Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words
By Roderick Heath
As Scorsese himself put in the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, his kind of pre-indie film artist seemed to have no place once the era of the blockbuster began. Through the early ’80s Scorsese’s oeuvre was still interesting and provocative. The sweat-inducing pop-culture satire of The King of Comedy (1983), along with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, could be said to have closed the curtain on an unofficial trilogy studying the intersection of the celebrity media and the sociopath. After Hours (1985), a picaresque, absurdist comedy featuring Griffin Dunne as an office drone whose momentary lapse into frightened anger at loopy date Rosanna Arquette is punished to the point where he seems to have an entire city out to get him. The film gained Scorsese a Best Director award at Cannes. Yet The King of Comedy, though sickly brilliant (and brilliantly sick), is borderline unwatchable in its sourness, and After Hours is formless and cartoonish, inferior to the Elizabeth Shue vehicle Adventures in Babysitting (1987), the Disney rendition of the same idea. Satire was not Scorsese’s thing, and his eruptive visual sensibilities had been tamed almost to flatness.
The Color of Money was both a ticket for Scorsese back to the mainstream and a return to his cinematic roots in the pungent milieu of bars, pool halls, and wiseguys (and girls). It also presented a daunting challenge in that it was a star vehicle for Paul Newman returning to his greatest role in one of the great American movies – one that had paved the way for filmmakers like Scorsese – Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961). In Rossen’s film, based on a novel by Walter Tevis, eponymous hero “Fast” Eddie Felson (Newman) challenged the world’s greatest pool player, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) twice. He lost the first contest because of his emotional volatility. He won the second when all that had been scoured from his body, in the intermediate process of romancing and losing to suicide the self-destructive, bottle-abusing bohemian girl Sarah (Piper Laurie). Both the suicide and the rematch were thanks to Eddie’s sharklike backer Burt (George C. Scott). Finally, Eddie, unlike, it is suggested, Fats, refuses to sell himself out to this nocturnal life, walking out on Burt and the life with a bag full of cash, to Burt’s jocular threat, “Don’t play anymore big-time pool halls!”
Walter Tevis’ follow-up novel The Color of Money touched the expected bases, such as reuniting Eddie with Fats. For their adaptation, Scorsese and screenwriter Richard Price (a fine author whose The Wanderers had been lovingly filmed by Phillip Kaufman) reduced references to the first film to a cryptic line from Eddie, when he recalls that “somebody retired me,” in explaining why his titanic skills on the green felt have gone to seed. We rediscover Eddie smooth-talking his girlfriend, bar owner Janelle (Helen Shaver), but being distracted by the sounds of the pool tables in her joint, most specifically the “sledgehammer break” of Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), who is kicking the ass of Julian (John Turturro), Eddie’s own stakehorse. Eddie is now a wealthy liquor salesman, but he longs for the adrenalin-factory that is high-stakes pool playing, betting, and hustling.
Times, of course, have changed. Nine-ball is now the game of choice, and the young players are all cokehead punks rather than boozy sharpies. Vincent is an horrendously talented player who prefers his abilities at computer games and doesn’t give a fig – yet – for money. His femme fatale girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), met Vincent at the police station, when she drove getaway for her previous boyfriend who robbed Vincent’s parents’ house. She shows her necklace to Eddie; it belonged to Eddie’s mother’s, and Vincent remarks that his mother “has one just like it…Vincent’s sweet – Vincent’s real sweet.” Therese mutters, adoringly awed by this royal schmuck. Vincent works as a quick-talking toy salesman in a hideous suburban retail barn. Eddie, carefully soaking in these details, begins with equal care to manipulate them. His master plan is to take Vincent on a full tour of East Coast pool halls to teach him the arts of hustling in a carefully plotted campaign to win a major nine-ball championship in Atlantic City.
