by Paul Batters
“You gotta be hard, Eddie” – Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) The Hustler (1961)
How many stories feature the protagonist facing a villain? The character of the villain has been at the heart of storytelling since humans started telling them. The villain is an important part of the construct of storytelling and there is a range of reasons why.
In terms of human history, film is a very new method of telling story. But the importance of the villain as a crucial character still applies. Since the beginning of the film industry, we have seen heroes and heroines on the screen battle and attempt to overcome a villain hell-bent on the hero or heroine’s destruction and/or failure. We often apply a range of adjectives and descriptors to the villain in a story and they remind us of our own darkness and the ugliness that humanity possesses. We ask the question ‘how can they do that?’, without asking ourselves the same question. What does it take to push a human into the darkness?
Villains come in the shape of murderers, criminals, monsters, serial killers, dictators, femme fatales, gangsters and even schoolyard bullies. Often they are visible and in some cases caricatures. Yet perhaps the most dangerous villain of all is the one that is not so visible – at least initially. They look like us. They ride the elevator into our workplace. They walk down the street and into the same cafes and order coffee as we do. And they even catch cold like us. Yet underneath they harbour black souls and are as destructive as a prehistoric beast arisen from its’ slumber. They use and crush their fellow humans for their own gain, with a callousness and cruelty that can steal one’s breath. They can entice us into their web without our knowing, buying into their charisma and believing their promises.
Bert Gordon in The Hustler (1961) is such a villain.
Written, produced and directed by Robert Rossen, The Hustler is a powerful film that examines human frailty in its’ pursuit for fulfilment and need for realising one’s self. Arguably, Paul Newman’s performance as ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson is perhaps his finest portrayal, playing a pool player existing on the edge of society. His struggle to overcome the obstacles in his path, often flummoxed by his own passion becomes complicated by two relationships: one being Sarah (Piper Laurie) the woman who loves him and the second Bert Gordon (George C Scott), the man who wants to own and exploit him.
Our first glimpse of Bert Gordon sees him in his natural habitat, a card game. The fact that he’s drinking milk as he plays, suggests that Bert stays in control in a world where most are hard and heavy drinkers. A professional gambler, who knows the odds and plays to win, leaves the card game to watch Eddie play the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), whom Bert ‘owns’ and bankrolls.
Like a predator watching prey, Bert sits by quietly, his eyes gleaming – immaculately dressed and seemingly not perturbed by Eddie’s winning against Minnesota Fats. But Bert reads the situation like a pro, especially when Eddie’s ego gets the better off him and his winning streak begins to turn sour, assisted by his consumption of bourbon. Bragging, Eddie tells Minnesota Fats:
‘I’m the best you ever seen, Fats. I’m the best there is. Now even if you beat me, I’m still the best’.
We here Bert Gordon for the first time, making a cold and accurate assessment with a controlled growl of a voice, as he tells Fats:
‘Stay with this kid. He’s a loser’.
Despite directing his comment at Fats, it is clear that Bert is speaking to Eddie, already using a psychological switchblade on Eddie to push him into defeat. Or perhaps to test Eddie and see if he can win? Either way, it’s a taste of things to come.
Eddie soon finds himself involved with Sarah (Piper Laurie) a woman who ‘has problems’, including drinking and loneliness. They are both lonely people, but they also seek different things. But there is no doubt that Sarah loves him and has her own problems with accepting this, partially out of fear of losing him, as well as her own personal inadequacies. In the end, Bert and Sarah will fight for Eddie but for very different reasons.
When Eddie encounters Bert again, it is at a card game and Bert decides to school Eddie on the art of winning. Bert likes any game, not only where there’s ‘action’ but where he can control the odds and win. In the process of maintaining control, Bert drinks milk claiming that ‘it’s good for you’ and though he can drink, he does so only on a rare occasion. Again, he calls Eddie a loser who looks for an excuse to lose, talking straight and hard that it takes character to win, despite having all the talent in the world. Bert knows that Eddie is good and points out that he had never seen Fats hooked before but as he also declares in his schooling of Eddie, ‘you don’t win by yardage’. The way to judge a winner, he adds, is by who is standing at the end. Refusing to buy Bert’s terms, Eddie tells him aggressively to ‘kiss off’ but Bert is not perturbed and smiles at him like a shark showing his teeth. Bert offers Eddie a warning that ‘the word is out’ on him and he could get himself hurt. Sure enough, Eddie is going to get hurt and while hustling pool for cheap money, gets set upon. Not only is he beaten up but his thumbs get broken. It is a brutal and vicious attack that leaves Eddie helpless as he stumbles back to Sarah’s door.
After a slow and difficult recovery, where Eddie has had time to think, he incredibly seeks out Bert and offers the revelation that ‘twenty percent of something is better than a hundred percent of nothing’. There is something else that both Eddie and Bert are hungry for, despite Eddie realizing too late what the price is for that hunger – and that is to win.
Bert has plans to go down south to Kentucky during the Derby and use his connections to start making money through Eddie. He points out to Eddie that he always picks up the tab: signifying that far from being a generous man, it is more the case that Bert pays for what he owns in the same way that a horse–owner takes care of his horse. But there is a complication in Bert’s plans, as Eddie wants Sarah to come along. Bert recognizes what Sarah is – a danger to his plans to own Eddie outright. Sarah is a rival for Eddie’s heart and soul and love is the one factor that Bert cannot connect with nor have in his way. As far as Bert is concerned, Sarah must be removed from the situation.
