Anaphora is an on-going series of video essays exploring the neglected films by major directors.
It's always stunning to look back on film history and see who was in need of a comeback and why. Martin Scorsese's influence, his style as a filmmaker and his service to film preservation and history, is taken for granted today. In the late 70s and early 80s every stop light was red. New York, New York was a huge comedown after Taxi Driver, Raging Bull was a modest success at best, The King of Comedy bombed, After Hours made its budget back and then vanished, and Last Temptation of Christ was mired in controversy that hurt its box office. In the middle of all this was The Color of Money, probably the last thing anyone expected him to make: A sequel to Robert Rossen's The Hustler starring original lead Paul Newman and a fresh-faced and still glowingly young Tom Cruise. The direction is diffuse and wide-eyed at the spectacle of the amazing array of lowlifes stalking the blue-grey emptiness of every dark pool hall. The script by Richard Price crackles with insider jargon and razor-sharp cynicism. Newman keeps the film present, with his off-color jokes, the way he's ten steps ahead of everyone. It's little wonder he won an Oscar for the film. He makes being the oldest guy in the bar seem cool.
Rossen was another of Scorsese's problematic absent father figures. Like Elia Kazan he named names, but unlike Kazan he did it to keep working but found he couldn't keep working anyway. It’s easy to imagine that making art became much less fulfilling after his testimony. Kazan kept working, of course, and Rossen didn't. Scorsese stepping into his shoes strikes me as an act of empathy and curiosity, the kind for which he's become famous. The Color of Money perhaps necessarily takes as its subject an old man who barely practices the craft that made him a legend. What would it take to get back into it? Scorsese's there, symbolically: the young guy who doesn't know what it feels like to have that much mileage on your soul, despite the stack of crushing defeats to his name. That was just money. Kazan and Rossen lost more than that. The Color of Money is about re-discovering the hunger to work, about being too tired to look over your shoulder at the potential you left behind years ago. Scorsese's at the absolute height of his powers here because no one expected him to make a film as good as The Hustler or even Taxi Driver. He showed up and made one of his most endearing works and nobody seemed to notice.