Eddie must extricate Vincent from his work-a-day life. He establishes his grandee abilities in a memorable dinner table scene in which he explains that Vincent has, in his gauche, the overeager style a “natural character…you’re an incredible flake,” that is, a perfect persona for entrapping the greedy, self-impressed types who engage in the almost mystically charged macho challenge of the pool hall. Eddie appeals to Vincent’s enormous ego and pride by giving him a Balabushka cue, the most perfect instrument of pool. “John Wayne carries ’em like this!” Vincent gushes. Eddie also works on Vincent’s insecurity over keeping Carmen with his low wage (“She don’t dig the allure of this place,” Eddie assures Vincent, regarding the toy store), a game Carmen eagerly buys into in. “We got a racehorse here! You keep him happy, I teach him how to run,” Eddie urges, and the pair tie Vincent’s ego in knots until he signs on.
Eddie is leaving behind frayed relationships with an aggrieved Julian, and with Janelle, fuming at his almost adolescent inability to commit. Vincent and Eddie’s relationship evolves, part father-son, part jealous admiration on Eddie’s part (“Like watching movies of myself thirty years ago”). Vincent is driven by a young egotist’s need to establish dominance, which leads him to brazen shows of skill and spectacles, all of which cuts against the grain of Eddie’s efforts to teach how to be an actual hustling champion, the guy who makes the big scores by sucking in money players. Returning to Chalkie’s, a pool hall run by its one-time sweeper Orvis (Bill Cobb), Vincent’s insistence on caning Eddie in a warm-up match and then the local quickdraw Moselle (Bruce A. Young) costs him the chance to play the desired opponent, a numbers chieftain who always plays with $5,000 in pocket. Eddie walks away cringing and berates Vincent later. Asking how much he won, Vincent announces “One-fifty!” Eddie retorts; “You walk into a shoe store with a hundred and fifty bucks, you come out with one shoe!”
Carmen, trying to manipulate Eddie, teasingly flashes him. Eddie irritably puts paid to this when he drags her in the bathroom: “I like it in the shower!” “Child care!” is how he describes handling this pair. Eddie teaches Vincent a vivid lesson of the harsher aspects of the game. When Vincent won’t bring himself to beat a man whose esophagus has been removed, Eddie tells him to lose on purpose and then leaves him without any money to pay up just long enough for Vincent to be roughed up. When Eddie returns to rescue him, pretending to be his angry father, he’s made his point: nice guys finish last. Slowly, Vincent learns to temper his showiness with Eddie and Carmen’s carrot-and-stick approach, and in a marathon match with the fatuous reigning champ Grady Seasons (Keith McCready), after a sexual threat from Carmen, dumps the game, setting up the perfect scenario for Atlantic City.
Eddie, on a high, takes the Balabushka out for a spin, and gets caught in a match with a weird young player, Amos (Forest Whitaker, positively screaming “star potential”), who eventually proves to be a sublime hustler. It’s a humiliation Eddie finds crippling. He tells Vincent and Carmen to do the rest by themselves, giving them the stake money, a rejection to which Vincent reacts with howling filial rage, tearing a rail off the wall and throwing the cue after Eddie. Eddie determinedly sets about rehabilitating himself as a player, first acknowledging his weakened eyes by getting a pair of bifocals and then retracing steps, refining his style, and taking down all of Vincent’s opponents and a few more (including a noxious punk, played by Iggy Pop, the epitome of everything Eddie’s at war with), before arriving at the championship. Scorsese’s merciless eye for kultur evokes the town’s faux-classy aura with such touches as presenting the pool hall using a soaring crane shot and a blast of organ music, suggesting it’s a cathedral for spivs, and highlighting a lacquer-haired singer killing the exoticism of “The Girl From Ipanema.”
