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THE GRIFTERS (1990 - R)
"The Grifters" is a modern American noir classic that masterfully brings nihilistic author Jim Thompson's same-named novel to the silver screen with panache. "The Grifters" exploits the seedy and sardonic lifestyles of 3 cons who are slowly heading towards an inevitably disastrous decline. Abandoning all morality for the sake of a few bucks and a cheap thrill, Roy Dillon takes after griftin’ mama Lilly Dillon. Enter sexy Myra Langtry, a long con roper who equally enjoys taking Roy for a ride. From one con to the next the film centers on two women's attempts to survive at all odds while one bitter and distrusting man is desperately caught in the middle of two criminal con-women and a lifestyle he can’t quite walk away from.
Written by: Jim Thompson (novel) and Donald E. Westlake (screenplay).
Directed by: Stephen Frears.
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller.
Tagline: Seduction. Betrayal. Murder. Who’s Conning Who?
The film begins at a seedy bar where Roy Dillon (John Cusack) makes cheap bets with local bar men in hopes of scamming the customer and upping his odds. Likewise, down south at the La Jolla Palomas Downs racehorse track Roy’s mother, Lilly Dillon (Anjelica Huston), plays with some bigger cash to skew the odds on a particular horse race. Meanwhile, in a local pawn shop miss Myra Langtry tries to pawn off fake diamonds-when that doesn’t work, she offers herself for a tidy proposition. So we’ve just met the film’s three protagonists, (or is that antagonists?): all cons; all cheats; all addicted to the world of gambling; all looking to beat the odds and “get rich quick” at the expense of honesty, loyalty, and pride.
But when Roy’s daily milieu of cons leaves a bad taste in a bartender’s mouth (and Roy’s stomach), he heads home where he is has a flashback of his early con days with former mentor, Irv, who once taught him the art of grifting solo. The appearance of his girlfriend, Myra Langtry, puts things back in perspective, and the further visit of his mother, Lilly Dillon, puts an even more sobering taste in his mouth. After Roy nearly faints from the repercussion of that punch in the stomach, his mother phones the hospital and Roy is sidelined for a few days with potentially deadly internal hemorrhaging.
While two women dote and fight over rights to Roy, Lilly prepares to fight her way back into Roy’s life where she can once again resume control and a watchful eye. Of course as it turns out, with mama living the grifter life for much of her own, she hasn’t exactly been the best of mother’s in the past. Still, with Lilly’s current disdain for his recent girlfriend Myra, Roy is going next to crazy trying to survive off of cheap tricks and cheap love while his mother pulls the parental card at only the most inconvenient of times. Meanwhile when a payoff goes bad at the racetracks Lilly’s boss Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle) approaches her with the need for retribution- which comes in the way of some intense scare tactics and a cigar burn.
As Myra and Roy head off to La Jolla for a little fun in the sun, the former espies Roy’s grifting games and confronts him with the truth that she too is in on the grift. Of course the grift is based on small cons and small doe-but with Myra’s recent discovery that her boyfriend is a regular partaker in the business she approaches him with the prospects of teaming up and upping the ante- big cons, bigger rewards. Pan to a flashback with Myra and her partner Cole (J.T. Walsh) and their brilliant long con scams.
While Roy deliberates teaming up with Myra it seems perhaps Myra may have an extra trick or two up her sleeves: one of which involves following Roy’s mother and learning a few second hand grifting tricks including attempted murder. A phone call later and Roy finds himself at the phoenix morgue identifying his alleged mother’s body. While he attempts to feign surprise and concedes the body to in fact be his mothers, he neglects to inform the officer of his immediate perception of the woman’s suspicious hand- which is conveniently lacking the fresh cigar burn awarded by Bobo only a day ago.
Pan to a very much alive Lilly Dillon who is now ransacking her son’s apartment for some extra cash to hightail her way out of the country and away from Bobo and his notoriously mercenary thugs. But when Roy walks into the apartment and confronts her with a plea to take the honest road once and for all things get messy…it’s a show down between mother and son that ends with only one man standing- or is that woman?
An adaptation of nihilistic American noir author Jim Thompson’s novel, “The Grifters” is an intense neo noir film that will have you on the edge of your seat throughout. From the variety of eclectic con personalities to the intricacy of manipulation and psychological play, “The Grifters” is a riveting, mind bending, dark comedy that depicts the seedy side of a cosmopolitan Los Angeles lifestyle. With so many twists and turns, and darkness everywhere, as screenplay writer Westlake notes: “From the son’s perspective this is a story of defeat and death: from the mother’s, it’s a story of survival at all costs.”
All three leads portray the perfect tragically desperate and perverse melodramatic characters that are arguably the blood and guts of this film. Though the darkness of the story and the irony and melodrama of the dialogue are important and compelling aspects of the film, it is the layering and the impacting performances by the three leads that make this film a knock out modern noir masterpiece. Angelica Huston is riveting. From her psychical metamorphosis (did you notice the wardrobe change from muted pastels to clotty blood reds), to her psychological devolution, the entire film centers on watching Lily Dillon’s eventual character descent: the ending is a brilliant metaphoric image of her character literally descending into hell. Likewise Annette Bening plays the perfect rabid “kitty cat”: soft and cuddly on the outside; ravenous and ruthless on the inside. John Cusack is no different and his slightly honest and pathetic albeit bitter and sinister personality shines as much as his two dominating leading ladies. Together this trio is dynamic, dangerous, daring, and deft.
The cinematography was astute in its brilliantly seamless blending of multiple American generations: from the women’s 1940’s dresses and to the 1940’s architecture for the set’s hotels, to Roy’s 1980’s suits, to the 1970’s Cadillacs, to the modern twist with the helicopters in the ending scene. Likewise the attention to, and the importance of the use and signification of color in this film is fascinating. There is so much play with light in the contrasting of night and day scenes, shadows, light and dark costumes (including the parallel contrasting of pink and red in Lilly’s wardrobe), etc.
The musical score is climactic, nerve-pulsing, and plays with the all aspects of control: both the audience and the characters are constantly awaiting those expected twists and turns of noir scripts and the effect is brilliant in Frears cinematic adaptation. This film is a real gem and a treat for those daring enough to venture into the crime noir genre if only for a night.
“The Grifters” was nominated for 4 Oscars: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Angelica Huston), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Annette Bening), Best Director (Stephen Frears), and Best Writing (Donald E. Westlake). Additionally, the film received another 8 critical film awards including the Edgar Allen Poe’s Edgar award for Best Picture (Juliet Taylor) and was nominated for four additional awards including the Golden Globe for Best Actress (Anjelica Huston).
ROY: It’s a bet!
IRV: Grifters got an irresistible undesirable urge to be wise.
IRV: Hell, fools are made to be whipped
IRV: So you wanna learn a few tricks, I’ll teach you a few tricks. But you ain’t getting in my pocket.
LILLY: My son is going to be alright- if not I’ll have you killed.”
MYRA: Is this all we have- “sex with my baby?” I’m not knockin’ it, but still…
LILLY: Get off the grift Roy…You haven’t got the stomach for it.
LILLY: That’s right. I just give you your life, what you did with it is up to you.
LILLY: Person who doesn’t look out for themselves is too dumb too look out for others.
LILLY: I gave you your life twice: I’m asking you to give me mine once.