Sunday, December 05, 2010


A person who don't look out for himself is too dumb to look out for anyone else

By Edward Copeland
The best films grow in your esteem over time and that is the case with The Grifters, which debuted 20 years ago today. I liked the movie when it debuted, but each time I've seen it since, again most recently, it just gets better and better.

As I mentioned two days ago when I reviewed this year's The Killer Inside Me, this remembrance of The Grifters is the third time this year I've written about a film adaptation of a Jim Thompson crime novel (the third being After Dark, My Sweet). What I've found most interesting in comparing the three films is the approach to what time period they set them in. All three of the novels were pretty much set in the same era that Thompson wrote them: roughly the late 1940s through the early 1960s. In the film After Dark, My Sweet, it was updated to modern times. The Killer Inside Me, the most faithful adaptation in all respects, was a period piece that took place in the same era as the novel. The Grifters, produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Stephen Frears, takes the most unusual course of all by placing its tale in sort of a time limbo. The women dress as if they are in the 1940s, everyone drives cars that look like they're from the 1970s and John Cusack's character wears 1980s Armani suits and tries to pull off his initial short con at a Bennigans.

Then again, of the three Thompson novels I've read that were turned into films, The Grifters is the least faithful, even though the book is short. However, the changes make for a leaner, sleeker, better film. The nurse who appears fleetingly in the movie has a larger role in the novel and the movie makes no mention of the fact that Roy Dillon (Cusack) holds down a job as a salesman in addition to his part-time action as a hustler. They even changed the spelling of Annette Bening's character's first name from the novel's Moira to Myra. Still, the changes that the late screenwriter and crime novelist Donald Westlake made actually improves the film over the novel while the same cannot be said for the other two Thompson films I've discussed. There are a couple of weaknesses (and this may lead to spoilers for those who haven't seen the film or read the book). The novel makes a point early on of having Roy comment on the physical resemblance between his mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) and Moira (height, hair color, body type, facial structure), but you can't really say that about Huston and Bening. Also, Lilly is supposed to look young enough to be Roy's sister since she had him at 14, but Huston does look old enough in her nearly white wig to have given birth to Cusack, even though she actually was the right age in real life for the character. These are minor criticisms though because the performers, Huston and Bening especially, are so superb that it doesn't matter.
"Grifters got an irresistible urge to beat a guy who's wise. There's nothing to whipping a fool. Fools are made to be whipped, but to take another pro, who knows you, who has his eye on you, now that's a score."

Mintz (Eddie Jones), the grifter who schooled Roy on some of the tricks of the trade, tells him that in a flashback explaining how Roy got his start taking suckers. It's those cons that unite the three principals of the story, though each has a different approach. Roy is a solo artist who does the quick hit. Myra, especially back when she had a partner (J.T. Walsh in flashbacks) before he went nuts, prefers the long con with the bigger payoff, where you work someone over a long period of time before you take him. Lilly is almost a professional, working for Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle, in a frightening performance) purposely placing large amounts of money on horses with long odds to bring those odds down before the start of a race. Of course, she's also taking discarded losing tickets here and there and grabbing some winnings for herself to keep in a stash hidden in a compartment in the trunk of her car. She just has to make sure Bobo doesn't find out. He's not a forgiving boss.

Westlake's streamlining of Thompson's novel makes for a truly efficient film, aided by Frears' direction and Elmer Bernstein's great score which seems to accelerate the momentum as it goes on. In the commentary, Frears gives Westlake the credit for introducing the three characters through the brilliant tri-screen opening that perfectly sets up where Roy, Lilly and Myra are at this stage in their various nefarious careers. Lilly is the pro. She know exactly what she is doing, how not to get noticed, either by the authorities or (at least she tries) the unforgiving Bobo. Roy, the youngest of the three, has become pretty good at what he does, but he's still strictly small time and sometimes has the misfortune of getting caught by would-be marks. Myra, who works well with a partner, is a bit at sea on her own and finds herself relying on sex more and more often to get what she wants, even if it means banging her landlord (Gailard Sartrain) because she needs to hang on to what little cash she still has (and the roof over her head) or putting the moves on a geeky jewelry store proprietor (Stephen Tobolowsky). What separates Myra from Roy and Lilly is she is the only one of the three who has an air of desperation about her, though she tries not to let it show.

