There’s certainly an appeal to the pool hall. It has a dingy quality that is equally repugnant and alluring. There’s a sort of masculine kinship to the arena; it’s as if there is a giant “No Girls Allowed” sign plastered at the entrance of every pool hall in The Hustler. It makes sense too, as the one time a woman does enter the space, she meets her demise. But while the pool hall itself plays an integral role in The Hustler, the game of pool itself is tossed to the side. Perhaps that’s why the film is so successful? There’s no preoccupation with explaining how the game is played – all you gather is why the game is played and its significance to every character. And honestly, that’s more than enough.
The Hustler is bookended by two games of pool. The meanings behind both games are remarkably different and equally engaging. The first game between “Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) and Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) is about the naivety of youth and the struggle between integrity and corruption. It’s a game, or rather, a series of games, that illustrates where “Fast” Eddie is in the world. His cocksure attitude and strut serves to undercut him in the long run, and subsequently, he loses everything. The talent is there, but as the notorious Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) notes, it’s not talent Fast Eddie lacks, it’s character. And from there, we see “Fast” Eddie hit rock bottom. He indulges himself in alcohol and finds a woman that can accommodate him in his exploits.
Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie) mirrors “Fast” Eddie in a lot of ways – they’re both young drunkards who see things through a lens of youthful glee. In short, she’s a dreamer. But there’s a lingering sense that she wants to find her way – “Fast” Eddie certainly provides the moral support to help her along the way, and the two embrace each other not so much out of love, but mutual appreciation for liking the same things. She’s a tragic figure in the same way that “Fast” Eddie is – she’s incapable of accepting the reality of her situation until it’s too late.
The second game between “Fast” Eddie and Minnesota Fats is stripped away of the original’s youthfulness. It’s one where the sobering reality of the past drives “Fast” Eddie to confront Minnesota Fats in a game of character. Their game of pool is one of such intensity, yet marked by “Fast” Eddie coming to grips with his loss. The money doesn’t matter, the wins don’t matter either. It’s a matter of rectifying a wrong and realizing his placement in the world. Such acceptance is “Fast” Eddie’s redemption, and while there’s certainly a rousing quality to it, there’s a melancholy sense that lingers throughout the final sequence. “Fast” Eddie looks at the pool hall, dingy, smoke-filled, and bleak. He walks out and moves on. He has character. But the cost, the loss of naivety, echoes with such force that it’s hard not to be moved by such a crushing final sequence.