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It's all in the eyes. One second the kid is a rube, a drunk rube at that, betting three weeks earnings on a pool shot he'll never make. He's all talk, no stick. Then the bet is made, and that nice dumb kid turns into a cobra. There's no missing the shot - the camera doesn't even watch it go in, that's how good he is. And he's barely looking at the shot, he's looking up at the doubters. He want you to know how good he is. He wants you to be ashamed for not appreciating him. All in the eyes.
Paul Newman gives one of the finest leading performances of his career here, but much of the lasting greatness of The Hustler is due to the supporting cast, who are uniformly brilliant. Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie and George C. Scott all come to play, and they get all the little details just right. I love the way Gleason brings a quiet dignity to his pool-hall kingpin - he taps his pool cue in appreciation of a great shot with the refinement of an opera connoisseur. I love how that stiff neck of Scott's makes him seem not quite human, a Frankenstein's monster who craves money, not affection. I love Piper Laurie, wise and wounded and far too smart for the room.
This is a film about pool only tangentially; director Robert Rossen is more concerned with the hustle than with any specific game. Newman, as pool savant "Fast Eddie" Felson, exudes such easy cool that it takes a while to realize that he is playing a loser, somebody with all the right tools for greatness and a self-destructive streak six lanes wide. (Newman played a similar trick in 1994's Nobody's Fool, but there he was a likeable loser.) Eddie is determined to beat Minnesota Fats (Gleason), who has a national reputation in seedy circles as being the best. This rankles Eddie, who doesn't just think he's the best; he knows he's the best. It isn't enough for him to know it, either. He needs the world to understand.
This leads an epic pool matches between Eddie and Fats that are more about art than anything else (this film recognizes that every pursuit contains the potential for greatness). Eddie and Fats understand the game on levels that others cannot hope to comprehend - the best that onlookers can hope to do is make a buck off the action. Pool manager and all-around shady guy Bert Gordon (Scott) has made more than a buck, he's made enough to run the show. You play by his rules or you don't play. Scott is magnificent as The Hustler's soulless center, the stiff-necked personification of commerce's corrupting influence on art, the ultimate hustle.
But that's all subtext; the film is far more interesting than a mere societal treatise, it is a story about people that are all-too human, whose failings are too great to not prove their undoings. Sarah (Piper Laurie), the hopelessly wounded alcoholic that Eddie takes up with, has the wisdom that her pool-sharp boyfriend lacks, while he has the confidence she needs. Together they nearly make up a whole person.
Sarah sees Gordon for what he is, which is too bad for her, because Gordon's whole show is knowing where the weak spots are and then attacking them ruthlessly, and Sarah's weak spots are massive (Example: For all her tough exterior, in the end she is too trusting. Probably you shouldn't rest your hope on a guy named "Fast" Eddie). The final showdown with Fats is anticlimactic only as straight pool - the real battle is one of character, of honor. Gleason shows us how compromised Fats has become to sit atop his sad little hill, while Eddie uses his stick like a weapon. His showdown is less with Fats now than with the man behind the man, and Newman's final scene with Scott is the stuff film legends are made of.
"You owe me MONEY!!!!"