VHS Revival slumps into the smoky pool halls for Scorsese’s punt at studio convention
For the most part, The Color of Money doesn’t feel like a Scorsese film. That may sound like negative criticism, but I actually like this movie a great deal. What I mean is, it is something of an anomalous entry in the director’s rich and varied canon; his thumbprint is visible, but it doesn’t seem to carry his DNA. For one thing, it is a relatively conventional movie when the vast majority of his career has been anything but. These are characters that you invest in, that you remember fondly, but they don’t have the depth or distinctiveness of those featured in his most lauded pictures. When I think Scorsese, I think gritty and anthropological (Taxi Driver), slick and dazzling (Goodfellas). I even think quirky and bizarre (After Hours) or the deeply troubling and deliciously offbeat King of Comedy, movies that prove divisive among fans but which ultimately take risks and are unmistakably Marty. Scorsese is as fundamental to 20th century cinema as Kurosawa, Spielberg and Kubrick. His movies aren’t just movies, they’re monumental events that are a must-see for anyone who admires the craft of filmmaking. He is the kind of director who made cinema an art form.
There are many reasons why The Color of Money often feels like someone else’s movie. Firstly, the project was kind of forced upon Marty in the same way as Cape Fear, his 1991 remake of the classic Robert Mitchum-led physiological thriller. Scorsese, who has admitted to never having much of a business head, had almost ostracised himself from major studios by garnering a reputation as something of an indie filmmaker. Money was always a secondary factor for him, and despite their critical acclaim, movies such as Taxi Driver were hardly box office friendly, something that made producers deeply unhappy. “There have been serious issues with money over the years,” he would explain. “I have a nice house now, in New York. But there have been major, major issues. In the mid-’80s it was pathetic, I mean, my father would help me out. I couldn’t go out, I couldn’t buy anything. But it’s all my own doing… [The Color of Money] was a calculated business move. I needed the new studio heads to think they could give me another chance, finance me again.”
The Color of Money also carried something of a creative stigma. For a start, it was essentially a sequel to 1961’s The Hustler, a movie that first introduced us to one of Paul Newman’s most iconic characters, “Fast Eddie Felson”, a small-time pool hustler looking to strike gold in the precarious world of high stakes gambling. In an era when the numbered sequel was beginning to catch fire, Scorsese loathed the idea of making a sequel of any description, but was deeply taken with both Newman the actor and the character he cherished so dearly. Newman had first approached Scorsese about the idea of making a sequel in September 1984. The director had been in London having just wrapped-up After Hours, and he was intrigued yet dubious about Newman’s unexpected proposal. When he finally received a copy of the script his worst fears were immediately realised. On the one hand, he agreed with Newman’s suggestion that Felson was similar to characters Marty had previously dealt with, the kind who were remote and unsympathetic. But the original script still felt like a sequel, even featuring clips from the previous movie, which is why screenwriter Richard Price was brought in, who kept the title of the source material but very little else.
Eddie Felson – Do you smell that?
Vincent Lauria – What, smoke?
Carmen – No, Money…
In a 1986 interview with American Film, Price explained how deeply involved he would become with Newman’s baby in an attempt to make the movie feel authentic, hanging around in dingy pool halls and becoming intimate with some of the regulars, many of whom were aware of the Walter Tevis novel of the same name, which, along with The Hustler, romanticised the lives of men who were little more than gloried bar flies. “If I’m doing a movie about pool hustlers, and if pool hustlers are sitting in the audience opening night, I don’t want anybody getting up in disgust,” he would say. “I don’t want anybody saying, “This is bullshit.” I want people to say, “This is true.” As true as drama and fiction can be true.”
Price would inevitably clash with Newman throughout production, which may have gone some way to justifying Scorsese’s initial concerns about working with such a high-profile actor from another generation. Newman was understandably precious about a character who had helped shape his career, and he almost drove co-screenwriter Price crazy with his endless script demands. This was a character who the actor felt strongly enough about to revisit after more than two decades, a continuation that he approached meticulously. Such was the preciousness of Felson’s legacy that Newman was worried about what he described as ‘missed opportunities’, a hegemonic approach that led Price to famously retort, “If I hear ”we’re missing an opportunity’ one more time, you’re going to be missing a writer.'”
