If Hollywood was turning some pedigreed book into a movie, Newman would now get the star role: in Faulkner’s The Long, Hot Summer, John O’Hara’s From the Terrace, Leon Uris’s Exodus. Tevis’s novel wasn’t in that exalted category, but it made a better movie, in part because it cast Newman as the hero-heel who’s a pleasure to watch in action, right up to the climactic comeuppance. His Fast Eddie Felson is a pool hustler, coming into some joint, pretending to be an average player and then, when some real money is put on the table, crushing the opponent with his remorseless skill. He has talent, no question; but what the smart guys, like Minnesota Fats (Gleason), think Eddie lacks is character — that he’s “a born loser.”
The fun in this moody, pounding, overlong, rewarding bring-down of a film is seeing the curled lip of contempt, which Eddie flashes at all the suckers, freeze into a rictus when he gets his. Yet what audiences took away from the exercise, as nearly always with a Newman role, was the need to see more of the character. They did, 25 years later, when Martin Scorsese directed Newman and Tom Cruise in The Color of Money, based on Tevis’s sequel novel. Newman’s older, wiser, not quite so Fast Eddie earned the actor his only competitive Oscar.