In one of his many essays on the craft of filmmaking, David Mamet suggested that an editor could improve practically any movie ever made simply by tossing the first 10 minutes. Exaggerated? Sure. I doubt Dave really wants to take the scissors to Citizen Kane’s magnificent series of match-dissolves depicting a single light burning at Xanadu, or that he would prefer a Wild Bunch in which William Holden doesn’t snarl “If they move, kill ’em!” But I do understand the impulse. A film’s opening moments are frequently its dreariest, as the writer and director (perhaps with the meddling of nervous suits) huff and puff to “establish” various things—all of which would usually be far better concealed, or at least doled out gradually. The less we know, the more we’re curious, intrigued, engrossed—why squander that dramatic advantage by signposting every narrative element as if you were composing a term paper for English class?
That’s why it’s so thrilling on those rare occasions when a movie gets its opening sequence exactly right, achieving a perfect balance between exposition and obfuscation. The Color Of Money has a less-than-stellar reputation overall, for some fairly obvious reasons. It’s a decades-later sequel to a classic, The Hustler. It was also the first picture Martin Scorsese made since breaking through with Mean Streets that could be seen as a calculated bid to cash in. I happen to think the film is woefully underrated, but it’s hard to imagine even its most ardent critics being able to find much fault with the way Scorsese and screenwriter Richard Price ease us into Fast Eddie’s world, expanding our view bit by tantalizing bit while making us wonder what’s happening just outside the frame. Apart from a brief monologue on the nature of nine-ball pool (spoken by Scorsese himself) and the smoky opening credits, this is how The Color Of Money begins, establishing nothing until it’s damn good and ready:
We begin not with faces but with objects, as Scorsese’s camera pans from glasses of bourbon to a smoldering cigarette to a carelessly assembled stack of $20 bills: a compendium of vice. Most of us will instantly recognize Paul Newman’s voice, but there’s no hurry to reveal his face—we first get a glimpse of the impressive pseudo-signet ring on his right hand, which suggests to those familiar with the character that Fast Eddie has done well for himself over what the past 25 years. There’s a whole line of patter here involving premium blends vs. first-rate knockoffs that’s fairly interesting for its own sake, if only because it’s clear Price did his homework. It’s also clear that Newman is simultaneously genuinely interested in barkeep Helen Shaver (their history together includes an omelet that further suggests wealth) and doggedly working to close a sale, responding in kind to her innuendo but always quickly steering the conversation back to bourbon. Notice that Scorsese and Price make no effort to define the location—it’s obviously a bar, but only the distant sound of pool balls clicking (I had to go back and listen to hear if that’s audible; it is, barely) implies the larger room.
In fact, Newman is also staking small-time hustler John Turturro (in one of his earliest roles), but we don’t discover that until Turturro starts tapping Newman’s shoulder from offscreen, only to have his hand swatted away twice without so much as a word or a quick glance. At this point, Scorsese gives us a sense of where we are… but he still doesn’t give us Tom Cruise, who’s seen at first with his back to the camera, his head deep in an arcade game. (Though why anyone would be wasting time on Stocker with a Tron machine just inches away is beyond me.) Nor do we see any of Turturro’s nine-ball match against Cruise—we discover that it’s over when Turturro abruptly shows up to grab another $20. Instead, Scorsese and Price stay with Newman and his spiel, letting us share in his single-mindedness. They can get away with that because they know Newman is about to be distracted from his purpose by Cruise’s “sledgehammer break.”
(As an aside: At first, I thought it was kind of gutsy to introduce Cruise so nonchalantly, given that he was the hottest young star in Hollywood at the time. Checking back, though, I found that Cruise had only achieved that status a few months earlier, when Top Gun opened in May. Prior to that—i.e., when he was cast in The Color Of Money—he hadn’t had a hit since Risky Business, some three years earlier (!); the only film he’d made in the interim (!!) was the fantasy flop Legend. That’s kind of remarkable—it’s as if, say, Eddie Murphy had done nothing but The Golden Child for several years following 48 Hrs. In any case, it seems clear that Newman, much more than Cruise, was the expected draw at the time the film went into production, unless there was some hefty Maverick buzz on the lots.)
Equally arresting is the sudden bark “Come on, on the snap, Vincent!” This seems to come from nowhere—Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was briefly visible a moment earlier, sitting behind Turturro as he calls for Cruise to join the game, but she doesn’t really register unless you’re looking for her. So now there’s some woman involved. Following some dorky samurai theatrics (foreshadowing Oprah’s couch, one could argue), Cruise starts making out with her, so we may file her under Girlfriend. But she seems way more intense about the unfolding action than one would expect of somebody that easily reducible, and the mere fact that her presence in the room has been carefully obscured tells us that she’s important. Newman senses it, too. After goggling at Cruise’s offer to “play play”—the very notion of pool divorced from financial gain seems heretical to everyone but this flaky virtuoso; Turturro’s silent exit is priceless—he takes a seat on the table behind Mastrantonio, prompting her (in a nice bit of business I don’t think I’d ever noticed before) to move a leather jacket away from where he could swipe it.
The blocking here, which looks ordinary enough when viewed from across the table (with Vincent’s hand and cue providing horizontal counterpoint from left to right), suddenly becomes significant when Scorsese shifts to a low angle, with Newman, in perfect focus, towering over a slightly blurry Mastrantonio. (Obvious, but still effective.) The dialogue that follows could inspire an entire separate essay on the fine art of manipulation—what Newman does here is more or less precisely what the world’s top poker players do in high-stakes no-limit Hold ’Em, tossing out multiple bits of contradictory information that leave others incapable of anything more sophisticated than a wild guess, or complete surrender. (Scorsese’s fervent Catholicism makes me want to find some parallel between Newman’s three rejected offers and Peter’s three denials of Christ, but I think that may be stretching a bit.) We’re just 12 minutes and one scene into the movie, we’ve had nothing laboriously spelled out for us, and yet the film’s primary themes—passion vs. practicality, game theory as psychological warfare—are already in place. That’s what all movies should strive to achieve in those precious first few minutes.
P.S. Has anyone else spent years wondering where that whole “Which twin has the Tony?” business came from? By golly, there is an answer. Turns out that was the slogan for a brand of home permanents back in the 1940s—”Tony” is actually “Toni,” which was the name of the company. The idea being for the reader to guess (or be unable to guess) which of two identical (and identically coiffed) twins had been to the salon and which achieved the same fabulous look much cheaper at home. Newman is obviously old enough to remember the slogan, but it’s still surprising that Price chose to use a reference that most younger viewers even then would find baffling. Not sure that line would survive in today’s studio climate.