In Newman’s mind, this was his Raging Bull, Felson’s epilogue away from the sport that once defined him. The Color of Money doesn’t have the artistry or emotional weight of Scorsese’s based-on-true-events biopic, nor the painstaking performance of a young Robert De Niro, who also had the dramatic conflict of the real-life Jake LaMotta to tap into, but Newman is a born movie star who can do so much with so little, and his second turn as ‘Fast’ Eddie was more than deserving of the Best Actor Oscar that Newman would ultimately land. Whether that Oscar was more of a token gesture after previous losses is open to debate, though Bob Hoskins was just as deserving for his role as a smitten working class gangster in Neil Jordan’s neo-noir crime drama Mona Lisa, a British movie about prostitution that proved much grittier.
That’s not to say The Color of Money isn’t gritty in its own right, and there are comparisons to be made between LaMotta and Newman’s effortlessly cool, ageing pool shark. Both are former champions and both attempt to stay relevant beyond their glory days, the former as a bloated night spot raconteur, the latter as a booze-addled coach drifting towards the wrong side of clarity. Newman is a colossal presence as the older, wiser and just a little bitter pool hall ghost. His diamond glare and ruggedly suave aura command every frame, and you can sense that his heart and soul are poured into the role; he cares about what happens to one of his most emblematic characters, and his personality saturates every last scene. Whether he’s stewing in whiskey, exploding into flashes of manipulative rage or simply hanging back as his precocious student pings off the walls with puerile bravado, his aura permeates this movie. The man in the shadows is forever front and centre.
Eddie Felson: [to Vincent] You gotta have two things to win. You gotta have brains and you gotta have balls. Now, you got too much of one and not enough of the other.
Felson’s protégé is played by an up-and-coming Tom Cruise, who possessed all the Hollywood sizzle Marty required for a gig that was designed to please the industry’s money men. Cruise oozes star appeal as the petulant Lauria, treading a fine line between boyish charm and nauseating arrogance as he sets about learning from and ultimately outdoing his mentor. Felson is no longer a pool player. He is a hustler of an entirely different variety, corrupting a wet-behind-the-ears Lauria for his own financial gain, but also as a means to vicariously return to the sport he has long-since walked away from in a competitive sense. Scorsese has often relied on youthful charm when it comes to movies with delinquent themes, actors such as Ray Liotta and Leonardo DiCaprio becoming spoiled rogues as the blue-eyed Henry Hill and the battle-hardened Amsterdam, respectively, and Cruise, still a rookie in his early twenties, is nothing short of a revelation.
Caught between the movie’s two male stars is Vincent’s hard-faced love interest, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who had burst onto the scene three years prior as Tony Montana’s naive and ill-fated sister, Gina, in Brian De Palma’s, Oliver Stone penned crime drama Scarface. The silver screen rookie had more than held her own starring alongside Al Pacino in one of his most iconic roles, and again she refuses to be overshadowed as the flirtatious and cunning Carmen, a loose beauty who seems at once loyal and ready to jump on the next runaway train that happens to rattle through her vicinity. Whenever I see Mastrantonio I am awestruck. It amazes me that she doesn’t get more plaudits as an actress because for me she is one of the finest of her generation, and it was only Marlee Matlin’s performance in Children of a Lesser God — unique for being the only Academy Award winning turn by a deaf performer — that prevented her from bagging an Oscar of her own.
When we catch up with ‘Fast’ Eddie he has long-since cooled the motor. He peddles whiskey — mainly, you suspect, so he has a constant supply at hand. One typically boozy evening he spies the relentlessly brash Vincent, who loves nothing more than showing off his prodigious pool skills in a manner that sees any potential pigeon flutter away before the chalk has even left the cue. Eddie sees a bit of his old self in Vincent, and immediately the haze clears and those hawkish instincts begin to sharpen. He knows he can make a winner out of the kid and is determined to snare the kind of talent that doesn’t come along too often. That talent wasn’t entirely a work of fiction. In fact, Scorsese would claim that both Newman and Cruise became rather handy with their cues during shooting, which meant some of the film’s dazzling trick shots were quickly in the bag, making a potentially difficult production relatively simple. “Sometimes I’d think it was going to take 17 or 18 takes to get a ball to go into a certain hole,” the director would say, “but then we’d nail it in two takes!”
