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Color of Money, The (Blu-ray Review)

25 Jun, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$20 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Helen Shaver, John Turturro.

Released a full quarter-century after Robert Rossen’s The Hustler became one of the two or three seminal movies of 1961, Martin Scorsese’s follow-up look at a character originated in Walter Tevis’s source novel occupies a relatively meager place in his directorial canon. Yet it was incalculably valuable to his career during that commercially bleak period that followed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver.

Yeah, I know: Raging Bull (1980) ended up topping several best-of-the-decade lists when they were compiled late in 1989 (mine included), and it’s now routine to see 1983’s The King of Comedy show up as one of the top-10 of the ’80s as well. But both films lost money (and, in the case of Comedy, I suspect a lot of it) atop the box office flop-dom of New York, New York (1977) and the in-grown commercial limitations of a documentary like The Last Waltz (1978), no matter how much rock royalty it showcased. After Hours (1985) was a tentatively distributed indie (albeit for Warners); when I was film critic for USA Today, I couldn’t get the section head to run my review until the Tuesday after the Friday opening, so marginal was it perceived to be to the heartland masses.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with quality because time has been kind to all of these movies. In fact, leaving aside the acceptable exploitation exercise Boxcar Bertha early in his career, Scorsese is the American director I can think of with a large filmography who has never made a truly bad movie (unless you consider Kubrick’s is large and will agree to omit Fear and Desire from the equation). By the way, I will go to the mat on this — at least when you judge the respective movies against the field of the respective years in which they were made (much as Bill James judges baseball players, which is how I think movies should be judged as well).

Money gave Scorsese a seriously needed hit and probably was a factor in securing a green-light for The Last Temptation of Christ (it, too, among the best movies of the ’80s — or, as David Denby said in his New York magazine review, “near great”). This continuing chronicle of Newman’s (formerly “Fast”) Eddie Felson was and is a solid commercial movie for adults from this wretched John Hughes/weird science/Reagan jingoistic top gun period of Hollywood, at least in terms of major-studio output. Though it ended up being kind of a consolation prize, Money is also the film that finally won Paul Newman his Academy Award — but more surprisingly at the time (in a feat he repeated two years later in Rain Man), it allowed the still green Tom Cruise to go one-on-one with a superstar’s Oscared performance and come out at least earning a tie in a game of horse. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (an Oscar nomination) also is excellent as well as the brains of Cruise’s pool-shooting outfit — at least until the now liquor distributor Eddie takes the tentative couple under his wings and tries to turn Cruise’s talented but hilariously undisciplined cue-master (Vincent) into something of a hustler himself. By the way, Cruise has “truly serious” hair here.

Though the picture has a surprising number of detractors who ought to be grateful for how it kept Scorsese’s career going, I do think its strong build-up only fully carries it to the two-thirds mark, when it does begin to skip a few beats. Intentionally or not, Money trades in on a couple dimensions Newman had exploited in past movies: the ability to be hugely amusing when he’s striving to be an authority figure to flakes (see 1977’s Slap Shot) and the poignancy of the actor’s no longer youthful self playing a character trying to reinvent himself (1982’s The Verdict). The movie handles the first very well and the second not so well, and when the picture becomes about Eddie’s redemption it just isn’t as interesting — possibly we haven’t been adequately prepared for it. In fact, Richard Price’s screenplay is uneven in an unusual way; it falls short on “event” (Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker are always having to juice things up visually), and yet the dialogue is almost always sharp.

Though the new Blu-ray is simply a content upgrade of the old DVD, the Michael Ballhaus photography is almost exclusively of murky interiors and the slushy outdoors  — the kind of visuals that can bleed in the lesser format (to say nothing of VHS and laserdisc). This release pretty well replicates the projected print I saw in ’86 just before interviewing Scorsese in his Brill Building office — which means it had to be the real deal in terms of what Disney wanted journalists to see. Robbie Robertson’s raw and perhaps undervalued score comes off well on the Blu-ray track, too — though the key audio component is, of course, the sound of those cue balls amid what Eddie refers to as his squirrel of a prodigy’s “sledgehammer breaks.”

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