The Grifters (1990)

Director: Stephen Frears

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I’m not really a fan of detective/crime novels, though I have read a bit, but even I know that Jim Thompson and Donald E. Westlake are among the elite novelists of the genre. Both men wrote screenplays and have had their fiction adapted for the movies: Thompson’s includes The Getaway and Westlake’s include Point Blank, The Outfit, Payback, and most recently, The Ax. Pairing Thompson’s novel The Grifters with the screenwriting talents of Westlake and capping the whole thing off with the excellent and versatile British director Stephen Frears should have made for an amazing movie. The film of The Grifters stumbles but, ultimately, the power of Thompson’s nihilistic vision of society as played out by its bottom feeders makes the film a memorable, repeatable experience.

John Cusack plays Roy Dillon, a con man, or grifter, who keeps a roof over his head playing the “short con.” Myra Langtry (Annette Bening) is Roy’s girl, a part-time chippy who exchanges sex for rent with her reluctant landlord Irv (Michael Laskin). When we first meet her, she is trying, unsuccessfully, to scam a jeweler. Roy’s mother, Lilly Dillon (Anjelica Huston), puts the fix in at race tracks for her mobster boss Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle). These three people will form a triangle fueled mainly by their desperate need to survive. As the story unfolds, we will see that survival means different things to each of them.

Roy tries a con in a tavern—ordering a beer, flashing a $20 bill at the bartender, and then laying a 10-spot on the bar and collecting the change for a 20. Small-time stuff that usually works, but not always. One bartender spots the deception, grabs Roy’s hand, which contains the $20 bill, reaches back for a baseball bat, and smashes Roy in the gut. Roy limps home to the inept ministrations of Myra, who decides sex would be the best medicine in the world.

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At the same time, Lilly gets a call to go to a racetrack in Delmar. Protesting that she never goes to California, she really can’t say no. She decides to drive to Los Angeles to look up Roy, who is not at all happy to see her. He maintains a cold, discourteous demeanor even as Lilly tries on maternal love for size. When Roy starts to run a high fever from his encounter with the baseball bat, she calls an ambulance. The doctor who greets the ambulance—Bobo’s personal mob physician—says he probably has internal bleeding and likely will not live. Lilly says, “You know who I work for. My son’s going to be all right. If not, I’ll have you killed.” Roy survives. Lilly is sent to La Jolla to do another job.

Grifters%208.jpgAfter he recovers, Roy decides he and Myra should go to La Jolla for the weekend. On the train, Myra observes Roy con some sailors in a rigged dice game. She confronts him later: “You’re on the grift, same as me.” He says he doesn’t know what she’s talking about. “Roy, you’re a short-con operator… and a good one, I think. Don’t talk to me like I’m another square.” She reminisces about her salad days on the grift, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in long-con investment schemes with her partner Cole (J. T. Walsh), who is now confined to a sanitarium for the criminally insane. She proposes teaming up with Roy. Remembering the man who taught him his trade warning Roy to stay away from the long con (“You don’t want to do jail time.”), he refuses.

Myra is determined, however, to get back in the money. She follows Lilly to the track and watches her take money and put it in a hidden compartment in her car’s trunk—she’s been skimming Bobo’s winnings. Lilly suddenly finds herself in deep trouble with Bobo, Myra moves in on the money, and it all ends with a confrontation between Roy and Lilly in Roy’s L.A. apartment a couple of days later.

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Los Angeles is the American city that produces the most photogenic and evocative night images. One look at the lights from atop the hills around the city almost instantaneously evokes a seductive nightmare of vice, tawdry criminality, and corruption. The opening credits play up this association as the words “The Grifters” fuse with the background.

Frears likes to shoot reality pretty much as it appears, so he uses different devices to suggest shifts in each character. Angelica Huston’s blonde hair is so startling, so cheap, yet she’s a woman with a very nice figure who startles others as being too young to have a grown son. Her white suit glows in the Southern California sun, but soon she will be stained with blood, as we watch her switch to red.

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Annette Bening puts on a stupid, Betty Boopish voice and dresses in the cheap, garish costumes of a tramp, with her long, faux-gold earrings suggesting a reject from a Vegas chorus line. She is enormously comfortable with her body; it’s Myra’s meal ticket, and Bening’s not afraid to show it off with an unself-conscious playfulness. The full-length shot of her sashaying toward the jewelry store owner, willing to offer herself in exchange for some dough to make rent is itself a jewel of cinematic power. This lively image will be echoed with a deathly one—the climactic shot of Lilly at the end of the film, stony-faced, appearing dead as she is lowered in a cage elevator.

In between are some fairly strained performances from Bening and Cusack. Bening has been called the thinking man’s sex symbol. She’s not convincing as a floozy in the first third of the film. This may have been by design, as signaled by Myra’s hammy performance as a woman of means faking her own death in her long-con game. Nonetheless, the high-tone character fits Bening like a glove, and the contrast is jarring. In the final act, she is pure animal, willing to stop at nothing to survive in the style to which she had become accustomed, thus redeeming the overall performance.