Fate more or less brings these three into the same circle. Even though Lilly is Roy's mother, they've been estranged for years, though when Bobo, who is based out of Baltimore, assigns Lilly to California tracks, she decides to look Roy up in Los Angeles. Myra and Roy have been lovers for quite a while. In fact, for a long time during their relationship, Myra didn't even realize Roy was in on the grift until they took a train trip and she spied him taking a group of young sailors (again dressed outside of any discernible period) in a common dice con called the "tat." (Look close: one of those young sailors is Jeremy Piven.) After that, she's always trying to get Roy to join her as a partner in the long con, to re-create the glories of her past, but that's one lesson Mintz emphasized to him in his tutelage: Work alone. Myra keeps trying though, comparing her institutionalized ex-partner and Roy, "I kissed a motherfuckin' frog and you're my prince." When it turns out that a would-be mark injured Roy worse than he thought, Lilly takes over and gets him hospitalized, that's when she and Myra meet and take an instant dislike to one another. They are like jealous lovers fighting over a man.

Unfortunately, because Lilly's maternal instinct chose this time to reassert itself (She tells the doctor she finally gets to take her seriously that he knows who she works for and if Roy doesn't make it, she'll have him killed), she missed some races she needed to cover and cost Bobo some money and Bobo doesn't like to lose money. He makes a special trip to the coast to mete out punishment. Anyone who has ever seen the late Pat Hingle in his countless roles, be it as Commissioner Gordon in the Tim Burton Batman films or countless television appearances such as the original owner of Cheers who comes back and tends bar for a night, they won't be prepared for his malevolent Bobo Justus. The scene isn't quite as explicit as it is in the novel, but if you've read it, you know what Lilly is in store for when he asks her if she has a long coat to cover her dress. His abuse is equal parts physical and psychological, making Lilly wrap up oranges in a towel and having her explain what happens if people don't hit others with them correctly, causing her to stutter in fear, then faking her out and letting her off with just a cigar burn on her hand. Then, everything's back to normal and he's having a friendly conversation with her on the veranda, even joking with her about if she's stealing that much from him and acting as if he doesn't mind and she's going along with it — because she knows she got off easy. "A person who don't look out for himself is too dumb to look out for anyone else," she tells him with a nervous grin. Lilly may be the pro of the three main characters, but she always has to be looking over her shoulder. Her paranoia is well justified, given her employer.

As I mentioned in the review of The Killer Inside Me, Westlake says that Thompson belongs to America's second generation of crime novelist, following his forefathers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, only Thompson, based a lot on the life he actually lived, was far more nihilistic than either of the earlier writers. Thompson also had a source that Chandler and Hammett didn't, Westlake pointed out: the early movies and film noirs as wells as the novels. Thompson though was a true crime novelist. It's a mistake to place his works exclusively in the noir column. Granted, I've only read the three books and seen Coup de Torchon, Bertrand Tavernier's 1981 film that transferred Thompson's novel Pop. 1280 to a 1938 French colony in Africa. Of all those though, only After Dark, My Sweet comes close to the usual noir trappings, and even that's by the loosest definition of the term. Thompson didn't play by the numbers in anything he wrote. Even though The Grifters concerns con artists, unlike the innumerable films about the subject there aren't the twists, reversals or set-ups you'd expect. The usual con artist tale can't help but get you wrapped up in the fun of the scheme, but The Grifters isn't that type of story. It's dark and unsettling; a character study where you can't be certain where the characters will end up. In one of the extras on the DVD, Frears told Westlake and others repeat similar ideas: Thompson wrote a Greek tragedy for the underclass.