Even more vital to the smoothness of proceedings was the late cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Ballhaus, who was set to work with Scorsese on The Last Temptation of Christ until a ballooning budget and widespread protests from religious groups put the project on hiatus, would collaborate with Marty on such classics as Goodfellas, Gangs of New York and The Departed, but it was 1985‘s After Hours that the two first worked on together. The Color of Money was their second collaboration, and Scorsese would speak in glowing terms about the influence Ballhaus had on him at a time when filmmaking had suddenly become a daunting prospect. “Working with Michael was a sort of rebirth for me,” he would tell American Cinematographer. “On After Hours, we had the chance to see if we could make a film with the energy level I had when I did Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore or Taxi Driver. The great thing about Michael on that film was that he was so enthusiastic about my shot designs. He was very, very helpful in getting exactly what I wanted. We had a lot of fun figuring out what type of lens to use, how fast or slow to move the camera and in what direction. It was like rediscovering how to make movies — together. He really gave me back my faith in myself about how to make films.”
Vincent Lauria: What are you gonna do when I kick your ass?
Eddie Felson: Pick myself up and let you kick me again.
It is during those pool scenes that The Color of Money more closely resembles a Scorsese movie. The action is flamboyant, edgy and dynamic, beautifully capturing the allure of the game and everything it stands for. Its players may be lowdown hustlers on the boot heels of society, but under the lights they become overnight celebrities, enthused by the spotlight and sinking into the muggy ambience of their back alley stage. “I lit the movie the way these pool halls were lit,” Ballhaus would explain. “I illuminated the tables’ felt surfaces, letting the areas beyond the tables fall off into darkness.” That darkness plays host to a colourful array of notable cameos from a plethora of future stars. A young John Turturro plays a cocaine-friendly table crawler quickly duped by the fresh-faced Vincent, and an equally youthful Forest Whitaker puts in an astonishingly assured performance as a gentle giant whose au naturale hustle seems to get the better of Felson’s blunted instincts. It is here where Felson rediscovers his old self, resulting in the kind of climactic battle that reunites our warring rebels on the most fundamental level.
The meeting in question feels like a decisive moment in the relationship of a son and his estranged father. Until that meeting, their relationship is a complex one, especially since Eddie sees so much of the kid in himself, and Vincent is suckered in by his mentor’s painstaking ambitions, seeing the old shark as something of a paternal figure as he attempts to keep his protege’s ego at bay in favour of the long con. The old man seems to be playing a calculated game as he continually gives the kid enough rope to hang himself before tugging at his leash, pulling him away from temptation with one hand and pushing him towards failure with the other. Inevitably, this game of give-and-take leads to an abrupt separation and a final showdown at a pool tournament for the region’s finest. In the end, Eddie creates something of a monster in Vincent, turning a naive pawn into a ruthless punk devoid of ethics, the kind who will inevitably flourish in an environment where everybody is looking for the next sucker to leech off. The tournament is also a chance at redemption for Eddie, and through Lauria he is able to rediscover his passion for playing the game, and the highs and lows that make it such an irresistible draw.
Can The Color of Money be deemed classic Scorsese? In terms of possessing many of his hallmarks, perhaps not, but the movie oozes cult appeal, and Newman’s old-dog-rediscovering-old-tricks act is hard not to get behind as we slump into the dank of pool hall skulduggery. In the end, it falls short of Scorsese’s finest, but that shouldn’t be the extent of our relationship with the movie. The director takes his foot off the technical peddle and allows others to take charge of characters that are not his own, characters who others convinced him to get involved with. Perhaps for this reason, The Color of Money is not the kind of spectacle we have come to expect from an innovative player such as Marty, but for once the show is not about him. It is instead about one of cinema’s most iconic characters and the equally iconic star who portrays him. For both, it is a fitting swansong.