BFI Scorsese Season – The Color Of Money (1986)
In order to provide the most comprehensive cover for this seminal season we have to delve down into the lesser known, more neglected films in the Scorsese canon. Rifling through the material in my film book library there is unsurprisingly a wealth of anecdotes and analysis on the likes of Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, but I could barely glean a half-dozen pages on the making of The Color Of Money, the loosely grained 1986 sequel to sports classic The Hustler which starred a fresher faced Paul Newman in one of his iconic roles. Curiously to me, the 1980’s have usually been considered as Scorsese’s wilderness years, the period where he fell from the pedestal of one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation following a litany of incredible pictures, even managing to recover from the annihilating reaction to his tribute to the Golden era Hollywood musicals New York, New York with what is widely considered as one of the greatest ever post war American films – Raging Bull. He kept working throughout the following decade, kicked the debilitating coke habit that landed him in hospital for exhaustion a number of times, but it wasn’t easy to convince the studios to fund his uncommercial projects. Sometimes however the movie gods would smile and the talent would approach him with opportunities, as Newman did when he raised the prospect of a return to the life of ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson, pool shark turned wholesale liquor salesman, a quarter century after he abandoned the life. Personally I love 1980’s Scorsese so we will be lavishing a particular emphasis on this period during this season. Even within that enclave this is perhaps his most overlooked picture which crackles with that whip-crack energy and emphasis on character and conflict, yet another man writhing in an existential web of regrets, half-imagined hopes and degraded dreams, with one more elusive shot at glory a chance to transcend their personal purgatory.
I’ve always had a soft spot for this film for a number of reason which I hope to unpick here. Unlike some self-important directors, slowly casting their imperious aspersions over the numerous scripts that pass through their aides fingers and only committing to a prestige project every four or five years Marty decided he wanted to keep working, to keep learning, to collaborate with new and established talent and to expand his repertoire – I admire that. Maybe some of this was commercially minded as we all have bills to pay, but after a cursory glance through the material and one assumes the chance to work with Newman he thought ‘yeah, fuck it’ and committed to the project – I get the same sense of instinctive decision-making arising from his remake of Cape Fear which enabled him to get his full Hitchcockian anxieties exorcised into another project. Paul Newman plays Felson a quarter century on from his rejection of the fugitive life, longer in the tooth and more temperate in his dealings, he initially senses a money spinning opportunity if he can harness and mould the skills of the volatile Vincent (Tom Cruise) and manage the possessive instincts of his girlfriend and partner Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Shot during a grim Chicago winter Scorsese’s regular DP Michael Ballhaus straddles the film in shivering greys and whites, the palette coming to life when the road-movie plot reaches Atlantic City, just as Eddie’s slow awakening and new-found faith in his own prowess coalesces in a conspicuous climax. Along the way we see the internalized mechanics of the con, of the sweet nectar of the hustle which I’ve always found fascinating, the psychological games and feints which Newman has prior pedigree in one of the all time great grifter movies The Sting. However, unlike more straightforward con movies like House Of Games or Nine Queens which rely more on their serpentine plot mechanics The Color Of Money strives for a deeper purpose, a character study of a man in the twilight of his career lamenting past glories, wondering and yearning if he can recapture his youth which fate and his own foibles snatched from him a generation ago.
As character study The Color Of Money is a picture which rests entirely on the quality of its performances, and Marty shepherded an Academy Award winner from Newman, and buttressed Cruise’s emerging screen persona as a cocky, charismatic all-American boy. This was released just as Cruise had just broken the sound barrier of superstardom, already a hot property after the previous years Risky Business, blasting into the fame stratosphere launched by Top Gun which opened five months earlier. Of course the box office receipts weren’t remotely comparable but he carries his purpose in the picture with his usual chutzpah, this scene the perfect encapsulation of his arrogant adolescence. The associated energy comes from the spectacular exhibition shots and the skilled montages dropped over the various games, I’m not a particular fan of sports films as, well, I’m just not into sports, but the skill on display is fascinating and gripping, all the more impressive as with the exception of one spectacular jump shot every stroke in the film was conducted by Cruise or Newman. Far more interesting is the hustle, that fine psychological game of convincing your opponent that you are an inferior player while slowly coaxing the prize money higher and higher, the act of losing while your ego demands revenge, the ability to walk away and nurse that hunger for revenge until you revisit your mark months later with the bookies odds stacked heavily in your favour. That’s where the characters come to the fore and the intrinsic drama of the film lurks, that struggle between male posturing in Vincent and the venerable wisdom of Eddie’s street smarts, although he isn’t totally immune to his ego obscuring his intellect. These nodes are the pinions of the screenplay by the always brilliant Richard Price – an acclaimed urban novelist in his own right whom has also written episodes of The Wire, Clockers and cult gang movie The Wanderers. Through his research and life experience he has developed a real ear for the argot of the street, for the genuine hustles and scores that this sub-class have developed, all of which gives the films a fascinating authenticity as backdrop to the internal ideological struggles. There is some fine supporting turns from John Turturro and Forest Whitaker as a portly prestidigitator, and keep an eye out for a youthful Iggy Pop making a small cameo as another ignorant mark.
The towering presence isn’t Scorsese’s direction or the economic script, the real bounty is of course the lamented Paul Newman, a real screen legend who managed to laminate his late career with a scattering of incredible performances, see also Lumet’s The Verdict and Nobody’s Fool for how you populate the latter stages of your career with some incredible punctuation points. His reprisal of Felson is an aging chancer with a twinkle in his eye, slowly coming to terms with his own mortality and declining opportunities, hell-bent on one last blaze of glory before his star inevitably must diminish and fade. In terms of style Marty winds up his camera like a taut cluster of vivacity, before detonating the mechanism to dizzyingly orbit the baize battlefields as the games commence, tracking the ricocheting balls and thrusting cues like some general monitoring the forward deployment of his assets and his opponents ambushes and counter-strikes. The narrative is clean and compact, a linear journey which educates Vincent and Carmen in the various skillsets of the hustle across a frigid landscape of smoky pool halls and dive bars, as Eddie regenerates his mojo and confidence in his own ambitions. Scorsese’s usual darting coverage, long-takes shifting from perspective POV to mise-en-scene is just so skilful it brings a smile to the eyes, and as I’ve said before and will say again it drapes his films with such an effervescent energy, I just love the technique which makes his films such as joy to watch and revisit again and again. This time around what I found truly compelling, away from the insight into the street was the shifting motives of the characters, and Eddie’s conscious or unconscious use of Vincent to put himself back in the game and rekindle his dwindling confidence. Cleverly, the script probes that grey landscape between being confident enough to throw a game, to build confidence in an opponent before fleecing him with your superior skills, and not being hustled yourself by a stronger player, turning your own ego against you in a more devious and surreptitious manner – that’s the query that the film alights upon yet never definitely answers, wisely leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions. This was another well-preserved 35mm print, overall a minor Scorsese perhaps but no less rewarding with its spiritual self-flagellation and adrenalined aesthetics, so rack ’em up;