Travelling to Kentucky by train, Bert starts his campaign early even though there is the appearance of friendliness. His cold, evil persona is evident at every moment, with his shark-like smile ever apparent. Leaning back to eye her like a predator eyeing a weakness, Bert is sizing her up for the kill and considering the way in which he will dispose of her. He drops the word ‘cripple’ during a discussion, knowing that Sarah has a slight limp, which she is self-conscious of. Eddie stands up for her but Sarah tries to show she isn’t bothered, despite understanding full well what Bert is up to. He will be dismissive of her presence by pretending not to remember her name, which may appear like bullying but it is a slow kill where he first intends to break her, before he ensures his personal victory.
But the veneer drops along with the smile when the two are alone in the hotel they have arrived at in Kentucky. The pretense also drops away as Bert shows his true colours. Voice hard and rough, Bert stakes his flag in the ground and growls at her:
‘Listen, Miss Lady Bird. You’re here on a rain-check and I know it. You’re hangin’ on by your nails. You let that glory whistle blow loud and clear for Eddie, and you’re a wreck on a railroad track. You’re a horse that finished last. Now don’t make trouble, Miss Lady Bird. Live and let live – while you can!’
The menace behind the mask is frightening and Sarah is intelligent enough to see what she is up against. It is a warning above anything else. It initially appears that Bert is drawing a line in the sand and will even tolerate her presence. But before long, Bert begins his dismantling of Sarah, pulling her fragile psyche apart like a boy pulling wings from a fly. It is a deliberate breaking down of her defenses and a method of prying her from Eddie, so that Bert has complete control over his investment.
It is at the party where Bert will show what a cold villain he truly is. The real battle for Eddie’s soul begins when he plays the party host in a game of billiards. It is a brilliant power play on Bert’s part and Eddie becomes the battleground where Sarah and Bert will do battle. Sarah throws herself at Eddie’s feet, openly attacking Bert and imploring Eddie to get away from him. Newman beautifully imparts Eddie’s acceptance of Sarah’s truth but like an addict who cannot turn away from the terrible affliction that grips him, and his self-disgust finds him turning to Bert. Like a drug-pusher, Bert casually knows how to hook Eddie in and win him over anything that Sarah has to offer, even truth. He does not even deny what Sarah declares, knowing full well that all it will take is to feed Eddie’s addiction and Bert will win the day.
Sure enough, Sarah leaves the battlefield broken but the war is not yet over. However, she will make a terrible sacrifice to save Eddie.
The victorious and satisfied Fast Eddie Felson cleans the party host out and Bert seems satisfied as well. Suggesting to Eddie that he’ll give the kiss off to Sarah for him, Bert reminds Eddie that ‘you need to be hard’. Eddie’s non-committal to a decision shows his lack of courage in making a final choice – he wants the action of the game but cannot bring himself to tear Sarah away or hold onto her either. Eddie decides to walk back to the hotel. In the meantime, Bert returns and the final tragedy will unfold.
Without giving too much away, it is a moment where our admiration for Sarah reaches its’ greatest height as she ‘wins the war’ for Eddie’s sake even if it means losing everything. Sarah knows who Bert is and when he claims he ‘only wants the money’ Sarah smiles wryly and accurately describes Bert as a ‘Roman’, who wants to win everything. Bert takes the bait and shows his true colours, revealing the cold, hard villain that underlies the supposed hard-business never personal façade that gives him his edge.
Eddie learns his lesson in a hard yet life-defining way. There will be a final showdown where Eddie will reclaim his sense of self but it will be a Pyrrhic victory. Eddie has learned who Bert Gordon is but has learned it too late. He tells Bert that ‘the cost is too high’ and Bert relents but gives him the quiet warning, smiling all the while:
George C. Scott’s performance is one of incredible measure, where his cold, calculating persona is superbly coloured by a dangerous charisma and a commanding presence. Scott gives a clear sense of Bert’s villainous nature, one which needs to win completely – to not only pocket the winnings from the action but to destroy those around him as well. Eddie’s final assessment of Bert shows that he has finally learned what Sarah was trying to reveal about Bert, that beneath the mask the face is twisted and evil. Eddie turns Bert’s words on himself and calls Bert a loser, declaring that Bert is dead inside and can’t live unless he makes everything else dead around him. Bert seems chastened but like any villain, who is even momentarily beaten, he will continue in his ways, for there is no other path for him.
The Hustler is an outstanding film with penultimate performances from Paul Newman as Fast Eddie and Piper Laurie as Sarah. But George C. Scott steals almost every scene that he is in, with the subtleties of a super-villain whose wielding of cold manipulation like a weapon is akin to watching a master at work. The truth remains that for the hero to shine, the obstacles that he or she must face must be great in their scope. The ultimate obstacle for the hero is the villain – and in The Hustler, that obstacle in Paul Newman’s way is perfectly personified by the performance of George C. Scott as Bert Gordon.
This article is an entry into the Great Villain Blogathon of 2019, kindly hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows And Satin and Kristina of Speakeasy. Many thanks for letting me take part! Please click on the following link to read some fantastic articles on great villains in classic film – Great Villain Blogathon of 2019
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.