The Hustler

December 27, 2014


The struggle to get by, beyond simply to make ends meet but to feed oneself, goes neglected and unnoticed the farther removed one is from the bottom cellars of society. There, not so much an underworld or underclass as the basement of the house of civilization, an entire culture of people resides. Taking risks happens not in business but with gambling, and the games to pass the time become part of the involvement. Eventually it may be noticed that someone with talent can win a lot by sheer gambling, and so he shoehorns himself into such a life with the excitement of leaving that world but in fact creating his life sentence.

Paul Newman is terrific in this film as the hustler himself, who we find as the film begins in partnership and touring the country making money off of suckers. That is until he decides to go up against the greatest challenge of them all, Minnesota Fats and his entire plans of fortune are derailed. Yet even at that instance, it was never about simply the money, but something higher, glory, the honor to become a legend, to be the one to slay the fat man. Even in such a doldrums arena as pool halls, his name could imaginatively be heard and renown, something he cared about establishing for himself. Perhaps in a poorer society a person from his upbringing could aspire to no higher. That is the stark reality The Hustler portrays, albeit elegantly, which is the struggle of the human condition.

I don’t say the struggle of the human working condition because to be human is to work at something. It is to do something to give the world more than before one’s birth. It’s quaint then that the Marxist is so vitriolic when it comes to work – his perspective is symmetrical to Heidegger’s loathing about being in this world, being created from nothingness and forced to exist or else retreat back into the abyss. It is the hallmark of the Gnostic to meditate on his life with such disdain and resentment, such utter self-hatred for being human and impossible to create his own world. Here, The Hustler enables us to empathize with the tragedy of the human condition, of trying to make it. The echoes of an American dream promised to the ancestors of the characters here still ring, the desire is still unfulfilled. But the American dream is not an American promise. Even amidst the shores where the streets are paved with gold, there are snakes in the grass waiting to prey on the hopes that opportunity shimmer when dangled in front of the hopeful for more out of their life.

What’s resplendent about this film from 1961 is how necessary it is and how impossible it would be to produce today. The profit motivation of the marketplace does not crave tragedy, they crave distraction and amusement. Happy endings are fantasies and real art resonates with an audience that understands this fact.

Grade: B+



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