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Twistin' By The Pool (Table)

I thought it would be nice for everyone if we did a 'golden oldie' review that wasn't quite as heavily mired in Cult Moviedom as usual. And so with this in mind I thought we would do two for the price of one and talk about The Hustler and The Color of Money.

Both films are based on novels by Walter Tevis and have at their heart powerhouse performances by Paul Newman, in both cases playing 'Fast' Eddie Felson, a gambler and pool hustler (Newman deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actor for Color of Money). The first, The Hustler, was released in 1961. Directed by Robert Rossen, it was made when Newman was still very much in the substantial shadow of Marlon Brando. At the start of the film Felson is successfully scamming his way across America with his accomplice and 'manager', but all this changes after he takes on the legendary player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason, looking remarkably like a dapper Ken Clarke). In a gruelling non-stop 40-hour match Eddie seems to have Fats beaten, before choking on his lead and being taken to the cleaners.

His confidence demolished, Eddie reassesses himself and his life, entering into a fragile relationship with alcoholic ex-actress Sarah (Piper Laurie), and trying to scrape together enough money to play the Fat Man again. Then he's approached by professional gambler Bert Gordon (George C Scott) who offers to fund and train him... and secure the rematch he so desperately wants.

This is Newman's movie from beginning to end. While he's occasionally caught method-acting, this is partly due to a slightly theatrical script - for the most part he lights up the screen. When he proclaims 'I'm the best there is,' you believe he believes it. His initial overconfidence is exhilarating rather than obnoxious and he carries the audience's sympathy with him into despair when he loses everything, and then on to his bitter victory at the end of the film. But the rest of the main cast are very nearly as good, Gleason in a fairly small role.

But as well as being a character study of Felson, the film is also a finely-observed portrait of a whole subculture of grifters and drifters, renting rooms a night at a time, eating in bus station cafeteria, living from one score to the next. It's also something of a paean to the old-style pool hall, with all the rituals and habits of the pro players meticulously recreated.

The pool sequences are worth a special mention: I expected the direction to hide the fact that Newman and Gleason weren't actually playing, but a surprising amount of the match sequences were filmed in medium shot without cuts, and the actors play the game staggeringly well. Both move and cue like they know the game backwards, and the effect is hugely impressive.

Rossen's direction (he also co-scripted) varies between the workmanlike but effective in character scenes, and a fluid, compelling, almost montage-like style for the match sequences. It's all filmed in pristine black and white and set to a supercool jazz soundtrack, a mature, thoughtful, smart, free-poem of a movie.

The Color of Money, directed by Martin Scorcese and released in 1986, catches up with Eddie Felson twenty-five years on. The events of the first film having finished him as a serious pool player, he's now a successful, semi-respectable liquor salesman. That's until he encounters hot-dog young player Vincent (a startlingly young, perky and boisterous Tom Cruise) and his girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who's dropped off the movie radar this last ten years or so). Recognising something of his younger self in Vincent, Eddie offers to take him on the road and teach him the trade, ahead of a big-money tournament in Atlantic City. But as the trio travel, Eddie finds his own love for the game and will to win slowly returning...

There seemed to be a training scheme in Hollywood in the late 80s, whereby Tom Cruise would be paired with as many great actors from the 60s as possible: he made Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman and Days of Thunder with Robert Duvall, and you might think this was another example. But you'd be wrong, as this is Newman's movie every bit as much as The Hustler, and for all his steradent grin and posturing Cruise is effortlessly blasted off the screen by his twinkly, crinkly co-star. Not to say that he and Mastrantonio aren't good, quite the opposite, but at this point Cruise was still a megastar in training, while Newman was the real deal.

That said, the script's distinctly slanted in Newman's favour. This is even more a portrait of Eddie than The Hustler, though once again it has insight into certain areas of America's urban underbelly. Scorcese is a wise enough director not to impose too much of his trademark operatic style on it, though once again the match sequences are dazzlingly filmed and edited.

It all boils down to acting in the end, though, and Paul Newman's colossal performance. When I first watched this film I thought the linking of it to The Hustler was a cheap gimmick as Newman's character here is initially unrecognisable as the 'Fast' Eddie Felson of the first film. But this is the whole point, as The Color of Money is the story of how Eddie rediscovers his love of the game and his self-respect. Slowly, painfully (Forrest Whitaker has a memorable cameo as another hustler Eddie comes off second-best to), the driven, soaringly confident man from twenty-five years ago reappears. When, as the movie's last line, Newman snarls 'I'm back!', you want to rise from your seat and cheer.

I think both are classics of American cinema. Personally I consider The Color of Money to be the better of the two - but it owes such a debt to Newman's performance of 1961 that this sort of comparison is futile. Maybe in another ten years or so, Newman will play Eddie Felson as an old man and round off the story - but any such third movie will have some big, big shoes to fill.

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