Starring: John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening
Directed by: Stephen Frears
The Grifters is a film that makes you fully aware you’re complicit in your own seduction. It shows you the ace being palmed, the trapdoor in the floor, and that there are no balls under any of those cups, but still you nod and grin stupidly as you’re fleeced blind. It’s a film whose characters sizzle in their own amorality, but they’re recognisably human and Stephen Frears pulls off the best long con of all; getting us to root for these flawed, corrupt people who would be villains in most other movies.
The story follows a trio of con artists and how their lives intersect. Roy (John Cusack) is strictly low-level. He wishes to remain practically invisible and sticks exclusively to low-stakes works that amount to petty fraud. His mother Lilly (Angelica Huston) is a veteran scamster for a gangster bookmaker, fiddling the odds of horse races. Roy’s girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening) was involved in the long con game; but has fallen on a hand-to-mouth existence; resorting to sexual favours in lieu of rent. When Lilly and Myra meet, it sparks a triangle of distrust, bluff and double cross.
The story itself is pure pulp, as you would expect with it being adapted from the hard-boiled pen of Jim Thompson, the tough, spartan stylist who wrote The Killer Inside Me. Having Martin Scorsese on production duties and a screenplay from crime specialist Donald E. Westlake hardly hurt its modern noir credentials either. Any melodrama inherent in the plot structure has been kicked out of it, like an unlucky punter in an alley behind a crooked bookie’s
Frears himself seems a less obvious choice for the material, with the British director’s most high-profile work previously being the lush period adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons. However, a closer look at that film demonstrates an affinity not only for the nuances of character, but a knack of getting the viewer onside with some irredeemable shits. His films may have become a little safer in their subject matter in recent years (The Queen, Florence Foster Jenkins, Victoria & Abdul), but the focus on character has remained.
The director does a tremendous job of keeping the taut central conceit interesting: with whom does the sympathy of the audience lie when all three are untrustworthy, avaricious ne’er-do-wells? Roy’s an inveterate cheat, even though he isn’t that good at it. Lilly’s been an absent mother and a long-time con artist; but has undoubtedly been subjected to repeated trauma in the past and continues to suffer at the hands of mercurial mob boss Bobo (Hingle). Myra is the most calculating of the three; using her natural charm like a hidden stiletto. When the targets of her previous jobs are oil barons and their ilk however, you grudgingly go along with it.
Undoubtedly the strongest aspect of the film is the grudge match between Lilly and Myra, played to the hilt by Huston and Bening. There is a real streak of Greek tragedy running through The Grifters like a pulsing artery, as poor, dumb Roy finds himself caught between the weird Oedipal overtones of his newly resumed relationship with his mother and his new dalliance with the vivacious, aggressively sexual Myra. As the antagonism escalates, Lilly flits between a tragic Jocasta and vengeful Medea. Both actresses fully deserved their Oscar nominations, with Cusack more or less crushed to powder between a rock and a hard place in terms of performance. Huston just about edges it with a brilliant performance that finds every nuance in Lilly’s predicament. Given her other roles at the time, this was a display of unusual vulnerability. In The Addams Family, Morticia never once loses her ghoulish poise, and in The Witches she’s aggressively stentorian throughout, in the great traditions of Roald Dahl’s female monsters. Here, there’s a coiled desperation visible through the occasional cracks in her cool demeanour.
With such dazzling displays front and centre, the work of Frears himself almost takes a back seat such is the dominance of his two female stars. What he does do however is transfer a classic noir tale and places it in streaming sunshine. With nary a cloud in sight, it increases the tension. There are no shadows in which to hide. These grifts must be carried out in plain sight. All the grit, amorality and the murk of the genre has been retained, and laid bare beneath the gleaming sun. Despite updating Thompson’s story to a contemporary setting the film also has a timeless quality, with only the extremity of the violence and Bening’s frequent nakedness an obvious indicator of its modernity. Perhaps its 1990 release is a happy accident, as being just before the prevalence of mobile phones and the internet, such technology doesn’t feature here. As such, the story could have taken place convincingly in any decade from the 30’s onward.
It’s not without its flaws. It’s unlikely that Roy and Myra fail to recognise a fellow con artist in each other, until Myra catches him fleecing some sailors. Such is their awareness and focus on the next job that it doesn’t quite ring true they would let their guard down with each other. Also, once Huston and Bening are let loose at each other, any scene where neither is present feels like a slight void, despite the best efforts of Cusack.
Overall however, The Grifters is an oft overlooked thriller that deserves not only reassessment, but acknowledgement as piece of minor brilliance that plays tightly within genre confines, yet colours outside the lines enough for it to feel vital and fresh. Frears may be something of a journeyman, but this is a standout moment in his eclectic back catalogue.
• Limited edition booklet includes: ‘Jim Thompson, Noir, and the Popular Front’, an essay by David Cochran, and ‘Elmer Bernstein: Grit not Grift’, a review of the legendary composer’s career by Charlie Brigden
The Grifters is now available to buy from 101 Films Black Label.