—a guy you should never love, but cannot help siding with. Adding George C. Scott’s marvelous turn as the professional gambler Bert Gordon, who hires Felson and slowly moves in between him and Sarah, the film’s story becomes part Cinderella and a whole lot more Faust. In short, this is the purest examination of an athlete’s internal struggle ever mounted for the screen.