The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961) and The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese, 1986)

One character, two movies, 25 years apart.  I’m not sure if I can think of another sequel made so long after the original, but here we stand with “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money”, and here we stand with Fast Eddie Felson.  It’s the part that launched Paul Newman into stardom, and to this day Fast Eddie is one of cinema’s most enduring characters.  But, is that just because of the cocky but conflicted Eddie that a young Newman brought to the table in “The Hustler,” or does the enduring legacy of Fast Eddie owe something to how an older and far different Newman practically turned Fast Eddie into a new person entirely 25 years later?  Even though one movie might be better than the other (and these are two vastly different movies, in both style and quality), I think it’d be in one’s best interest to see both, to get both sides of Paul Newman and both sides of Fast Eddie Felson.

The biggest error I could’ve made going into “The Hustler” was expecting something resembling the typical sports movie formula: the hotshot rookie, in over his head, gets massacred by the big dog, then goes off to hone his skills and find himself, and come back for the big rematch.  That’s not what “The Hustler” is all about, and for that I should be glad.  I hate most sports movies I see, especially ones with that particular formula, so I should’ve been pleasantly surprised (hell, downright ecstatic) to find out that this was a deep character study where that character just happens to be a pool player.  But I wasn’t.  I don’t know, chock it up to my own expectations being so smashed (no matter how much for the better) that I couldn’t catch up or to an often-meandering screenplay, but not much of “The Hustler” spoke to me.

Is it a well-made little pool movie, though?  You bet it is.  In the expertly envisioned pool halls and what-not, games and 25-hour marathons between Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats are like a clash of the titans.  You can’t help but be riveted, as the tight editing of those games and the dead-serious performances completely sell the tension and utmost seriousness of this so-called game.  And outside the pool hall, a number of scenes are handled wonderfully, especially those involving the bizarre relationship between Eddie’s unstable, alcoholic girlfriend Sarah and his egomaniacal manager Bert.  It really says something about the uniqueness of a movie when you can cast aside something as compelling as the king of cool Paul Newman playing pool for his life in favor of George C. Scott literally driving Piper Laurie completely mad.  It’s just one lustful glance here, one unintelligibly whispered word there, but it’s all very subtle, and the final result on poor Sarah in that bathroom is quite disturbing…even more disturbing than Bert’s greedy, draining effect on Eddie himself.

But moments of cinematic genius like this were a little too few and far between.  Despite those moments of intense psychological trauma that easily transcended typical late 50s/early 60s melodrama, despite Robert Rossen’s gritty and moody direction (especially in that wonderfully atmospheric purgatory that is the pool hall), despite excellent performances all-around, little of “The Hustler” really floored me.  The romance between the flawed Eddie and the just as flawed (if not more so) Sarah often fell flat, to the point that Eddie often became that stereotypical brute that tries to put that annoying dame back in line and Sarah would either weep or give Eddie some rousing speech about finding himself.  These performances, especially by Laurie and George C. Scott, offer us glimpses of greatness that one or two times too often descend into stereotypical drunk or stereotypical machismo monster, respectively. Paul Newman, though, gives a performance of incredible range and power as Eddie goes from suave to dead-serious to incredibly frustrated in the blink of an eye.  That it wasn’t quite as extraordinary as his job in the later “Cool Hand Luke” is a small complaint at best.

They’re all very good performances, but none of them are the film’s best.  No, not even the incredible Paul Newman gives the film’s greatest performance.  The greatest performance of “The Hustler” belongs to Jackie Gleason.  That’s right, Ralph Kramden himself, in a rare serious role, appearing in just two major scenes with just a scant line of dialogue here or there, is nothing short of an imposing, incredible presence as the “reigning champion” Minnesota Fats.  It’s not in dialogue delivery, because the Fat Man has little if anything to say once he’s working his magic on the table.  No, it’s all in that aura he gives off: that aura of greatness that he provides with his game, and that aura of the utmost serious.  Watch in that first match against Eddie, as he just goes about his business: expressionless, putting ball after ball in the pockets, moving around the table as if in a waltz.  He’s a surgeon on that pool table: 100% professional, never making the mistake Eddie makes of bringing too much emotional baggage to the game.  And despite that youthful, cocky lust for winning at any cost, Eddie appreciates that attitude, so that a 25-hour marathon between the no-nonsense veteran and the brash prodigy becomes a perfect dance.

And then there’s Eddie’s final, potentially dangerous confrontation with Bert during that rematch with Fats.  Things get heated, but the Fat Man just…sits there, between the two, leaning on his cue, with that face that says everything about what this man has seen in years and decades as the pro’s pro.  That face…it’s not indifference towards this squabble between a hustler and his manager, but it’s not forlorn disappointment either.  It’s something in-between.  It’s…a “been there, done that” face, and nothing more.  Was Fats once the money and winning-obsessed hustler that Eddie is now, brash and exuberant?  We can’t be sure, but we can be sure that he’s seen so many like Eddie in his day, and knows so much of the ins and outs of that entire pool and hustling culture that this movie gives us a short but excellent glimpse of.  Paul Newman might have all the flash, but Jackie Gleason is the consummate professional.  For the likes of Bert, it’s about money.  For Fast Eddie, it’s about the thrill of victory…and money.  But for Fats, the man who’s seen it all and has practically purified himself of every vice of the hustling culture, it all boils down to one thing, summed up perfectly by Eddie: “Fat Man, you shoot a great game of pool.”

