Second Glance: The Whiz-Bang Artistry of Scorsese’s ‘The Color of Money’

Martin Scorsese's 'The Hustler' sequel is considered a minor footnote in his filmography, and inferior to the film that inspired it. Is that fair?

Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, we take a look at Martin Scorsese’s 1986 sequel to The Hustler, The Color of Money.

Strictly speaking, The Color of Money probably should’ve be in this column, where the guidelines for inclusion are films that either weren’t commercially or critically successful; …Money made a lot of it ($52 million on a $13 million budget), received mostly mixed-positive to positive reviews, and won an Oscar for star Paul Newman. Yet it’s never been a particularly well-respected film, for two reasons: 1) It was the 27-years-later sequel to Newman’s classic The Hustler, and is compared with unsparing unfavorably to the earlier picture, and 2) It was a rare work-for-hire by director Martin Scorsese, and is now regarded at the lower end of his impressive filmography. But a recent viewing of the film, as part of the Scorsese retrospective adjacent to the Museum of the Moving Image’s exhibition for the filmmaker, confirms that it’s an effective and stylish film – if taken on its own terms.

For starters, it’s got one of his all-time great openings. Over the sound of a moody whistle and the evocative imagery of a cigarette burning in an ashtray next to billiards chalk, we hear a voice talking about nine-ball, the form of pool that dominates the film. As a matter of fact, we hear Scorsese’s voice, that distinctive, clipped New York tone, rattling off the rules of the game. “Nine-ball is rotation pool,” he explains. “The balls are pocketed in numbered order. The only ball that means anything, that wins it, is the nine. Now, the player can shoot eight trick shots in a row, blow the 9, and lose. On the other hand, the player can get the 9 in on the break, if the balls spread right, and win. Which is to say, that luck plays a part in nine-ball. But for some players…” And here he takes a dramatic pause, a break in the words that seems even longer than it is, thanks to his trademark, rapid-fire delivery. And then he continues: “Luck itself… is an art.” And then there’s music, in loud, and we’re off and running.

This opening does a couple of valuable things. First of all, it brings to mind the similarly styled pre-credit Scorsese voice-over of Mean Streets, assuring us that this hired-gun work is still the Marty we know and love. But more importantly, it’s insanely efficient exposition, laying out in the clearest possible terms the rules of the game that we’ll spend the next two hours watching, and freeing screenwriter Richard Price of the burden of making some poor actor explain it “organically” in dialogue. (“You see, Carmen, nine-ball is rotation pool…”) And because we know exactly what’s going on right off the bat, Scorsese can fill the film with pool action (and the razzle-dazzle shots he’s designed for it) without confusing the viewer.

Once the opening’s done, the story begins. We’re reintroduced to Neman’s “retired” pool whiz “Fast Eddie” Felson via a long, unbroken two-shot of him working his bar-owner lover (Helen Shaver), trying to sell her some rather sketchy whisky. In the early stretches, we get a sense that he’s good at his job – he’s an ace salesman with a great Cadillac and a roll of bills to show for it. But there’s no juice in what he’s doing, and he’s easily distracted in this scene by the “sledgehammer break” and impressive pool play of Vincent Lauria, played by Tom Cruise with a particularly foofy head of hair that’s as vaguely Italian as his name and dialogue (“What is it with this guy?”).

The Color of Money came out during a cycle of films in which Cruise played the world’s greatest [whatever] — films like Top Gun (world’s greatest pilot), Days of Thunder (world’s greatest racecar driver), and Cocktail (world’s greatest, um, bartender). In most of those films, even early on, he’s cocky and capable; by contrast, Price’s script, admirably, paints him as not terribly bright. He says things like “Let’s not make a federal production out of it,” and is so not a pool hustler that when he busts out an opponent, he’ll make an offer like, “Let’s just play-play. Play for fun, no money.” Eddie looks at him incredulously when he hears that; there’s no such thing as playing for no money.

In that first scene, Scorsese racks up a series of three shots to connect the story’s three important characters: Vincent’s girlfriend/manager Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) barking encouragement, Vincent breaking the rack with a pow, Eddie turning around at that sound, drawn in. “You’re some piece of work,” he tells them later. “You’re a natural character. You’re an incredible flake. But that’s good! You can use that.” And with that, he offers to “stake-horse” the younger player, taking him and Carmen out on the road, showing them the ropes of working a pool hall for money, on their way to a big nine-ball tournament in Atlantic City. But knowing what we know about “Fast Eddie,” whose earlier story ended with him being broken by a similar mentor figure, it’s clear this is not just a question of making some money; the past is always present, and always trying to draw us back to it. Watching Vincent, he confesses to his special lady, “was like watchin’ home movies.”

