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COLOR OF MONEY, THE (director: Martin Scorsese; screenwriters: from the book by Walter Tevis/Richard Price; cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus; editor: Thelma Schoonmaker; music: Robbie Robertson; cast: Paul Newman (Fast Eddie Felson), Tom Cruise (Vincent Lauria), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Carmen), Helen Shaver (Janelle), John Turturro (Julian), Bill Cobbs (Orvis), Forest Whitaker (Amos, black pool player); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Irving Axelrad/Barbara De Fina; Touchstone Home Video; 1986)
“The new version has a tension all its own.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Martin Scorsese’s (“Kundun”/”Raging Bull”) The Color of Money is for all intensive purposes a sequel to Robert Rossen’s 1961 The Hustler, a vibrant film that gave one an insider’s look at the underground doings of the pool hall world. Paul Newman re-creates his memorable role of Fast Eddie Felson, as the film picks up on Felson 25 years after he walked out of Chalkie’s pool hall and found himself blackballed from playing pool professionally. The new version has a tension all its own, as Richard Price reworked the pool hustler novel of Walter Tevis so it fits in with the ’80s. Scorsese also added a compelling soundtrack that has such diverse musicians as Eric Clapton, Charlie Parker, Warren Zevon and Bo Diddley. This version is filmed in color by Michael Ballhaus. The film tries to tell us that the pool hustle is no different from the game of life and shuns going for the expected climactic showdown pool hall game, as it wishes to convey that the true meaning of life is in finding one’s own true way and not necessarily in winning the game.

I enjoyed the film for what it was as a pop culture character study of the hustler and found it at times absorbing (especially watching the 9-ball game, billiard balls never looked so strange and glossy), but I just had my eye out for the hustle and never felt relaxed enough to let my guard down and believe this was the real thing like I thought of the original. No longer set in the seedy but colorful pool halls of the ’60s but in ones that are lit in bright neon lights and are as airy as palaces, the film looks less arty and more conventional.

Fast Eddie Felson is a slick silver-haired part-time liquor salesman working the Midwest territory in his white Cadillac convertible. He spots the cocky but likable, skillful but naive Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), an insecure clerk in a Chicago toy store, playing a mean game of pool and his old hustler juices start bubbling again as he recruits the brash kid to get on the professional circuit (becoming a front man for promising pool hall prospects like the character George C. Scott played in the original, now calling himself a “student of human moves”). Hotshot Vince agrees to Eddie as mentor and manager and they go on the road with Vince’s sexy, toughie girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who is looking for a more exciting life. But the smart broad spells trouble as she spends her time either flirting with Eddie or stroking the nasty Vince’s ego, and challenging Eddie for control over their hot property.

On their way to the respectable Atlantic City 9-ball classic Vincent has a problem understanding Eddie’s hustling techniques, as he’s asked to throw games to get better odds during matches at local pool halls. Eddie, as the manipulator of innocence, is prone to give off such prosaic philosophizing as “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned.” But despite their volatile differences, the two have a profitable relationship. In the end Vince learns his lessons only too well, while the resilient Eddie has a change of heart and learns to invest in himself and not in the hustle. The choices are now not in doing what is right or wrong, as in the original, but driven by motivations that are more ambiguous, as Scorsese leaves it up to the viewer to decide what’s right.

Among the supporting players, Helen Shaver is appealing as the barmaid Fast Eddie calls his steady squeeze, and John Turturro is sparkling as a pool hustler Vince plays on his way to bigger things.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”