The Color of Money (1986)

Directed by Martin Scorsese


Tom Cruise is a great actor, and I think that’s easy to forget.  He brings such a manic energy to many of his roles, most notably here and in Magnolia.  He’s a bit crazy, and when his characters get to be just as crazy, well it seems to work out perfectly.  In The Color of Money his up and comer craziness contrasts nicely with Paul Newman’s veteran savvy, like a young pup biting anything and everything and the old dog who sits idly by, watching everything and doing next to nothing.

Vincent Laura (Tom Cruise) is a great pool player who loves to win.  He dances, whoops and hollers and showboats around the table, rubbing his victory in the nose of the one he beats.  Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), is a retired player who makes his money by finding people like Vince, and putting them in a position to win them both a ton of money.

Vince can beat anyone, but he only wins a little money at a time.  Eddie, able to read people better than anyone, knows when Vince should win, when he should lose, and how those combinations of wins and losses will add up to the biggest payout.  Along with Vince’s money-managing girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a woman who sees Vince more as an asset than a boyfriend, Vince and Eddie make their way through a series of pool halls on the road, with their eyes set on Atlantic City.  On the way they will win some, purposefully lose some, and make a hell of a lot of money.

Things prove difficult, though, when Vince refuses to lose, winning matches that net him a hundred bucks but losing out on the opportunity for much more.  In one instance, Eddie commands Vince to throw a game, losing a small amount of money, but which will attract the attention of a lesser player with deeper pockets, who they can then swindle much, much more from.  They’re hustling players, in other words, but Vince has trouble getting on board.

Cruise’s character’s mania is born from a deep insecurity and jealousy.  He constantly questions Carmen as to her whereabouts, and every loss at the pool table is like a knife stabbing his ego.  He’s never lost before, it seems, and that’s as much of a weakness as it is a strength.  By contrast, Eddie, despite his own talent at the game, seems beaten down, like he knows the value and the feeling of a loss just as much as a victory.

Eventually Eddie gets fed up with Vince, but also just as much with himself.  He sends Vince and Carmen on their way, telling them he’s taught them everything he knows.  This comes following a montage in which we see the three of them cleaning up at the pool halls, winning untold amounts on money.  But when Eddie is out-hustled by another player, an “unknown,” (Forest Whitaker) which he himself tells Carmen to avoid, Eddie snaps, letting them go and focusing on getting back into the game himself.

He eventually meets Vince once again in Atlantic City, but by this point, Eddie’s focus is on winning the game, not the money.  When he’s matched up with Vince, they play a tense game that Eddie ultimately wins.  He can’t help himself and, while on his way out, ducks outside for a moment to howl in joy.  Later Vince shows up with Eddie’s cut of the profits.  Vince has learned, it seems, and he threw the game on purpose, betting on Eddie to win due to the much higher payout.

While old Eddie might consider this a brilliant move, new Eddie is hurt, realizing his victory was nothing more than a ruse.  The film ends with Eddie challenging Vince to a game, no strings attached.  He just wants to see who’s the best.  We never do see who wins, but as Eddie prepares for his first strike, he proclaims, “I’m back!”

There are directors with a clear, consistent visual language (Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, to name a couple), and there are directors like Scorsese and the Coen Brothers who alternate their style to fit the spectrum of stories they tell.  In Scorsese’s case, a film like this one is reminiscent of After HoursBringing Out the Dead, The Wolf of Wall Street, and a little bit of Cape Fear.  But some of his other films, the more highly regarded ones, seem to have a much more restrained visual style, such as in Casino, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver (from what I remember…), Raging Bull and something like The Departed.

Basically, it seems like his more serious stories stand on their own, so Scorsese leaves them mostly untouched, in terms of his cinematography and camera movement.  But in other films, ones with a more comic quality, his camera moves like its on speed.  It would seem to me like he’s having more fun with these films, but again, his most well-received pictures seem to be in the other category.

In The Color of Money, the camera and the editing is kinetic and fast-paced.  The pool scenes are a joy to watch, and you can tell how much work went into these moments which, in other versions of a movie like this, might be glossed over.  That’s because most of the story is told in between the games of pool.  At first, Scorsese chops up these games, making the game look more exciting than it is, but as the story grows more serious, the shots get longer, and we have to pay attention to the particular moves of a player.  Still, it seem to me like the story doesn’t always move forward within each game and rather only by how it ends.

So I guess all I’m getting at is that these scenes could be filmed with much less effort and time, but Scorsese makes them feel like a well-orchestrated dance.  He, like other good filmmakers, has that ability to make anything seem cool.  It’s safe to assume a bunch of people wanted to go hit up a pool hall after watching this film.  I’m not sure if so many people wanted to drive taxis, though…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s