The film’s middle stretch concerns that trip, and it’s a blast; Price seems to know this world, and speaks its language and shorthand. His dialogue is priceless (“This used to be a nice, average, bad neighborhood. Now look at it”) and there’s a pronounced subtext to this story of Newman’s old pro trying to show Cruise’s young gun the ropes: “I’m too old, my wheels are shot. It’s a young man’s game.” (Some say that about acting too. Newman’s work here proves they’re wrong.) This section does get a tad monotonous – before they even go out, Eddie explains to Vincent that the main thing he’s gonna learn is “sometimes when you lose, you win.” Nevertheless, they end up in a cycle where Eddie tells Vincent to “dump,” and the hothead kid tries but then decides he’d rather win, to Eddie’s frustration.

But even that narrative circularity can’t diminish the whiplash energy of the pool sequences. Both Newman and Cruise were accomplished stick-men, and Scorsese clearly loves that they can actually play the game – because he can keep their trick shots in the frame, and can capture their impressive multi-ball runs in roving, unbroken takes. The director also obviously knows that there’s nothing less exciting than watching two people shoot pool, so he calls upon every visual trick he can think of to make it exciting: huge close-ups, pool ball POVs, smash edits, cameras prowling around the table, high-speed time-lapse photography, matching fast-pans, and (in perhaps the most glorious visual moment), Newman’s reflection in the ball. These moments echo his other, more “personal” works – the high-angle God’s-eye-view compositions of the table recalls the climax of Taxi Driver, and the cutting patterns of the billiards games are similar to the boxing matches in Raging Bull, again equal parts physical movement and psychological warfare. And though he’s showing off, he’s never disconnected from the material – there’s a great moment of Vincent playing (and dominating) while dancing to Warren Zevon, in which cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s camera circles the character with increasing and destabilizing speed, the camera out of Scorsese’s control just as Vincent is out of Eddie’s.

Also noteworthy is the manner in which Scorsese regards his leading man. “This was my first time working with a movie star,” he explains in the 1991 book Martin Scorsese: A Journey, before clarifying: “A movie star is a person I saw when I was ten or eleven on a big screen. With De Niro and the other guys it was a different thing. We were friends. We kind of grew together creatively… But with Paul, I would go in and I’d see a thousand different movies in his face, images I had seen on that big screen when I was twelve years old. It makes an impression.” So Scorsese frames Newman like a movie star, bigger than life, acknowledging those thousand movies, and he never misses an opportunity to look at that face in one of those big-screen compositions. The best comes near the end, the camera slowly circling Newman, tracking in front of him as he glances around a giant room, lost in distraction because he’s just found out he’s been had. It’s a tight shot, with quiet urgency, showing an actor and director working in tandem: Newman has been doing this long enough to know how little he has to “indicate” to put across what’s going on in his head, and Scorsese knows he just has to put the camera close enough to pick that up.

It’s tempting to think of The Color of Money in terms of the sports movie clichés it seems to flaunt, but upon closer examination, it’s mostly subverting them. The way the movie itself “dumps” is fascinating – you think it will focus on the familiar mentor/student dynamic, and then the film drops the student and follows the mentor, chasing his redemption alongside him. (Or, as Shaver puts it: “I’m a real big fan of character in people. I don’t know if you knew that about me.”) And the way it treats the inevitable showdown between teacher and student is really something: it gives us that match, then undercuts it, then sets up a rematch that we never see. Scorsese has watched enough of these movies to know we don’t need to see it, and we don’t. What matters is what Eddie says in the film’s last scene: “It’s even, but it ain’t settled. Let’s settle it.”

I’ll confess that my background with The Color of Money contributes to my ongoing defense of it: It was the first Martin Scorsese movie I ever saw, and I was drawn to it upon its original release (as many others were, I’m sure) not by Scorsese’s name, but by Cruise’s. But the style on display here is so overpowering, so jazzy and boisterous in a way that’s particularly involving for a very young moviegoer, that I had to know more – it was, really, one of the first films that made me aware of what a directorial voice was. As I plunged into Scorsese’s filmography after that (and subsequent to it), of course the objections of Roger Ebert and other Scorsese partisans made sense. Yes, sure, this is mid-level Scorsese. But it says something about the director that his mid-level work still beats the hell out of just about anyone else’s best.

“The Color of Money” is currently streaming on HBO GO. It’s also available for rental or purchase via Amazon, iTunes, and the usual platforms.