You might shed hot tears as some basketball or football underdog pursues its impossible championship dream, but no one ever got misty watching a movie about pool. The billiard parlor is ringed with all-night cigarette smoke, populated by sharpies and losers. Even the player’s posture, bent over as his cue taps the ball, suggests a safecracker’s posture at the tumbler. So the few pool-hall dramas must revel in seediness, with antiheroes as cavemen, learning to use guile over brute strength to earn their dominance.
In adapting Walter Tevis’ novel to the screen, director Robert Rossen (Body and Soul) cast Paul Newman as the hero-heel who’s a pleasure to watch in action, right up to the climactic comeuppance. Newman, who could fill most of a top-10 list of sports movies — boxing in Somebody Up There Likes Me, hockey in Slap Shot, race-car driving in Winning and Cars and baseball in the TV film of Bang the Drum Slowly, not forgetting the broken football star he plays in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — had the prowling grace for any crafty athletic endeavor, including pool hustling. His Fast Eddie Felson saunters into some anonymous joint, pretends to be an average player and then, when real money is put on the table, crushes the opponent with his remorseless skill. He has talent, no question; but what the smart guys, like Minnesota Fats (Jackie 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 Eddie’s curled lip of contempt, which he flashes at all the suckers, freeze into a rictus when he gets his. Twenty-five years later, that grimace had softened, when Martin Scorsese directed Newman and Tom Cruise in The Color of Money, based on Tevis’ sequel novel. Newman’s older, wiser, not quite so Fast Eddie earned the actor his only competitive Oscar.