Saturday’s Editor’s Pick: The Color of Money (1986)

by on July 6, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat July 9 & Sun July 10 at 7:00 at the Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


Jay Steinberg gives some background for TCM:

Newman had been long intrigued with the notion of picking up with Felson’s seedy odyssey, but the screen adaptation of novelist Walter Tevis’ follow-up to The Hustler ultimately retained little more than the book’s title. Unsatisfied with the script he had in development, the actor made overtures to director Martin Scorsese, whose effort with Raging Bull (1980) convinced Newman that he could capture the requisite urban feel.


For Scorsese, the project was a first in many ways, being a big-budget vehicle for an old-guard star in which he had no hand in the initial development. The Hustler had been a lifelong favorite of the director’s, however, and he happily accepted the unusually commercial assignment. “A movie star is a person I saw when I was ten or eleven on a big screen,” Scorsese recounted to Mary Pat Kelly in Martin Scorsese: A Journey (Thunder’s Mouth Press). “With De Niro and the other guys it was a different thing. We were friends. We kind of grew together creatively…But with Paul, I would go in and I’d see a thousand different movies in his face, images I had seen on that big screen when I was twelve years old. It makes an impression.”


To help develop a script with the proper street nuance, Scorsese recruited Richard Price, the novelist responsible for The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers. “Our concept was that ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson was not the kind of fellow who, after losing out at the end of the first film, just folded up and did nothing for the next twenty-five years,” the director recounted in Scorsese On Scorsese (Faber and Faber). “He’s a big hustler, and if Bert Gordon (George C. Scott’s sleazy backer from the original film) was tough and mean, the only way I know that ‘Fast Eddie’ could survive was if he was tougher, meaner and more corrupt than Bert.”



Mike D’Angelo gives a nuanced breakdown of the film’s opening sequence  at The Onion AV Club:

A film’s opening moments are frequently its dreariest, as the writer and director (perhaps with the meddling of nervous suits) huff and puff to “establish” various things—all of which would usually be far better concealed, or at least doled out gradually. The less we know, the more we’re curious, intrigued, engrossed—why squander that dramatic advantage by signposting every narrative element as if you were composing a term paper for English class?That’s why it’s so thrilling on those rare occasions when a movie gets its opening sequence exactly right, achieving a perfect balance between exposition and obfuscation. The Color Of Money has a less-than-stellar reputation overall, for some fairly obvious reasons. It’s a decades-later sequel to a classic, The Hustler. It was also the first picture Martin Scorsese made since breaking through with Mean Streets that could be seen as a calculated bid to cash in. I happen to think the film is woefully underrated, but it’s hard to imagine even its most ardent critics being able to find much fault with the way Scorsese and screenwriter Richard Price ease us into Fast Eddie’s world, expanding our view bit by tantalizing bit while making us wonder what’s happening just outside the frame. Apart from a brief monologue on the nature of nine-ball pool (spoken by Scorsese himself) and the smoky opening credits, this is how The Color Of Money begins, establishing nothing until it’s damn good and ready.


Paul Attanagio discusses Scorsese as an auteur for The Washington Post:

But what makes this drama so powerful is the way Scorsese has pioneered a visual vocabulary uniquely suited to the story he’s telling, moving the camera along the precise line of the emotions of a scene. As Scorsese’s camera looks first this way, then that (without a cut), you’re seeing the world exactly the way the people on the screen see it, and as he aggressively dollies and zooms into close-ups, he seems to be not only entering the characters’ minds, but invading them, almost ruthlessly exposing their hopes and fears. But there’s also a gentleness to The Color of Money, unusual for Scorsese — a warmth, and a sense of forgiveness.


Vincent Canby for The New York Times:

In ”The Color of Money,” Mr. Newman and Mr. Scorsese dare to do something that few serious film makers ever attempt – that is, to give us an update on a character who was complete in his own time, place and work.


The news this morning is that, against all odds, they’ve succeeded in creating a most entertaining, original film with its own, vivid, very contemporary identity and reason for being.


