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John Turturro

Chasing the Hat

[This article first appeared in the September-October 1990 issue of Film Comment. It was reprinted in the National Society of Film Critics anthology They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres (1995).]

Ice dropping into a heavy-bottomed glass: cold, hard, sensuous. The first image in Miller’s Crossing hits our ears before it hits the screen, but it’s nonetheless an image for that. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) has traveled the length of a room to build a drink. Not that we saw him in transit, not that we yet know he is Tom Reagan, and not that we see him clearly now as he turns and stalks back up the room, a silent, out-of-focus enigma at the edge of someone else’s closeup. Yet he is a story walking, as his deliberate, tangential progress, from background to middle distance and then out the side of the frame, is also a story – draining authority from the close-up Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) who’s come to insist, ironically enough, on the recognition of his territorial rights.

The place is a story, too, which we read as the scene unfolds. A private office; not Caspar’s, but not Reagan’s either – it’s city boss Liam “Leo” O’Bannion (Albert Finney) who sits behind the camera and his big desk, listening. An upstairs office, we know from the muted street traffic (without stopping to think about why we know). Night outside, but sunlight would never be welcome, or relevant, here. A masculine space, green lampshades amid the dark luster of wood, leather, whiskey. A remote train whistle sounds, functional and intrinsically forlorn; the distance from which it reaches us locates the office in space and in history. This room exists in a city big enough to support a multiplicity of criminal fiefdoms and a political machine that rules by maintaining the balance among them, yet it is still a town whose municipal core lies within faint earshot of its outskirts. Urban dreams of empire have not entirely crowded out the memory of wilderness, of implacable places roads and railroads can’t reach, even if one of them has been wishfully designated Miller’s Crossing. Hence we are not entirely surprised (though the aesthetic shock is deeply satisfying) when the opening master-scene, with its magisterial interior setting and dialogue fragrant with cross purpose, gives way to a silent (save for mournful Irish melody) credit sequence in an empty forest. And then to a title card announcing, almost superfluously, “An Eastern city in the United States, toward the end of the 1920s.”

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Review: Landline

Jenny Slate’s opening monologue in Obvious Child is the kind of thing that weeds out the uptight among us. Its indecorous references to bodily emissions and the gunky realities of sex are meant to set up her character as a truth-telling stand-up comic, but also serve notice that the movie itself will take no prisoners when engaging taboos and uncomfortable subjects. Fair enough, as Obvious Child is a romantic comedy about abortion. But I also suspect that Obvious Child wants to keep pace with the tone of 21st-century comedy, an explicit style (usually R-rated, as in pictures like Neighbors and Baywatch) that puts sex and scatology at the crude center of the joke. It’s the comedy of poop and genitalia, the sort of thing that would send Wes Anderson to his fainting couch.

Slate and Obvious Child writer/director Gillian Robespierre have reunited for Landline, and while it’s a much less adventurous film than their first collaboration, the urge to be smutty is still in place.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Color of Money’

“You remind me that money won is twice as sweet as money earned.”

The Color of Money (Disney) is not and will never be considered Martin Scorsese’s greatest film. It hasn’t the ragged beauty and personal charge of Mean Streets, the ambition or the intensity of Taxi Driver, or the cinematic density of GoodFellas. Yet it is possibly his most accessible film and his answer to the old Hollywood studio movie. Like the studio contract directors of past decades, he neither developed nor pursued this project, and he still turns into a distinctly Scorsese vision.

Tom Cruise and Paul Newman

It is not simply that Scorsese acquitted himself on the assignment, it is that he used the tools and talent of the production — a richly textured script by Richard Price, a mid-level studio budget bigger than anything he’d had for some time, the gravitas of Paul Newman, and the charge of young Tom Cruise in all his youthful arrogance and big-kid innocence — to make a film about regret and redemption. And he delivers the cinematic charge of the pool room culture of hustle and gamesmanship along with the education of a young protégé lacking self-restraint and a mentor who has yet to face his own conflicted feelings about the game.

Twenty-five years after walking away from the game in The Hustler, Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson has settled into success as a liquor salesman, a cross between a modern whisky drummer and a suave, slick bootlegger who sells his customers inexpensive alternatives to top-shelf brands (and the counterfeit labels to pass them off). Then he sees Vincent (Cruise), a grinning hotshot who wields a cue like a quarterstaff in a “Robin Hood” movie and outplays the neighborhood poolroom hustler (John Turturro) without breaking a sweat.

Cruise is in peacock mode as Vincent, all cocksure kid strutting his victories and feeding off the attention of the crowd, while Newman rules the room and the film as Eddie, once the student, now the mentor. He decides to stake the kid and teach him the rules of the game. Every gesture shows not just his understanding of human nature but his delight in playing the game, which for Eddie is less about playing the table than playing the odds and playing the player. But just as his lessons sink in with his undisciplined disciple, Eddie faces his own crisis in self-esteem and identity, thanks to a hard lesson from a small-time hustler (Forest Whitaker in a brilliant arrival).

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