Bright Lights Film Journal

The Way That You Use It: Reassessing The Color of Money in the Scorsese Canon

“This film is about process, about transitory states, about the journey in between the grimy Chicago pool halls that serve as Vince and Eddie’s intellectual and physical training grounds.”

In many ways, Martin Scorsese in the 1980s was just trying to hold on: to a series of faltering marriages, to The Last Temptation of Christ‘s green light, to his place as one of Hollywood’s premier “final cut” directors. So the fact that his ’80s cinematic output may constitute some of his best work ever is all the more to his credit, given such a rash of personal and professional vexations. The two “lost ’80s Scorsese” films that seem to be the most cherished are perhaps The King of Comedy (1983) and After Hours (1985), which were, at the time of their release, given critically and commercially icy receptions, though After Hours was mildly profitable. Both were made to take the place of what was to be an epic, Aidan Quinn-starring The Last Temptation of Christ feature that was supposed to be filmed in ’83. But because both films were decidedly not hits, and because Scorsese still craved the box office swagger necessary to get a new production of Last Temptation off the ground, he took Paul Newman seriously when Newman approached him about directing The Color of Money, a semi-sequel to the 1961 Robert Rossen classic The Hustler. They cast the then up-and-coming Tom Cruise as a young hotshot pool-table hustler, Vincent Lauria, to be taken under the tutelage of Newman’s “Fast” Eddie Felson. And they willed Money to certifiable hit status — its gross soared to over five times the amount that After Hours took in, and Newman finally won his first (and only) competitive Academy Award for his performance.

In the years since, however, retroactive trendsetters have glossed over Money in favor of the psychological trauma wrought by King of Comedy, his final De Niro collaboration in the 1980s, and the coked-out madness of After Hours. The Color of Money is seen as fluff a “one for them” kind of film that lacks the patented Scorsese stamp, or at least the imagination and originality that marked the other two films. Such critics fail to realize that The Color of Money is unique among Scorsese’s output in that most colorful of decades because it is the best pure genre picture Scorsese has ever made, and because it gleefully confounds every hallmark of its supposed genre.

Money is, by any classical measure, a sports picture. But like its predecessor, its principal interests lie with its characters and its atmosphere; it is not driven in any direct way by the strains of a standard sports plot or the tidiness of a clearly heroic protagonist figure. The film’s greatness lies in the way it distorts the ambitions of its initial premise and the ambiguity with which is treats its central triumvirate: Vincent is working a dead-end job at a Target-esque department store, living with his slightly older, slightly wiser girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and is about to embark on a pool-hustling road trip under the guidance of wealthy, self-made bar owner and reformed pool shark Eddie Felson. This is the set-up, classically standard. The viewer has every right to extrapolate the resolution of this plot into one of two potential forms: the classic Star Wars arc (the pupil betrays the master) or the equally archetypal Karate Kid arc (the pupil wins everything at an ultimate tournament after much adversity, to the pleasure of the master).

But that is not where Scorsese takes us. Instead, we shift uneasy loyalties among our ostensible focal figure (Newman), his hotheaded protégé, and even (surprisingly), the protégé’s murkily driven lover (Mastrantonio). The film begins with Felson, its arc is driven by Felson, and yet, by the resolution of the piece, even though the film features nary a scene without Felson, there is a deeply felt distance between the cinemagoer and the Felson character, due to a pivotal penultimate conversation between Eddie and Vincent. And there is another problem besides: Eddie Felson is reduced to spectator in some of the most viscerally choreographed pool scenes ever put on film (courtesy of Scorsese and director of photography Michael Ballhaus) — indeed, a vast majority of the movie’s great pool moments occur as Eddie and Carmen merely react to them on the sidelines, with a celebratory Lauria cackling front and center.

This implicit passivity in the Felson character is perhaps more a function of Newman’s age at the time of production (60) than it is a definitive discrediting of Felson’s relative possibility as a protagonist for the film. That being said, it is clear that the central focus of the Scorsese-oriented gaze in the bravura action set-pieces of the film is Cruise’s Vincent Lauria. Vincent drives the action in these moments, and it is his antagonistic stances against the hustling precedents established by Eddie that define the relationships at the emotional core of the film’s middle passages.

