THE COLOR OF MONEY (Martin Scorsese, 1986)

Paul Newman, handsome as a god, could also act. He may have been one of a slew of onscreen Brando-imitators in the fifties, but by the end of the decade his own persona had begun to come into focus. Newman gave many performances that coasted on that persona (from which untalented Tom Cruise’s perpetual plagiarisms continue to draw), but every now and then he acted beautifully—and, of course, he was a Friend of Dave’s, appearing on Letterman’s launch-episode of the late-night CBS show and numerous times thereafter. (The two talked more about auto racing than about movies.) Newman was also the epitome of charitable generosity.

I have just added my old “The Color of Money” essay to the blog; you will find it below. Newman was a fine filmmaker himself, incidentally. No matter how surly and nasty he was onscreen so many times, Paul Newman the man was a softspoken, classy gentleman. His modesty always commended him.

With the artistic failures of three of his most ambitious projects—Raging Bull (1980), about boxer Jake LaMotta, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), from the brilliant novel by Nikos Kazantzákis, and The Age of Innocence (1993), from Edith Wharton—Martin Scorsese has struck dead the promise that his Mean Streets (1973) once seemed to indicate. Moreover, with GoodFellas (1990) under the bottom and Cape Fear (1991) way over the top, one wonders whether Scorsese will ever mature enough to transcend himself, as an idol of his, Luchino Visconti, did on a number of occasions, most resoundingly when faced with the challenge of bringing Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo to the screen (1963). Scorsese has come closest to doing this, perhaps, with Kundun (1997), about Tibet’s Dalai Lama at the time of the 1949 Chinese invasion, a work of great aesthetic beauty marred by political reactionaryism. Among Scorsese’s other good pieces of work is The Color of Money, adapted by Richard Price from the novel by Walter Tevis.

A former player and hustler, “Fast Eddie” Felson in middle age is content to stake the game of pool. When he sees Vincent Lauria play with talent and flair, Felson insinuates himself into the boy’s life as mentor. Luring him with the promise of recognition and a tournament cash prize, Felson trains Lauria to become a hustler. Felson’s agenda: the vicarious flare of his own waning abilities; through this metaphoric progeny, Shakespearean immortality. But Lauria, armed with his own agenda, may not be cut out to hustle. Eager to play his full game, he chafes and balks, leading Felson to doubt his trainability. At the same time, as much in search of a surrogate father as Felson is in search of a surrogate son, Lauria aims to please Felson—and his own girlfriend. When he is himself hustled by an even more prodigious youth than Lauria (Forest Whitaker, in a show-stealing, star-making turn—a shrewd, joyous performance), however, Felson is forced to face the inability of his cynical philosophy to defend him against self-knowledge. Leaving Lauria in turmoil at having been “used,” he strikes out on his own to become an expert player again, weeks later facing his former protégé in the tournament. Lauria, it seems, has been used, including by Scorsese himself, who has been angling for a mythic redemption and resurrection suited to the taste of a former seminarian.

Picking up Felson’s life 25 years after Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (until The Sixth Sense, my candidate for the worst film ever made), The Color of Money begins beautifully, with a lyrical closeup of cigarette smoke floating upwards, like an emanation of spirit, in what turns out to be a bar; a shot that closely follows this one reveals rich amber bourbon in a gleaming glass. Thus Felson, currently a liquor salesman, is introduced according to the psychic equation that governs his personality. For him, sensuality and profit are one; Felson is intoxicated by money, in love with it.

Lensed by Fassbinder’s Michael Ballhaus in muted, dusky color, Scorsese’s film is warmer and fuller than the rigid, schematic allegory that Rossen created in black and white. Felson, whose “education” of Lauria is a kind of corruption of the boy, now resembles both his younger self—Paul Newman, wonderful, reprises the part—and the vicious nemesis of his that George C. Scott played. Still, Scorsese’s Felson is complex and convoluted—not (like Scott’s character) satanic. Harming Lauria is never his intention; rather, he tries to fill the boy with his own knowledge—bring him up, as it were—and draw upon the boy’s electrifying energy to revive his own sagging spirit. Unwittingly, though, Felson perverts the father-son relationship that slow, decent Lauria believes has taken hold. The blatant phallic symbolism of Felson’s bestowing on Lauria the gift of a quality cue seems to encompass (perhaps too neatly) both the relationship that both desire and its undermining and perversion.

The outcome is the destruction of Lauria’s humanity, his shocking change for the worse. This off-screen about-face is incredible; nothing in the film prepares one for it. It may well be poetic justice that, having been tutored by Felson, the master hustler, Lauria now manages to humiliate him by dropping to him the game that Felson keenly wanted to win, and thought he had won, straight; but the chilly offhandedness with which Lauria reveals the truth to Felson is incomprehensible. Since this drastic change in Lauria’s sweet, honorable nature must be interpolated, indeed attributed to a very brief bit of off-screen time, no actor on earth could execute the part in anything approaching convincing fashion. (The actor in this case is Tom Cruise, who has since shown difficulty at executing almost any part.) Fortunately, though, the lead performance survives; Newman’s winning an Oscar for it, while sentimental, wasn’t ridiculous.

But why does Scorsese accede to the nonsense involving Lauria? One explanation is that Scorsese lacks any positive perspective on the material. Certainly he considers Felson wrong to equate value with profitability and financial success; but the alternative he provides—playing the game for the game’s sake as an expression of personal integrity—is a fuzzy cliché. When identified with Felson’s resurgence, moreover, the selfconscious episode seems plagiarized from a really bad film, Sidney Lumet’s misogynistic The Verdict (1982), where the same actor, playing an alcoholic lawyer, charted much the same interior pilgrim’s progress. In Scorsese’s film, Felson’s upbeat “change” partakes of “movie logic” more than it does of psychologic.

As in his hollow Raging Bull, Scorsese’s instinctual lyricism plainly lacks the support of a coherent view of human experience. At times, in fact, the filmmaker appears chronically ambivalent—and without the thematic drive that enabled, in fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne to craft resonant ambiguities out of such ambivalence. Let me give an example. Early in the film, Felson dances with his mistress. The graceful integrity of their moves on the dance floor expresses the solidity of their relationship while, within the exact same frames, a four-sided mirrored column displays fragmented reflections of the same steps and movements, thus implying the shakiness of this relationship! This is visually elegant filmmaking, to be sure; and, indeed, the contradiction is borne out dramatically when the couple do split up a moment or two later before (of course) reuniting later on. But the contradiction seems arbitrary, as though governed by plot necessity and by Scorsese’s dogged, nervous pessimism, not by any real conflict inherent in the relationship. Lacking a personal vision to make meaningful the splintered images mirroring “life” as he understands it, Scorsese thus scores a visual coup—one among many—only to lose the show.

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