Sharks & Spins & “The Color of Money”

The Color of Money Tom Cruise in The Color of Money (Buena Vista Distribution)

It’s Newman and Cruise’s picture first, but Scorsese’s work on it is still a pleasure.

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we’re celebrating the release of The Irishman with a retrospective on the work of Martin Scorsese. Read the rest of our coverage here.

The Color of Money is many things. It’s home to the performance that won Paul Newman the Academy Award for best actor. It’s a fascinating artifact from Tom Cruise’s “I’m a young up and comer and I’m going to work with as many acclaimed actors as I can” period. It’s the inspiration for Doom (yes, this Doom)’s name. And it’s also directed by Martin Scorsese.

Andrew Tracy, writing in the critical anthology Martin Scorsese: He is Cinema, says “Scorsese’s ambivalence toward the film is well known: he made no bones of the fact that he accepted Paul Newman’s offer to direct this belated sequel to Robert Rossen’s 1961 The Hustler as a means of proving his commercial bona fides to the studios after the successive box-office disappointments of Raging Bull and The King of Comedy.” If there’s any truth to the notion that a film can belong to an individual person, The Color of Money is far more a Paul Newman picture, or even a Tom Cruise picture than it is a Martin Scorsese picture. But, while Scorsese may not feel the same connection to The Color of Money that he does Raging Bull or Hugo, he still wielded all of his considerable skill while making it. 

It’s here that Newman and Cruise bringing their work with body language and expression to bear. And, just as the player waiting for their turn must, Scorsese pays attention.

Newman and Cruise give terrific performances as veteran pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson and childish rising star Vincent Lauria. Scorsese’s filmmaking bolsters their work. He adds striking flourishes that deepen the impact of key moments. Time slows around a trick shot when Vincent tires of an opponent’s taunting, his will strong enough to bend the flow of the film itself. Triumphant music swells as Eddie gets fitted for the glasses that he needs to play on a competitive level. It cuts out as suddenly as it had arrived, jumping forward to the next phase of Eddie’s rebirth. Montages of pool balls sinking one after another after another, and of break after break convey not only convey the passage of time but the sheer skill with which Eddie and Vincent play.

But for my money (I’m sorry), the most interesting thing about Scorsese’s filmmaking in The Color of Money is the way he uses the space of the pool table and the turn-based nature of the game to craft a performance space for Newman and Cruise. Consider the following sequence – the first of several times that Eddie and Vincent play against each other over the course of the picture:

For its first three-quarters, The Color of Money is a road movie. So, rather than focus on a specific place, Scorsese and his creative collaborators focus on the object that becomes the picture’s most recurring space – the pool table. Its green cloth becomes not only the site of play, but a frame in which Newman, Cruise and their myriad opponents’ (including John Turturro and Forest Whitaker!) faces can be centered. With the table as a clean background, their expressions and reactions become the shot’s (again, I’m sorry) key visual.

More directly in the context of the action, the table is a great big honking interactive prop. Newman, Cruise and company play off of it as much as they do each other. Early on, Cruise all but bounces and bounds around it – every inch the not-quite-grown-up big kid Vincent starts out as. Late in the film, once Eddie has rediscovered his love of the game, Newman’s shots are so graceful that they become actively beautiful. 

The pool table isn’t the only part of the game Scorsese turns into a tool for the cast. He uses pool’s turn system to great effect. Whether they’re playing each other or someone else, Eddie and Vincent need to be both ferociously competitive and patient. When one of them is shooting, the other is watching. There’s banter, for certain. But just as often there is silence. It’s here that Newman and Cruise bringing their work with body language and expression to bear. And, just as the player waiting for their turn must, Scorsese pays attention. Whether the waiting player is in the foreground or the background (there is an excellent late-movie sequence where an out-of-focus Eddie watches a matured Vincent work a hustle), we the audience see what they’re doing. It’s a space that Newman, Cruise and their fellow performers use to its fullest advantage. 

Within their respective bodies of work The Color of Money is more significant as a work by Newman or Cruise than it is as one by Scorsese. Darn if he doesn’t craft them a terrific space in which to perform and some great tools with which to do so though.

The Color of Money Trailer:

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