TC Tribute #9: The Color of Money (1986)


A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov

Many people believe The Color of Money is Martin Scorsese’s worst film. These individuals could be suffering from one of two conditions – they like their films to be totally conventional in the way they are told, or they haven’t seen Scorsese’s 1999 embarrassment Bringing Out the Dead. Either way, this isn’t Scorsese’s worst film – it is in fact a very good one, albeit one that demands a bit more attention in order to become enjoyable. Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, the film is a Casino-like exploration of pool hustling and a study of a relationship between a fading star and an up-and-coming rookie.

In may ways this is right up Scorsese’s alley, as it is a drama centered around a dangerous or unlawful practice. Many people often disapprove of Scorsese’s well-researched manner in showing the way a plot device in the film works, in this case pool hustling, but this practice is so rare that I think it is a unique signature to have as a director. In fact, Scorsese has always seemed to me like he is less interested in filmmaking and more interested in the main practical thing that his film centers around. As if the film itself sprung up from that interest. Maybe that is why biopics like The Aviator work out so well. But this shouldn’t be surprising, considering he is a documentary filmmaker at heart.

The Color of Money tells the story of an aging professional pool hustler Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) who spots a young pool player Vincent (Tom Cruise) schooling his opponent like he was performing some habitual exercise. Seeing this and realizing he is past his prime, Eddie decides to teach this skilled young man the art of pool hustling, and take a percentage of his winnings. But when Vincent’s showboating starts losing him money, the two clash in a way that makes them realize things about life and themselves that they didn’t know before, and lets Eddie have a final deserved triumph.

If this sounds too much like Paul Newman’s earlier film The Hustler it’s no accident. The Color of Money was originally sold as an unofficial sequel to the famous 1961 film, and in many ways it plays in the same way. And just like Robert Rossen, Martin Scorsese decides to include a distracting beauty into the mix in this case played by the stunning Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who was just coming off a great supporting role in Scarface. To be honest, Scorsese may be the least sexist male director that has ever lived. He recognizes the importance that a female character may play in what can be categorized as a more male-centric practice – like pool hustling for example. The woman in this film is as ruthless as any male in the film, and the character is probably the most memorable.

But the only way one can get all of this across is with good acting. Paul Newman is excellent in his Oscar-winning role. His performance is so nuanced and takes so many surprising turns that it may very well be his best, though I like his more recent work more than his work in the 80’s. Tom Cruise is also excellent, refusing to be overshadowed by Newman’s amazing turn. Cruise has played this role before though, but that shouldn’t take anything away from his performance here, which is both enjoyable and infuriating – in the best sense of the word. Mastrantonio plays evil very well, and she is good at the type of seductiveness that seemingly never fails. i don’t care what anyone says, she is one of the hottest actresses whose prime was in the 80’s. Impressive supporting roles by John Turturo and Bill Cobbs are like frosting on the cake. Scorsese is definitely a great actor’s director.

Technically, though, is where Scorsese’s work can really be distinguished. His camera during the pool playing scenes is as exciting as most of the work he has done during his lifetime. It swings from side to side. up and down and around, as Scorsese makes watching two people play billiards, as interesting as it can get. The camera angles by expert cinematographer Michael Ballhaus are risky, but totally satisfying. The editing by long-time Scorsese collaborator Thema Scoonmaker is a bit problematic, because as always it does not flow the way it is supposed to. But this is what this thee-time Oscar winner is known for. There is almost no score to speak of in this film – a big negative, and something that is way too common in 80’s films. Also Scorsese films sparingly use score for emotional undertone – a choice that I have never agreed with. But technically, the film is solid.

I do recommend The Color of Money. It is a rare opportunity to see so much talent associated with a single film so whenever it comes along, it is a must see. Paul Newman fans probably have this in their DVD collection already, but many Cruise and Scorsese fans have disregarded the film as a low point for both of them, but if you give this film a try, and let it grow on you, you will find much more than what is seemingly on the surface – just like most Scorsese films. So in case you want an 80’s film that is technically superior to most, so much so that it doesn’t seem like an 80’s film, I recommend that you go out and get this now. Recommended.

One thought on “TC Tribute #9: The Color of Money (1986)

  1. Well I’m glad you really enjoyed this movie, but I had a different thought. I would give it 2 out of 4 Stars. I don’t hate it, I still would watch it, but I don’t like the director’s style. To each his own though. Like I said it’s not a bad movie, but it’s one of those that you have to love the director’s style.


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