Ageing pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) recognises something of his former self in cocky but inexperienced young player Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise). Seeking to relive his past days of glory, Eddie adopts him as his protégè. Together with Vincent’s smart, sexy and extremely ambitious girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the trio embark on a road trip, hustling pool halls on their way to Atlantic City. As the shrewd Eddie tries to teach the impulsive Vincent the ropes, an emotionally complex game of wills ensues.
The Color of Money saw Paul Newman revisit a career triumph to Oscar-winning effect as he returned to the role of Fast Eddie Felson twenty-five years on from Robert Rossen’s landmark The Hustler (1961). In an inspired choice, the producers assigned the project to Martin Scorsese who in turn brought aboard the great novelist Richard Price to assist source author Walter Tevis in a task the director himself likened to tailoring the perfect suit for Newman. At the time some critics chose to interpret this comment as proof positive that the hitherto uncompromising auteur had sold out to the concessions of commercial cinema with a simplistic star vehicle. Whilst The Color of Money is less personal than Scorsese’s more widely celebrated work, it is not as if he had made a Rambo sequel. In fact the film reflects many of his past obsessions and themes, notably its preoccupation with what Fast Eddie describes as “the study of human moves”, or in other words observing human behaviour. Surely the ideal subject for a cinematic voyeur like Scorsese.
In keeping with Scorsese’s studies of the mafia or elegant upper Manhattanites of the Nineteenth century, the film scrutinises a unique substrata of society rich with its own language, nuance and codes of behaviour. Price’s screenplay is razor sharp, laden with beautiful dialogue as it brings the philosophy of the pool hall into the wider world. Every character is on the make. At various points it appears that Eddie, Vincent or Carmen are in control, although each are ultimately unmasked as in thrall to the greater game. Where the film fails is that the plot is too enigmatic for its own good, content simply observing these keenly crafted characters while they circle each other, trading banter rather than offer any tangible sense of what is at stake. To its credit the film shuns sports film clichés, trading the usual triumphant finale for one reflecting a more measured, contemplative, middle aged outlook on life. Depending on one’s perspective, the coda has either a hollow ring about it or else encapsulates Eddie’s wry observation that sometimes one has to lose in order to win.
Either way what proved undoubtable was, even grey and old, Paul Newman remains the coolest cat that ever walked the earth. Casting Eddie the wise old wolf opposite Vincent who, to lift a line from Point Break (1991) proves “young, dumb and full of cum”, the film delivers a study in contrasting masculinity. A newly minted superstar in the wake of Top Gun (1986), Tom Cruise was something for casting coup for the filmmakers. Prior to reinventing his screen persona in the mid-Nineties, Cruise’s stock in trade was essaying the arrogant prick who makes good. Whereas in Top Gun or Cocktail (1988) such characters proved unbearable, this persona proved ideal for the role of the cocky, callow yet complex Vincent Lauria. Truth be told, Cruise is electric in onscreen and, in a mark of his dedication, performed his own pool breaks. It is a mark of his talent that he was able to keep pace with the uber-charismatic Newman who gave the kind of performance that flattens most young pretenders into the concrete. However, one would argue the film’s real casting coup was Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as the hardboiled Carmen, a character who arguably shares more in common with the seasoned and shrewd operator Fast Eddie than our ageing antihero has with his youthful mirror image Vincent. Mastrantonio was never lovelier onscreen and her character’s alternately strained and cordial relationship with Eddie is just as crucial to the film. More than two decades down the line, The Color of Money stands as an early and quite fine example of Scorsese the artisan rather than Scorsese the artist. Nevertheless his precision direction crackles with an energy that renders the simple act of people watching people into cinematic art.
American writer and director who emerged as one of the brightest and most vital of the generation of filmmakers who came to prominence during the 1970s with his heartfelt, vivid and at times lurid works. After deciding against joining the priesthood, he turned to his other passion - movies - and started with short efforts at film school until Roger Corman hired him to direct Boxcar Bertha.
However, it was New York drama Mean Streets that really made Scorsese's name as a talent to watch, and his succeeding films, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (which won Ellen Burstyn an Oscar and is the only Scorsese movie to be made into a sitcom) and the cult classic Taxi Driver (starring Robert De Niro, forever associated with the director's work) only confirmed this.
In the nineties, Scorsese began with the searing gangster saga Goodfellas, and continued with the over-the-top remake of Cape Fear before a change of pace with quietly emotional period piece The Age of Innocence. Casino saw a return to gangsters, and Kundun was a visually ravishing story of the Dalai Lama. Bringing Out the Dead returned to New York for a medical tale of redemption, and Gangs of New York was a muddled historical epic.
Still the Best Director Oscar eluded him, but the 2000s gave what many saw as his best chance at winning. Slick Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator didn't make it, but remake of Infernal AffairsThe Departed finally won him the prize. Outlandish thriller Shutter Island then provided him with the biggest hit of his career after which he surprised everyone by making family film Hugo - another huge hit.
This was followed by an even bigger success with extreme broker takedown The Wolf of Wall Street, and a return to his religious origins with the austere, redemption through torture drama Silence. He also directed Michael Jackson's Bad music video.
A friend of mine pointed out that if Tom Cruise acted in a British pool hall the same way he does here - like he owns the place, potting balls without looking, arrogantly fleecing the regulars, etc. - he would be taken round the back after about five minutes and given the world's biggest kicking. I don't see how he's any more palatable here than he was in the dreadful Top Gun, really.
Not quite a wholly anonymous work by Scorsese, but I can understand why fans thought he'd sold out making this. Newman might have gotten a sympathy Oscar for missing out so many times before - The Verdict has a far better account of his talent. Forest Whitaker gets a nice scene, though.