There is no movie quite like The Hustler for its seemingly bottomless supply of powerful actors portraying weak characters. Now, that isn’t quite properly put, but what is meant by character is at the heart of this film.
From when Fast Eddie first enters the local pool hall we know that we are looking at a career defining moment for Paul Newman—he stands apart from the midday riff-raff and in his cocky assuredness we believe. But he is waiting for a man, and in doing so, he reveals his boyishness. So the question becomes, who is this man for whom he waits, and for what do we need him? At eight on the dime Minnesota Fats strides into the hall, and at once we are struck by Jackie Gleason’s command of the floor and by how he dwarfs Fast Eddie. He has presence; we say to ourselves Fast Eddie is just a kid, a cocky kid. But somehow Fast Eddie continues to demand our undivided attention, and so we make the best of the bind and give it to the two of them together. The menial nature of the game they play is forgotten for a moment as we see their contest take on the character of something heroic. Surrounded by onlookers, absorbed in the play, even dressed up for it, Fats and Fast Eddie participate in a ritual glossed by talent but relying on character, high-stakes pool. The spell is broken by the entrance of Bert, called onto the scene by Fats, and immediately assuming the dominant role, giving advice and proffering judgement. As Bert, George C. Scott claims the first position, and in doing so makes a distinction between character and talent, which will both bear out our believe that his possession of the one cannot mask his dearth of the other, and reveal the question the movie wishes to pose.
It comes as a surprise to Fast Eddie when Bert claims that great talent can be paired with a loser and it comes as a surprise to us that Bert himself is betting on the wrong answer. We see Bert refuted in the end, and yet we are not given an answer to the question. What is character?
I don’t know that this question is answered, but neither am I sure the question is meant to be answered. Strong leading roles permit the question to be merely raised without answer. Think of the recent superhero movies: since the action is clear-cut good versus evil (even if the studios like to indulge in shallow psychoanalysis and love drooling over the lesser of two evils) the character need not act or be interesting; all they must do is hurt the bad guys. If there is no clear right or wrong in such a movie it cannot help devolving into shallow cynicism, the film must emphatically answer any worthwhile questions it raises or fail. And since films are short and our emotions slow I doubt we often see questions at all but only the answering statements, right or wrong.
There are perpetual questions in the art world, or rather, assumptions (the questions are in the philosophical world surrounding art): how is it possible for a bad man to be a great artist how is it possible for a great man to be a poor artist, how does art contain more than the artist intends and in what manner does it do so? Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats are artists and consider themselves as such (it is evident in their disdain for Bert), but who is the better artist, and who has character?