Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Color of Money

Pool hustler "Fast" Eddie Felson was a character who warranted an update.  Many fictional characters really don't, either due to their inherent lack of interest or that their previous story was quite sufficiently wrapped up. As seen in 1961's THE HUSTLER, Felson was more than your average fresh faced hood, and left in a world of pain by the time he shook hands with Minnesota Fats one final time.  He walked away and perhaps viewers mused on what ten cent game he would join next, or even if he would live another few months. 

In 1986's THE COLOR OF MONEY twenty five years have passed and we find Eddie (Paul Newman, reprising his role) has become a wizened sixty-something, now a liquor salesman who's done well for himself. He's still hanging around smoky billiard halls and organizing bets with younger hotshots.  It seems he rarely picks up a cue these days.

When Eddie sees Vincent (Tom Cruise), skilled but undisciplined and cocky, he begins to instruct the young man how to scam larger amounts of dough from small timers.   Vincent has some innate ability but is a bit slow on most things, especially the idea that a con involves scaling back, pretending to be an average player.  Eddie plans to mold Vincent into perhaps a more savvy younger version of himself, and finds that using Eddie's girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) to inspire jealousy can be effective.

Like its predecessor, THE COLOR OF MONEY is really not attempting to milk suspense from high stakes contests, at least not the ones on the felt.  The shadowy figures who drift through dank parlors, guys like Julian (John Turturro) and Amos (Forrest Whitaker) are playing games at every moment, waiting to snare their prey.  They'd as soon do it with three card monte or some other trick if nine-ball wasn't their preference.  Richard Price's hard boiled script, based on Walter Tevis' novel, mines the psychology of the players, their bleak surroundings. Often very effectively.  It's also a film of atmosphere, and director Martin Scorcese provides the grit and seediness almost as vividly as in TAXI DRIVER.  The soundtrack is filled with Robbie Robertson's moody scoring and a few more uptempo tracks, including Eric Clapton's "It's in the Way That You Use It".

Scorcese fixes Michael Ballhaus' camera on faces as much as fancy pool shots (some of which are very close-up).  Newman's face is seen from multiple angles in a series of fades that tells us his thoughts before he actually explodes in frustration. The actor's Oscar winning performance really is perfect, even if the film around him isn't.  THE COLOR OF MONEY meanders and often seems to lose interest in its story, allowing the low key vibe among the characters to become near catatonic. I found the events in the climactic moments of the movie to be lacking, though realistic. Many viewers will be frustrated by the final scene's inconclusiveness.

Cruise, becoming a big star by this time, does convincing work as a wet behind the ears kid.  Mastrantonio is also fine in her quiet sultriness.  But this is Newman's picture all the way, a Star Vehicle I can get behind.  Scorsese lends his visual magic but it's all there to service his lead actor, and that's just fine.  I wouldn't have even minded seeing another chapter, to see how "back" Eddie Felson really was.

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