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This movie won an Oscar for Best Actor (Paul Newman.)

‘The Color of Money’ (R)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 17, 1986

From the first frames of "The Color of Money," you feel, almost physically, the presence of a man singularly obsessed with the romance of movies. In this movie, Martin Scorsese enters a new period in an already extraordinary career. It would be hard to exaggerate the complex pleasure and wonderment that "The Color of Money" conveys.

The film is a sequel of sorts to Robert Rossen's classic 1961 film "The Hustler," with Paul Newman reprising his role as Fast Eddie Felson. Once the top pool shark in the country, Fast Eddie is older, richer and not all that fast anymore, a liquor salesman given to cashmere and Cadillacs. Delivering his sales pitch to an appreciative pool hall owner (Helen Shaver), purring the virtues of his cheap bourbon with a lulling detail (he's not just selling, he's seducing), Fast Eddie is interrupted by the crash and clatter of a "sledgehammer break," the calling card of Vince Lauria (Tom Cruise). Vince is a thoroughbred pool player, a natural, and once again, Fast Eddie Felson is captivated by the allure, and the money, of big-time pool.

A self-styled "student of human moves," Fast Eddie sets about maneuvering the naive Vince -- screen writer Richard Price artfully captures the drama of psychological manipulation, as Fast Eddie plays on the kid's insecurities, particularly with regard to his girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).

But what makes this drama so powerful is the way Scorsese has pioneered a visual vocabulary uniquely suited to the story he's telling, moving the camera along the precise line of the emotions of a scene. As Scorsese's camera looks first this way, then that (without a cut), you're seeing the world exactly the way the people on the screen see it, and as he aggressively dollies and zooms into close-ups, he seems to be not only entering the characters' minds, but invading them, almost ruthlessly exposing their hopes and fears. But there's also a gentleness to "The Color of Money," unusual for Scorsese -- a warmth, and a sense of forgiveness.

Some of that emotion comes through in the way the fleeting presence of the women in "The Color of Money" highlights the loneliness of the men; otherwise, the movie really isn't interested in them -- it's just two guys and a pool table. Scorsese gets you inside the game in a way most sports movies never hint at. In both sound and image, "The Color of Money" is explosively edited, to the point where you feel, with a physical jolt, like one of the balls on the table; and Scorsese adventurously explores the game's rhythms, sometimes allowing the action to unfold languorously, sometimes chopping it up. Scorsese accomplishes visually what Rossen accomplished with words, in the scene in "The Hustler" where Newman explains to Piper Laurie what it feels like to be the best at something; as Scorsese draws you in, you feel what it's like, not just to watch pool, or to play pool, but to love it.

And Scorsese uses the pool sequences to tell you something about the players: When Newman bends over the table and sees his own reflection in the eight ball; or another, when Fast Eddie himself breaks the balls for the first time in 25 years and Scorsese smashes into a close-up that takes your breath away.

What you see in that close-up, that single look of Newman's, is everything that's happened to Fast Eddie since "The Hustler" began. Here is one of those Zen-like performances in which a veteran actor distills an entire life into an attitude. Newman's confidence in his own instincts gives Fast Eddie a remarkable gravity, so that Newman can accomplish with the slightest of intonations, or the choice of a simple prop (like the tinted glasses he wears), or an almost indetectable shift in his eyes, what would take another actor the course of a movie to attain.

And what makes Newman's relaxation doubly effective is the room it gives to Cruise, whose portrait of Vince is big and bold, tempera paint in primary colors. Cruise knows how to make his props work for him, too -- the silly, '50s-style pompadour, the shirt from the toy store he works at with "VINCE" in big block letters, the playful way he wields the pool cue. He's not afraid to color Vince, to show you how he's vain and impulsive and even a little stupid, because he knows that the gusto with which he dives into the role will wash over everything.

One of the subtle achievements of both Cruise's and Newman's performances is that you feel that both of them are genuinely top-notch pool hustlers, and that's Scorsese's achievement as well. "The Color of Money" never strikes a false note. It creates a vivid sense of place through setting (real poolrooms), dialogue (screen writer Price is a virtuoso of street talk) and an eclectic score -- ripping, wailing rock-and-blues music composed and compiled by Robbie Robertson.

Scorsese mines the drama in the conflict between Vince and Fast Eddie, as the young hustler learns the pleasures of corruption, and the old hustler relearns a pure love for the game. You can also sense Scorsese playing with Newman's and Cruise's off-screen personas, as he cuts in supertight close-up from yesterday's matinee idol to today's, and their blue eyes collide like billiard balls.

But in the final third of the movie, the real drama takes place within Fast Eddie himself, as his dissatisfaction with what he's become almost imperceptibly grows, and he tries to decide, in middle age, who he wants to be. That involves a shift in the movie's focus to Newman alone; and if what's lost is the excitement that Newman and Cruise had generated together, what's gained is a kind of depth another, simpler story wouldn't have had.

The left turns in the last third of "The Color of Money," the rejection of "Rocky"-style audience manipulation, shows Scorsese searching for a new way to tell a story. And by the end, "The Color of Money" is suffused with a sense of acceptance, and of self-forgiveness, that sticks with you. If the very end of the movie is enormously unsatisfying (which it is), it's at least partly because you can't wait to see what comes next. You want another Scorsese picture, right away, right now.

"The Color of Money" is rated R and contains profanity and sexual themes.

Copyright The Washington Post

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