Cast: Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott
Oscar Wins: Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Eugen Schufftan), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White (Harry Horner, Gene Callahan)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Paul Newman), Best Actress (Piper Laurie), Best Supporting Actor (Jackie Gleason), Best Supporting Actor (George C. Scott – refused nomination), Best Director (Robert Rossen), Best Adapted Screenplay (Sidney Carroll, Robert Rossen)
SUMMARY: “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) makes a living hustling pool games, traveling around the country with his partner/manager, Charlie. Eventually, the two make their way to the hometown of the famed “Minnesota Fats” (Jackie Gleason), where Eddie challenges him to a match. The games start at $200 apiece; when Eddie builds up a lead of $1000, he suggests raising the stakes to $1000 per game. By this time, the men have been playing for several hours, but Fats agrees to continue with the raised stakes. Both men send out for food (and alcohol); the man sent to get the food also alerts professional gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) to the game. Eddie’s winning streak continues, and he increases his lead to $11,000. Charlie believes that Eddie should quit while he is ahead, since he is obviously exhausted, but Eddie states that only Fats can declare an end to the game. Bert Gordon, who has been watching the match for some time now, announces that Eddie will not win, because he is a loser. The match continues, but Eddie has had too much to drink, and starts to lose. After 25 straight hours of pool, Eddie loses all but $200 of the $18,000 he had built up. He and Charlie go to a hotel, but that night, Eddie takes half of the $200 and leaves. He uses a locker at a bus station to hold his belongings, then heads for the bar, where he meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie). When they discover a common love of alcohol, a relationship starts: however, when they go back to Sarah’s apartment, she decides not to let Eddie in. With no means of support, Eddie rents a cheap room and starts hustling small pool games (which is difficult, because most people recognize him). Eventually, he sees Sarah again, and this time, she lets him in the apartment. Not long after, Eddie moves in. The two enjoy a pleasant relationship, although they spend a large amount of their time drinking. Sarah attends college part-time, and is supported by her father, allowing Eddie to do as he wishes. Some time later, Charlie finds Eddie at the apartment. Charlie wants to resume their partnership; when Eddie laughingly asks where they will get the money, Charlie announces that he had been holding some back from Eddie: with this saved money, they can start fresh. Eddie is furious that Charlie had this money at the time of the Fats game, but wouldn’t use it. He bluntly turns down Charlie’s offer.
One day, Eddie sees Bert Gordon in a bar, and the two start talking. Bert tells Eddie that he is a born loser: he has extreme talent, but no character, and thus will never win the big matches. However, he does offer to put up the money for Eddie to play again (after telling him that if he wants to play Minnesota Fats again, he will need at least $3000). The conditions are harsh: Bert will receive 75% of whatever Eddie wins. Eddie considers this price too steep, and turns him down. He goes to a local pool hall, where he hustles another small-time hustler. In return for the severe beating he received in the match, the other man has his friends break Eddie’s thumbs. Sarah takes care of him as he heals; as soon as the casts come off, Eddie is shooting pool again. He finds Bert, and agrees to the 75/25 split. Very quickly, Bert announces that he has an opponent for Eddie: Findley, a wealthy man who lives in Kentucky, and likes to play pool against worthy opponents. Bert, Eddie and Sarah all travel to Kentucky for the Derby; later that night, they go to Findley’s house for a party and the match. Sarah gets raging drunk at the party, and passes out before the match begins. Downstairs, Eddie learns that Findley plays billiards, not pool; Eddie has never played billiards, but tells Bert he can still win. Instead, Eddie loses badly, until eventually Bert refuses to put up any more money. At the same time, Sarah comes downstairs and asks Eddie to leave. She insults his lifestyle and the people in it, but Eddie refuses to go. Instead, he gets very angry, and sends Sarah away. After seeing this, Bert decides to put up more money; Eddie eventually wins to the tune of $12,000. Both he and Bert then return to the hotel, but Eddie takes a walk before heading back. When Bert arrives, he humiliates and insults Sarah, insinuating that she is little more than a prostitute. Angry and upset, Sarah sleeps with him, but then kills herself in the bathroom. When Eddie arrives, he is devastated. He is also furious at Bert after learning what happened between the two. He leaves Kentucky, and heads back to Fats’ hometown. When he finally arrives at the pool hall (where Bert is, too), Eddie challenges Fats to a high-stakes pool match. Completely sober, Eddie wipes the floor with Fats, and the other man soon ends the match. Eddie prepares to leave with his winnings, only for Bert to announce that part of the earnings belong to him. When Eddie refuses to pay, Bert threatens to have him beaten up. Eddie, who is obviously still traumatized by Sarah’s death, tells Bert that if that happens, he will find Bert and kill him. Faced with Eddie’s anger, and the guilt over Sarah’s death, Bert takes back his demand, but tells Eddie that he will never play in a serious pool hall again. Eddie calmly compliments Fats on a good game, then walks out.
MY TAKE: As stated in several earlier reviews, I love Paul Newman, and am slightly afraid of Piper Laurie, since she usually plays a bit of a nut. Her character was a lot more sympathetic in this movie, but she was still kinda nuts. Paul’s character was a little nuts, too, so they were evenly matched. The rest of the cast is great, namely Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott. As with a lot of other sports movies, this one is more about the characters and their development than it is about pool. In fact, there’s relatively little pool actually shown, and you almost never see the players and the balls in the same shot. I think it would have been a little more interesting, particularly in the pool scenes, if more strategy and technique had been shown, such as one of the men trying to decide what angle to take, or something to show the difficulty of what they’re doing. When Fats and Eddie just play endless games, and you never really see any of it, the movie gets a little draggy. For me, the first half of the movie was a little slow, but the second half was a lot better. It’s here that you start to see the dangerous side of both Eddie and Sarah’s personalities come out, and Bert Gordon really comes into the picture. The last scene, when Eddie and Bert have a standoff, is great – you can really feel the emotions tearing Eddie apart.
RATING: Great performances, but sometimes a little slow.