The Hustler

The Hustler

The Hustler (2:14, 1961, 8.1, 98|93%) is a drama about an emotionally unstable young man who has an exceptional talent for playing pool, which he uses to hustle money and drift through life. It also zooms in on the few close relationships he has, all of which prove to be destructive. Though filmed in the early 60s, the director chose to go with black-and-white cinematography because he felt it better brought out the emotions and characters of the main roles. I admit I was skeptical about this film at first and only chose to watch it for its glowing reviews — and good thing I did! Drawn up in a style reminiscent of 12 Angry Men, it definitely deserved the Golden Globe, BAFTA Award, and nine Oscar nominations it received (two of which it went on to win).

Fast Eddie (R) plays Minnesota Fats in a scene that gets your heart racing

I didn’t think I could get excited about a film in this style and about this subject, but boy was I wrong. I was on the edge of my seat with my heart thumping just a little bit harder than normal not once as Fast Eddie’s life spiralled out of control. He is a classic loose cannon: an athlete who has tremendous talent and drive, but who cannot control it… to his ultimate misfortune. He shows how drive, frustration, and desperation are all points along the same gradient. He also is a prime example of what happens when you let someone dig their claws into you, reminding me of the lesson of Van Helsing lore: Dracula cannot enter a house unless freely invited but, once in, is free to come and go as he pleases.

Returning to psychology, vampiric narrative is reflective of what Philip Zimbardo coined the “Lucifer Effect”, referencing Stanley Milgram’s infamous obedience-to-authority experiment. Milgram had subjects apply what they thought were electric shocks to confederates at the behest of an authority (the confederates were not actually being shocked, unbeknownst to the subjects). Quite often, subjects would apply lethal or past-lethal shocks, thinking this was alright because a seemingly competent authority was in charge of the whole operation. Zimbardo, who was the orchestrator of his own infamous study, summed up Milgram’s findings so: “All evil begins with 15 volts.” — letting Dracula in, in other words. Fast Eddie unfortunately hops over the 15V mark right into lethal territory in record time.

Some words needs to be shared about Eddie’s love interest, Sarah. Though entering his life with her own rampant problems, she serves as something of a rock for Eddie — the only moral compass he has throughout the whole story. She shares great insights with him and proves to be his only friend, warning him of his current company in a way no one else dares: “That man, this place, the people. They wear masks, Eddie and underneath the masks they’re perverted, twisted, crippled…”

She also sees their state of affairs for what it really is, shedding light on their lives with these words: “We have a contract of depravity. All we have to do is pull the blinds down. What else have we got? We never talk about anything. We stay in this room and we drink and make love. We’re strangers. What happens when the liquor and the money run out, Eddie?” — this in reference to the only thing binding them together being their both being lost. As this scene plays out you find it increasingly difficult to stifle a cry of empathy. Her guidance and love throughout Eddie’s life also serve to bring out some of the best sport psychology lines I’ve heard so far in cinema.

Sarah: Eddie’s only real friend

I give this film a stunning ★★★★¾. The quarter lost is just for length and for one or two scenes not flowing superbly well. This is definitely a movie worth showing an undergraduate class just diving into sport psychology, but would also make a great treat for any general psychology or film class as well. In the event you’re still not sold on the idea, take eight minutes to watch an exceptionally comprehensive review online. Me, for my part, I know I’ll be recommending this film to hipster friends who have grown tired of Hollywood’s norm of sex and explosions.

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