When Eddie encounters Vincent and Carmen again, she is goggle-eyed in stating “Vincent’s changed!” Vincent is now hard, critical, and voracious. Instead of being tempered by Eddie’s lessons, he’s absorbed them into his narcissism. In the championship, Eddie destroys Julian, and Vincent breaks Seasons, bringing them to a quarter-final face-off. But Vincent has devised an intricate revenge on Eddie; he deliberately loses to him. Eddie is, of course, overjoyed, and reunites happily with Janelle in his hotel room, until Vincent and Carmen knock on the door, presenting him with a cut of the money they won betting on him. Janelle dismisses Vincent: “Little prick!” But Eddie stews until he uses Carmen to bait Vincent into a private rematch. “All I want is your best game,” Eddie requests. “You can’t handle my best!” Vincent spits. But he relents. “If I don’t beat you this time I’ll beat you next month,” Eddie says assuredly, and declares, before the film’s concluding freeze frame; “Hey, I’m back!”
AMPAS agreed, and awarded Newman his belated Oscar for the role; in ’61, Newman had bewilderingly lost to Maximillian Schell’s excellent, but more limited supporting turn in Judgment at Nuremberg. Advised by Scorsese to play the film’s comic scenes as if they weren’t comic, Newman delivers an often sublimely sketched performance as a man who seems light years removed from his youthful, volatile, suffering self, but still has him lurking inside, along with a large dash of Burt’s master manipulator. Eddie is still fighting his worst side, trying to age gracefully without losing his zeal – he’s still shy of commitment and complacency. But Newman occasionally hits beats too heavily, like his berating of Mastrantonio in the bathroom scene, which degenerates to pure Oscar-clip gravitas.
The film contains perhaps Tom Cruise’s best performance. Scorsese uses Cruise’s trademark persona – blithe embodiment of a yuppie-masculine ideal of unleashed hubris, athletic grace, and emotional vacuity – and drags it down quite a few social levels. Vincent is as antiseptically charming a wunderkind as his Top Gun character. Vincent partly hankers to go to West Point (he believes his video games will, in a few years, make him a qualified push-button warrior), but soon heartily embraces the vicious, venal qualities of a great pool shark. Mastrantonio keeps pace with both men in her flinty, charged performance, and she masterfully manages the bitterly amusing shift of her character from dominant witch to terminally confused backseat driver.
Superbly scripted by Price, with endlessly quotable dialogue, The Color of Money is nowhere near as dramatically compressed as The Hustler or Scorsese’s best works, but it is one of his most purely watchable films. It is also in a different mould and predicts in some ways Scorsese’s next film, The Last Temptation of Christ, in that it is a drama of moral and personal regeneration, countering the tragic arc of The Hustler. It also charts, as precisely as other Scorsese works, like The King of Comedy without that film’s contempt for its characters, the often painful things men and women do to each other in situations charged with desire and ambition.
Scorsese slyly extends Taxi Driver’s motif of the iconography of the motion picture Wild West extending into and defining modern, unheroic existence. The pool artistes of The Color of Money pitch themselves as gunslingers – Moselle even wears a cowboy hat – trying to best each other. Eddie, as the aging gentleman of the game trying to leave behind a troubled past recalls one of Peckinpah’s aging heroes, or Gary Cooper’s Man of the West (1958), a man for whom the seediness of his past and the sorrows of the milieu he dwells in has a humanizing, sensitizing effect. In this way, Scorsese links together strands that swirled through his early films and through the American life he charted. The Balabushka cue, swapped back and forth by Felson and Vincent, is an Excalibur, loaded with suggestions of male sexual potency, as surrogate father and son jockey to see who is the most worthy to wield it. Eddie eventually retains the stick, and, in a hilarious touch, Janelle presents him with its vaginal counterpart, a cue chalk.
The film, Scorsese’s second with German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who paints the film with a gauzy, smoky appeal, was a real stylistic reinvigoration. The soundtrack is a careful layering of punchy original music by Robbie Robertson and rock classics, some re-recorded specifically for the film to blend them precisely into the film’s texture. In between the crisply caught evocations of seamy urban America, the pool sequences are dazzlingly filmed. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing makes abstract whirlpools out of the skittling balls. When Vincent beats Moselle, the camera rapidly circles the table as Cruise strikes samurai poses and dances to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” between performing shots of supreme legerdemain – a perfect fusion of Scorsese and Cruise’s show-off voltage.