So here we are, twenty-five years later: new movie, new director, and as it turns out, new Fast Eddie Felson.  So, why does “The Color of Money” fall short of greatness even more precipitously than its predecessor?  Again, it was inappropriate expectations on my part.  With “The Hustler,” I was expecting the traditional sports movie formula, but got something far more advanced and wasn’t quite prepared.  With “The Color of Money,” I actually came in expecting greatness from perhaps the greatest of modern American filmmakers, and that fell short.  In fact, oddly enough, perhaps the worst thing “The Color of Money” has going for it is that Martin Scorsese is behind the camera.  Here’s the man who had already made some of the finest American films of all time prior to this and would go on to make some of the finest American films of all time afterwards…which is why it’s pretty shocking how “ordinary” “The Color of Money” is.  And it all boils down to story.

I suppose Scorsese was trying to go mainstream with this one (it is, after all, a sequel), but really, what I saw was a formulaic sports movie much like any other with the occasional Scorsese visual touch that tries to spice things up a little.  Jaded veteran finds a gifted but raw rookie and takes him under his wing, shows him the ropes, rediscovers a thirst for the thrill of competition, and of course it’s practically decreed by the sports movie gods that the two, teacher and student, must meet in a final epic duel.  Hell, sports movie, kung fu movie, it’s a formula that’s been done a thousand times by a thousand directors, which is why I’m surprised that the wildly original Scorsese would be the 1,001st.  Just six years prior, Scorsese made “Raging Bull,” the greatest of all sports movies because the sport, boxing, became irrelevant next to the intense psychological study of Jake LaMotta.  Even the boxing matches themselves, the best ever filmed, transcended sports movie cliché to become a metaphor for LaMotta’s angry, pathetic soul.  You put that next to the pool matches of “The Color of Money,” overly-glorified with Scorsese’s visual panache, and you’ve got quite the contrast.

But oh, thank god for Paul Newman.  This ain’t your parents’ Fast Eddie Felson.  Like the actor playing him, Eddie’s older, more confident, and wiser (or at least thinks he’s wiser) than that young miscreant he once was.  It’s that cool middle-aged confidence that drives the performance, and it’s not until much later on that he breaks down, his own demons of his youth re-emerging in some scene-stealing, Oscar-bait moments of utmost vulnerability (and they worked…it is odd that of all of Paul Newman’s performances he’d win his only Oscar for this one, but whatever).  There’s actually a moment or two where this older Eddie, now acting as manager to young Vincent, starts acting eerily similar to George C. Scott’s sleazy Burt years before that’ll send a shiver down your spine.  If the movie seems formulaic, Newman’s absolute dominance of every scene he’s in gives an otherwise predictable sports movie with Scorsese-esque bells and whistles some relevance.

But predictable “The Color of Money” is, and terribly so.  From the outset, the contrast between Fast Eddie’s generation and the energetic, foul-mouthed, video game-playing younger generation is blatantly obvious.  Too many times, Paul Newman’s Eddie is nothing more than your typical wise old sage, and Tom Cruise’s Vincent is just laughably stereotyped as the brash student, an exaggerated product of 80s youth with the big hair, the kung fu moves during pool matches, and the job at Child World.  The Fast Eddie of the previous movie was a lost, directionless soul who practically stumbled into a final rematch with Minnesota Fats by accident.  Now, though, the veteran Eddie and hotshot Vincent are destined to face each other – not by some serendipitous fate, but by mere movie convention.  Even some of those vintage Scorsese moments are just…weird.  There’s a moment later on where Eddie is trying to revitalize his game, and we see him having his eyes tested in that huge machine with the dramatic music swelling.  It’s like something out of the Six Million Dollar Man…utterly bizarre and a far cry from the careful subtleties of “The Hustler.”

So what do you get when you combine the great Martin Scorsese and the great Paul Newman with a very average sports movie premise?  You get an above-average sports movie, and an above-average road movie as Eddie shows the hustling ropes to Vincent and his girlfriend Carmen in pool joint after pool joint, but just that: above-average  (except, might I say, for maybe the best soundtrack of 80s hits I’ve ever heard in a single movie.  Scorsese always had an excellent, excellent ear for popular music).  I mean, there’s just so many moments of quick cuts, quick close-ups and cue’s eye view that you can take before visual innovation becomes scene-filler.  It’s interesting, at least, to see the evolution of a single movie character after so many years, and at the same time marvel at the change in Newman.  In a performance that may actually equal that of “The Hustler,” the cocky kid is now streetwise mentor, at times lamenting his student’s cavalier attitude (which is the understatement of the century considering how over-the-top Tom Cruise is), at times dangerously mirroring his own so-called manager of so many years before.  But to the movie’s credit, there is one moment that defies convention, following the big pre-ordained duel between teacher and student, when Eddie makes a crucial decision with the obligatory big championship within arm’s reach.  Seeing what he’s turned Vincent into, perhaps seeing a little bit of his old self, he’s realized what the game is all about.  And with a final 9-ball break and a final exclamation of a great player’s return, we at last see a respect and an appreciation for the game itself that would rival Minnesota Fat’s.

The Hustler: 8/10

The Color of Money: 7/10

1 comment so far

  1. Bianca juarez on

    Really love the article. I feel the same way about ” The Hustler. ” Love Love Love Paul Newman in both movies. I wish they would have tried to give Vincent’s role to someone more Newmanesque than to Cruise since he played every role in the 80’s the same-young, brash, then remoresful (Top Gun, Cocktail, The Color of Money etc.). I loved the begining and the end of The Hustler yet I can’t say one part that I even liked in TCOM. Walter Tevis’ stories were distorted by both directors. It’s interesting to see the roles that both women played and the different acting styles in the time periods. No matter if it’s Eddie or Vincent or even Burt it’s the same ending but slightly different tune. At the end of both movies I felt like how Fats looks when Eddie and Burt are arguing-It’s been a long nite and I’ve seen it all plenty of times before.

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