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Cusack fares much less well. He’s a penny-ante con, therefore perhaps a bit more innocent than either of the women with whom he spars. Nonetheless, his disillusionment with life should have been stronger, his antipathy for Lilly more bitter. His performance is weak and tinny even though he’s given great dialogue to chew on. His “I owe you my life, Lilly,” has none of the foreshadowing he could have given it. Indeed, he admits on the DVD extra about the making of the film that his first day at work was almost a complete disaster. Frears, in this extra, is gracious to all of his actors by saying that you hire performers for what they are and shouldn’t try to change them into somebody else. Alas, the performers are charged with changing into their characters, and Cusack just couldn’t step far out of his naïve, teenage persona at times when it wasn’t called for.

When it was, however, he helped create the most electrifying scene in the entire movie, the climactic end when Lilly kisses Roy as a woman to try to convince him to give her his money to make her escape from a murder-minded Bobo. He responds briefly, then pulls himself away in horror. The incestuous undercurrents ripple a bit, enough for Myra to call Roy on them, providing a reason why mother and son normally stay a continent away from each other and why Roy calls her “Lilly” and treats her with a distancing disdain—his survival depends upon it. Thus, the explosion of passion at the end is earned and shattering.

Grifters%201.jpgThe shining light in this dark tale is Anjelica Huston. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her perform with such intensity and shading, taking risks that most actors would never dare approach. Her wiry body, nervous smoking, and shaky stability vibrate and build throughout the film as though emanating from an animal that has been horribly abused and only knows how to cower or go for the throat. She seems to understand Jim Thompson’s world somewhere in her gut and is the single facet that makes The Grifters magnetic and watchable time and time again.

Try pairing The Grifters with House of Games for a night of con games.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    12th/09/2008 to 8:50 pm

    Great post, Marilyn … I like this movie, and — though it’s been awhile since I saw it — I remember liking both Bening and Cusack more than you do.
    What do you think about his perf in Frears’ “High Fidelity.” Given your argument about his juvenile performance here, perhaps he’s more suited to Hi-Fi?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/09/2008 to 8:29 am

    Thanks, Rick. Every now and then I want to watch this movie. It packs a punch.
    High Fidelity was tailor-made for Cusack, and setting it in Chicago made it even more so. I think Frears knew very well Cusack’s strengths and weaknesses and knew he’d work well in HF. And he does.

  • bill spoke:
    15th/09/2008 to 9:42 am

    I haven’t seen this film in so long…I need to finally read the book, and then check this out again. Without getting into spoilers, I do remember Cusack’s final scene to be a real stunner.

  • Fox spoke:
    15th/09/2008 to 11:49 am

    Marilyn-
    Bening has been called the thinking man’s sex symbol.
    If so, then let me be a poor man! :0)
    Bening is one of those actresses that I have never understood the appeal of. It even inflames my dislike of her even more when she gets praise for performances in movies such as American Beauty or Running With Scissors … films that aren’t so far apart with their snarky takes on the American family.
    SPOILER
    I remember catching a glimpse of The Grifters as a kid when my dad was watching it. It was the scene when Anjelica Huston accidentally cuts Cusack’s throat. It freaked me out a bit. QUITE a bit.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/09/2008 to 12:00 pm

    I know you’re a thinking man, Fox. Just repeating what I’ve heard about Bening. She does have a certain sophistication, very much in the mold of the actresses like Kay Francis or Barbara Stanwyck.
    I hope you don’t mind that I added SPOILER to your comment. That’s a scene people shouldn’t know about if they’ve never seen it. But I agree that it is very disturbing and definitely the emotional climax of the film.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    15th/09/2008 to 10:15 pm

    Fox is nothing if not intelligent, discerning, and etc., but Bening is one hot woman, who’s only gotten better with age.

  • J.D. spoke:
    17th/09/2008 to 12:39 pm

    Nice write-up! This is a great film — probably the best out of all the neo-noir adaptations that came out in the early to mid-1990s (altho, AFTER DARK, MY SWEET is pretty damn good).
    I found you observations about John Cusack’s performance very interesting. I never thought of it that way but now that you mention it, there is something a little lacking that comes from a lack of experience with those kinds of roles.
    The scene that always disturbs the hell out of me is with Pat Hingle, Anjelica Huston and a cigar. I remember seeing it for the first time and shocking the hell out of me for its brutality. The way Huston screams is chilling indeed.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/09/2008 to 12:50 pm

    Thanks, J.D. I remember that scene, too, but more for Lilly’s contained wimper rather than a blood-curdling scream. I always imagine that she’s been treated this way before and doesn’t have the shock added to the pain that would bring forth a more violent reaction. I was actually more unnerved by the towel and oranges, something I’d never heard of but that Lilly obviously dreaded more than just about anything.

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