I’ve long wanted to watch The Hustler and The Color of Money back-to-back. I didn’t quite get to do it—a couple of weeks intervened—but close enough.
I’ve probably seen The Hustler ten times now; every time I find something else to like about it. The story, the acting (Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, and the often overlooked Myron McCormick) is superb throughout. Robert Rosser’s decision to film Walter Tevis’s novel in black-and-white was inspired. The somber tone and dingy surroundings that make the movie would not have worked as well in color.
A few scenes will always stand out. The first marathon pool game with Fats. Eddie’s getting his thumbs broken. His speech to Sarah about his feelings when he’s really on, what we’d now call “being in the zone.” The resignation on the face of Minnesota Fats when he tells Eddie, “You better pay him.” I’ve long thought Sunset Boulevard was my favorite noir film; The Hustler might be better. (The vitriolic discussion as to whether either of those films are noir may begin anon.)
The Color of Money is good, not great. Scorsese was smart to go the opposite route: where The Hustler is all dark and shades of gray, The Color of Money is flash and dash. Nine ball instead of straight pool. He pays proper homage to his predecessor in various ways, thanks to an excellent screenplay by Richard Price, adapting Tevis again, though the film is, apparently, radically different from the written sequel.
The telling differences are just as the older Fast Eddie describes the differences between nine ball and straight pool. Straight pool is a thinking man’s game, every shot sets up the next. Nine ball is for bangers, you can slop the balls in and win. It’s quicker and flashier and better for TV. There’s not as much heart in The Color of Money. Maybe the emotions than come with the sense of loss felt in The Hustler are more powerful than the sense of gain at the end of TCOM. Whatever, it’s a fine movie, but The Hustler is a great one.
A couple of side notes. It’s often said Newman’s Oscar for TCOM was delayed payment for the one he should have won in The Hustler, his lifetime achievement award. Maybe. It’s still a hell of a performance, a mature actor taking the edges off of an older character and showing everything he’s learned in the interim.
And Tom Cruise. Cruise made TCOM during a stretch when I really thought he was about to become the next Paul Newman; I originally saw the movie as passing the torch. Cruise made Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July at about the same time, and he was on his way to becoming the sex symbol who could actually act. No one—no one—confuses Cruise’s career with Newman’s now. Cruise really is Vincent Lauria, immense talent, but an incredible flake too much in love with his perceived persona to realize his full potential.