By Daniel Kraus

The story: "Fast" Eddie Falson (Paul Newman) is a pool shark who goes up against the Jaws of all pool sharks, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) and loses. After the high-stakes loss, Eddie tries to pick up the pieces and becomes involved with a hard-drinking woman named Sarah (Piper Laurie). It seems he’s on the road to recovery when a botched hustle ends with thugs breaking both of his thumbs. Shady gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) takes Eddie under his wing, driving away Sarah and setting Eddie up for a re-match with Minnesota Fats.

There’s a whole lot to like about The Hustler, but nothing is as impressive as the opening half-hour of the film. It begins with a short five-minute sequence wherein Eddie and his pal Charlie stop into a bar for a drink and then innocently start playing pool. More and more people watch as Eddie gets drunk and "loses" all his money to Charlie. When Charlie refuses to take any more of Eddie’s money, Eddie drunkenly asks anyone in the bar to bet against him making a near-impossible shot.

Everyone bets against him, and Eddie—who is neither drunk nor stupid—lines up the shot. And although the camera has treated us to some nice-looking pool shots thus far, it stays on a tight close-up of Eddie’s face as he smiles and smacks it home. Smash cut to Eddie sitting down in his car, counting his money.

After this brief introduction, the big scene arrives: a staggering 25 minutes of screen time is given to the 40-hour pool marathon between Eddie and Minnesota Fats. In a way, this is the climactic battle of the movie—except it comes at the beginning of the film rather than the end. It is this improbably placed and impeccably staged scene that makes The Hustler unforgettable.

It begins wonderfully innocuous; Eddie and Charlie amble into a quiet pool hall. "Quiet," remarks Charlie. "Like a church," says Eddie. "Like a morgue," responds Charlie. This is as explicit as The Hustler will ever get–for Eddie, the pool hall is a place where pain is holy and where he can only become the Billiard Jesus by being so good that he absolves himself of his many sins by destroying himself.

It is no surprise at all that The Hustler made Newman a star—it’s a huge, incredible performance. All four lead actors—Newman, Laurie, Scott and Gleason—were nominated for Academy Awards. But whereas the performances of Laurie and Scott feel somewhat melodramatic by today’s standards, Newman’s is still chillingly real. He played Eddie as a handsome, grinning frat boy who was alternately hot and cold—at one moment he was swaggering around the table, calling Minnesota Fats "Fat Man"—in Eddie’s own words, "playing it fast and loose." But in the next moment, he was guarded, nervous—his delivery suddenly becoming edgy and tremulous.

Across the table, Gleason was the ideal icon of indestructibility. "You look beautiful," Eddie says to Fats, and it’s true—with his carefully combed hair, tailored suit and carnation pinned to his lapel, Fats conducted himself with an air of quiet confidence and unshakable sophistication. Fats gives the impression that he shows up at the pool hall every evening, even though it is boring for him to wait night after night for a suitable opponent. But he shows up nevertheless because he feels it is his duty.

Fats is never considered the bad guy, just an unmovable obstacle who speaks infrequently and with jarringly straightforwardness: "You like to gamble, Eddie?" he asks colorlessly when they meet. "Gamble money on pool games?"

As the battle wears on, more and more spectators crowd the joint, chomping on cigars and clapping for spectacular bank-shots. Once Eddie is up by $1,000, he suggests an increase to $1,000 a game. Fats accepts.

More time passes. Twenty-five hours later, Eddie is up $18,000. Charlie urges him to quit, but Eddie knows that only Fats can admit defeat. Then Fats emerges from the bathroom—his face washed, his hair re-combed, tugging at his well-tailored shirtsleeves and re-arranging his carnation. Like a pudgy baby boy, Fats is reborn anew. And in that wordless moment, it is obvious who’s going to win.

In fact, as Eddie swigs more and more booze and Fats wins more and more games, a frightening possibility arises: perhaps Fats has been hustling Eddie all along and was just feeling him out, intending to outlast him rather than outplay him. And, sure enough, Eddie crumbles.

The Hustler won Academy Awards for Cinematography and Art Direction, and it is easy to see why. There’s a scummy-early-morning-cigarette-and-black-coffee feel to the film’s almost banal black and white photography. This is accompanied by a maddening, white noise silence, the kind of suffocating quiet that makes you feel as if you’ve been up for 40 hours, too. It may seem a bizarre comparison, but there’s something about The Hustler’s haunted, empty pool halls and far-off train whistles that recalls the filthy nether-world of David Lynch’s Eraserhead—another film populated with a creepy assortment of unattractive freaks and laconic losers.

The Hustler takes this depravity to surprising lengths. To this day, there are few mainstream films that dare to have their two romantic leads be so thoroughly unromantic. There is nothing fresh or virginal about this love affair; Sarah is a drunk, a liar and a floozy, and rebukes the sexual advance of the desperate Eddie with the words, "You’re too hungry." But only a few scenes later, when both of them have dropped even further into the pit of degradation and loneliness, they slink off together, hand in hand, to her apartment. They are an almost unavoidable pair, which is both sad and hopeful.

"Pool’s a tough game," Bert says to Eddie. "Nobody’s counting yardage." And in The Hustler it’s the same way: Win or Lose. There is no compromise. Not one character comes out of The Hustler unbroken. But, then again, they came in that way, too.