In Defense of The Color of Money (1986)

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The Color of Money features two kinds of trick shots: the ones on the pool table and the ones in the camera. “Fast” Eddie Felson puts on a clinic on shot selection on camera and Scorsese’s puts on another off.

It is not Martin Scorsese’s best film, but it might be his best photographed. This is a movie that is never, not for a single second, dull. It’s best known as the “inferior” sequel to the 1961 film The Hustler and as the film that finally won star Paul Newman his Oscar on the basis of his career rather than his performance. It’s better than its reputation on both counts.

Obviously, the film looks great (kudos to cinematographer Michael Balhaus). But the question then becomes to what purpose? At what point does all that style transform into substance? From my perspective, The Color of Money‘s dynamic visual aesthetic speaks to the film’s story and themes in at least three crucial ways (and I’m sure there are more — these are just the ones that jumped out at me writing at 3:00 AM, still high on the buzz from the movie). Here they are, in no particular order:

1)As Visual Complement To Fast Eddie’s Lessons About Hustling

If you’ve never seen The Color of Money, it is set twenty-five years after the events of The Hustler, at a point when its hero, “Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), has quit pool. Now he makes his living as a liquor salesman which fulfills his monetary needs but not his thrill-seeking ones. One day, he meets a young and immensely talented nine-ball player named Vince (Tom Cruise) and his girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and decides to take them under his wing. Eddie figures they don’t need lessons in pool playing but they could stand to learn a few tricks in pool hustling. He teaches them that a good hustler has to look like one thing and be another. He has to be able to see through other players’ hustles, to look past the image people present on the surface to the truth that is underneath. And here is where the visual technique comes into play.

On the one hand, by making a movie that is seemingly all surfaces, by assaulting us with all these wild and unorthodox camera angles, Scorsese is essentially giving the audience the opportunity to put Eddie’s lessons into use themselves. Can we look past the flash to find the themes that are really important? Can we be cool-headed and analytical in the midst of frenzy and excitement? Scorsese is testing the audience the same way Eddie is testing Vince.

2)As Reinforcement For The Idea That Time Has Passed Fast Eddie By

But just as Eddie is testing Vince, the world of nine-ball pool is testing Eddie. Broken by the events of The Hustler, Eddie has withdrawn from the world of pool. If we believe what he tells Vince, he hasn’t touched a cue in decades. As his relationship with Vince draws him back into the game, Eddie begins to feel all those familiar feelings again. It’s just like old times.

But times have changed. As part of their training, Eddie tries to take Vince and Carmen to some of the old haunts on the pool hall circuit. At the first joint, Eddie runs up the front stairs, giddy with excitement. But when they turn the corner, they discover the pool tables are gone; the place is now a furniture warehouse. The disconnect between Eddie’s past and present is reinforced by Ballhaus’ cutting-edge camera work and Thelma Schoonmaker’s kinetic editing. They remind us this ain’t your father’s Hustler, and if Eddie’s going to survive, he needs to realize that.

(Speaking of changing times, I’m convinced that The Color of Money doesn’t get nearly as much credit as it deserves as an emblematic movie of the 1980s. People rave about Wall Street and overlook The Color of Money, which says many of the same things. The whole film is about Fast Eddie’s misguided beliefs that greed is good and should be the single driving factor in pool playing and in life.)

3)As Means of Conveying The Speed And Excitement of Nine-Ball to the Audience

If you and I went to a pool hall and played a couple of games over some beers, the stakes would be low and the mood would be relaxed. For Vince and Fast Eddie, these nine-ball matches are like wars. Huge sums of money, not to mention pride, are on the line. Static angles and typical, television coverage style shot selection wouldn’t convey just how intense these games are for the participants. Shots that put us right onto the felt, that let us see the splash of chalk off the cue and blows the balls up to gargantuan size, builds these games into almost mythic battles.

Also, before I go, a brief word on the whole Newman/Oscar thing. My whole life I’ve heard how Newman didn’t deserve that Best Actor award, at least not for this role. Hooey.

His performance ranges from big moments like those to quiet ones he carries silently on sheer charisma. Did he deserve to win more for The Color of Money than Cool Hand Luke or The Sting or The Verdict? No. But he deserved the accolades for this performance, too. Take a look at who he beat and tell me who you’d pick over him.


Matt Singer covers the world of film for the Independent Film Channel. He's also a regular contributor to their website, IFC.com. His personal blog is Termite Art. More from this author →