‘The Color of Money,” which opens today at the Coronet and other theaters, is not a sequel to ”The Hustler.” Mr. Scorsese’s work is as different from the Rossen film as Michael Ballhaus’s brilliant color photography is different from Eugene Shuftan’s equally brilliant black-and-white work for Mr. Rossen.

”The Hustler” has a classic structure. It’s about moral choices that are defined in black and white. As do the people in an Odets drama of the 1930’s, Mr. Rossen’s characters mean exactly what they say in well-shaped, passionately spoken speeches.


”The Color of Money” is not so clear-cut. It’s set in another world, one full of deceptively bright, neon colors but where motives are ambiguous. Its characters communicate in wisecracks that pass for wisdom. Their mostly inarticulated feelings are expressed in close-ups of such intensity they seem to rediscover the reason close-ups were invented.


Richard Schickel gushes over the chemistry between Newman and Cruise:

Where does reality end and fictional metaphor begin? Here is the movies’ coolest old pro, Paul Newman, reprising one of his best and most famous roles; here is a hot young newcomer, Tom Cruise, staking his claim to authentic stardom in the best part he has yet had. At issue is possession of the movie in which they co-star, The Color of Money.


And what are they playing? Why, Newman is once again Fast Eddie Felson (aka the Hustler in Robert Rossen’s pungently atmospheric 1961 classic), now resting on his legendary status among pool players; Cruise is Vincent, a wacko pretender to Eddie’s former throne. Ultimately, one knows, art should imitate the players’ situation: these men should cross cues to determine sovereignty over pool’s dingy domain.


Indeed, the movie ends with the old guy and the Young Turk, teacher and pupil, father figure and surrogate son (call them what you will) facing off in a national tournament. But what is lovely about The Color of Money is that the filmmakers are not interested in providing a clear winner here, either in the Oscar sweepstakes or in the contest for the audience’s affections. They feel that it is enough to explore these two characters and a situation that is rich in melodrama and comic misunderstanding.



Roderick Heath for Ferdy on Films:

Superbly scripted by Price, with endlessly quotable dialogue, The Color of Money is nowhere near as dramatically compressed as The Hustler or Scorsese’s best works, but it is one of his most purely watchable films. It is also in a different mould and predicts in some ways Scorsese’s next film, The Last Temptation of Christ, in that it is a drama of moral and personal regeneration, rather than a tragedy like The Hustler. It also charts, as precisely as other Scorsese works, like The King of Comedy without that film’s contempt for its characters, the often painful things men and women do to each other in situations charged with desire and ambition.


Scorsese slyly extends Taxi Driver’s motif of the iconography of the motion picture Wild West extending into and defining modern, unheroic existence. The pool artistes of The Color of Money pitch themselves as gunslingers – Moselle even wears a cowboy hat – trying to best each other. Eddie, as the aging gentleman of the game trying to leave behind a troubled past recalls one of Peckinpah’s aging heroes, or Gary Cooper’s Man of the West (1958), a man for whom the seediness of his past and the sorrows of the milieu he dwells in has a humanizing, sensitizing effect. In this way, Scorsese links together strands that swirled through his early films and through the American life he charted. The Balabushka cue, swapped back and forth by Felson and Vincent, is an Excalibur, like the weapon that is the focus of Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950), loaded with suggestions of male sexual potency, as surrogate father and son jockey to see who is the most worthy to wield it. Eddie eventually retains the stick, and, in a hilarious touch, Janelle presents him with its vaginal counterpart, a cue chalk.


The film, Scorsese’s second with German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who paints the film with a gauzy, smoky appeal, was a real stylistic reinvigoration. The soundtrack is a careful layering of punchy original music by Robbie Robertson and rock classics, some re-recorded specifically for the film to blend them precisely into the film’s texture. In between the crisply caught evocations of seamy urban America, the pool sequences are dazzlingly filmed. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing makes abstract whirlpools out of the skittling balls. When Vincent beats Moselle, the camera rapidly circles the table as Cruise strikes samurai poses and dances to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” between performing shots of supreme legerdemain – a perfect fusion of Scorsese and Cruise’s show-off voltage.


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