Conversely, Carmen, not Eddie, stands as the focal point of Scorsese’s framing as the team goes on the road, albeit in the scenes when the action is not expressly taking place in pool contests. A notable instant occurs when Eddie confronts her in her hotel room, as she attempts to use casual sexuality to wrangle control from him. Dressed only in a mildly buttoned shirt and white panties, she invites him inside the room that she and her boyfriend share (knowing full well that Vince is not there), and immediately moves to her bed, assuming a position on it that screams “Burt Reynolds bear-carpet centerfold magazine spread.” The only notable difference is that she is turned away from Newman, thus making his visual focus her toned derriere, barely concealed by said white panties.

Eddie immediately recognizes Carmen’s sexually aggressive technique and quells it by shoving her roughly against the wall and explicitly insisting she cut the hormonal theatrics. This scene would in no way be PC in a contemporary big-budgeted cinematic lexicon: the top-billed actor on the movie’s one-sheet would not be allowed to rough up the film’s top-billed actress. Carmen’s sexual self-awareness and world-weary frankness contribute to a refreshingly layered character, and this shifting treatment of her as she interfaces with Eddie and Vince stirs the pot of what could otherwise be a relatively pat pool-hustler adventure film.

We expect a sports picture to end a certain way, and indeed Roger Ebert was mildly (profoundly?) irked that Scorsese elected to resolve his film with something of an anti-resolution: the stakes could not be higher — “Fast Eddie” has returned to his pool-hustling ways and has abandoned his protégé. They are in Atlantic City, at one of the biggest big-money pool draws of the year, and Eddie and Vince are the best players there and thus destined to run into each other. And then it’s over. They see each other, and Eddie delivers what the viewer anticipates to be the one-line preamble to a conclusive confrontation between master and pupil, “I’m back, baby.” Instead of a confrontation, he hits a cue ball with a pool stick, the frame freezes, and the credits roll.

The viewer’s first inclination is to revolt at the screen, as everything about this set-up screams “anti-climax” — until you watch it again. And you are hit with a fresh revelation around the earlier moment of Eddie and Carmen’s aggressive hotel confrontation: this film is about process, about transitory states, about the journey in between the grimy Chicago pool halls that serve as Vince and Eddie’s intellectual and physical training grounds. It is about the sometimes messy intermingling of these slick, power-hungry souls as they hurdle together through a nocturnal universe where all the rules are turned on their heads. Where the most skilled pool players are not the consistent winners but the consistent losers, the players with enough ability and tenacity to throw close games at will, upping the stakes of their opponents’ bets until the odds are almost impossibly against them. The joke, of course, is on the opponent, as these so-called losers turn on a dime into hustlers, who have baited their prey into a financial furor predicated on the hustlers’ supposed inability to close out their games, and when they turn, they shred the opposition, much to our delight.

Into this arena is thrown Vincent, a kid so proud he refuses to lose, an inane hustler but an inherently capable short-term winner. Eddie struggles to coerce Vince into thinking big-picture, throwing enough close games to punch a ticket to an ultimate Atlantic City showdown where the odds will be so impossibly stacked against him that when he turns predator and obliterates his competitors, he (and ostensibly Eddie) will walk away far richer than they would have if they hadn’t been hustlers.

This is Scorsese’s true focus, the constant push-pull of patient master and petulant pupil, a dynamic so familiar on paper but made fresh by the specificity of its context here: a world defined by Warren Zevon songs and cigarette smoke and blue chalk and 1986. A world, in summation, that is as alien to contemporary cinemagoers as the world of Fast Five was to the cinemagoers of 1986. The Color of Money, then, is unique in its essential recognition and subversion of generic and stylistic tropes, both deliberately and (in the case of its ’80s-centric, pool-hall oriented specificity) accidentally. This is a sports movie produced in a way that only Scorsese could: delivering all anticipated sports-movie tropes while simultaneously subverting them; focusing more on character and atmosphere than the outcome of the film’s ultimate contest (which is the focus of all the other narrative sports films in the history of time); and focusing more on tiny, seemingly inconsequential elemental details than on any artificial reflections on the process of pool. Because that’s not what matters. And it never should be.

Works Cited

The Color of Money. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Paul Newman, Tom Cruise. Buena Vista, 1986. DVD.

David Thompson and Ian Christie, ed. Scorsese on Scorsese: Revised Edition. New York: Faber & Faber, 1996. Print.Ebert, Roger. “The Color of Money.” Rev. of The Color of Money, dir. Martin Scorsese.Rogerebert.com. Sun-Times News Group, 17 October 1986. Web. 3 July 2011.