What keeps this from being a grim undertaking is its stellar cast. Annette Bening had a few films under her belt before she made The Grifters (including Postcards from the Edge the same year and Milos Forman's Valmont, ironically playing the role Glenn Close did in another version of the same story Frears directed as Dangerous Liaisons), but her performance as Myra might as well have been her debut because from the moment she slinks into the film, a star is born. Myra doesn't just seduce the various men in her path, but the camera as well. She's sexy, funny and moves like a cat, earning a well-deserved Oscar nomination for supporting actress in the process. That Bening, Diane Ladd's crazy turn in Wild at Heart and Lorraine Bracco's work in Goodfellas all lost to Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost can be labeled nothing short of ridiculous. She's really what keeps some lightness in the film. It's as if her performance actually skips along in tune to Bernstein's evocative score.

In contrast, though he was the youngest of the three leads, John Cusack was practically a veteran, having made his film debut in 1983 in Class. Still, The Grifters marked a real turning point in his career, showing that he could play a different type of adult role. Aside from being part of the ensemble in John Sayles' Eight Men Out and a small but significant part in Fat Man and Little Boy, his roles were almost exclusively in teen romances and comedies, ranging on a realism scale from Say Anything and The Sure Thing to farces such as One Crazy Summer, Better Off Dead and Tapeheads. He even had that minor part in Sixteen Candles. He'd played leads before, but not like The Grifters' Roy Dillon. He really has to anchor the film between the two women, being a convincing lover for Bening and an estranged but still caring son for Huston. Cusack pulls the role off perfectly. When the film reaches its climax and one of the women tries to pull off an unbelievable lie (and perhaps go even further to pull it off), he excels at the shock and torn feelings he has at the moment. In another scene, where he's called to make an identification and realizes it's not who it's supposed to be, he gives the perfect sly, small grin, just enough for the audience to catch, but out of reach of the authorities.

Which brings us to the magnificent Anjelica Huston. Five years after her father John directed her to an Oscar for her killer supporting performance as Maerose Prizzi in Prizzi's Honor and a year after she scored a second nomination for her delightful turn as one of Ron Silver's wives in Paul Mazursky's Enemies, A Love Story (the same year she played Martin Landau's mistress in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors), Anjelica stepped up to lead with her stellar Lilly Dillon. She lost to Kathy Bates in Misery (a mistake in my opinion, not that Bates hasn't deserved the prize at other times), but Huston's Lilly is a wonder. She's a tough cookie but like most cookies, she can break. It's difficult to point out how great she is because she gets the toughest scenes to pull off but to describe them in detail, except in cases such as the Bobo scene, would be spoilers for those who haven't seen the film. In the vaguest terms possible, Lilly is a survivor and she will do whatever it takes to prevail. The ends always justify the means for her, even if they're accidental or emotionally destructive. As long as Lilly lives another day, she'll live with the consequences. The way Huston plays Lilly, she's hard to get a beat on except in those moments when her entire being is an open wound and her body completes her tasks by instinct. There's a shot in the film where Lilly takes the elevator in the hotel where Roy resides that makes it appear as if she's descending into Hell, at least that's what Frears says his intention was. I don't buy it. Lilly Dillon was born in Hell and has resided there her entire life. The Grifters, on the other hand, isn't remotely hellish as far as film experiences go. It just gets better with age.

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A fine, fine review of this outstanding film, Ed. It remains one of my favorites, and as you state, only gets better with age. The great Donald Westlake produced a magnificent script for Director Frears. Although, I'm of the opinion that by the film's finale, all three of the characters go to Hell. Literally and figuratively. Thanks so much for this.
Excellent review for a great neo noir. As le0pard13 pointed out, this film has aged very well and the rather nihilistic ending is probably what hurt its commercial prospects but is truer to the source material.
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