The Grifters

(USA - 1990)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening, Jan Munroe, Robert Weems, Stephen Tobolowsky, Jimmy Noonan
Genre: Crime/Film-Noir
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay: Donald E. Westlake, based on the novel by Jim Thompson
Cinematography: Oliver Stapleton
Composer: Elmer Bernstein
Runtime: 119 minutes

The strength of The Grifters is it hits so close to home. We are used to con men suckering outsiders, but here we have a love triangle of con artists that go to work on each other. Are they conning each other from the get go, or is it simply their destructive nature to con everyone, even the ones they supposedly love?

The central character is Roy Dillon (John Cusack), a small timer who seems more suited to be a magician and too nice to be on the grift. His favorite trick is bill swapping; he asks for change showing a $20 and then actually pays with a $10. It's an easy way to double your money, but not particularly lucrative and certainly not worth risking your health for. Roy simply isn't very good or diverse in his cons, but that makes Cusack the right choice to play him because his characters are always likeable and sympathetic.

Lilly Dillon is the wisest, toughest, and most experienced of the three. She's been working for the mob since she was young, mainly driving around the country and placing large last minute bets on horse races to change the odds in their favor. It seems that the main thing her experience has taught her is that everyone could be a victim.

Lilly comes to see her son Roy for the first time in eight years. He claims that he's straight, but she knows it's bull, especially when she notices he's near death (from a beating suffered during a bill swap gone awry). Lilly had Roy when she was 14, and was never any kind of mother to him. The mobsters used to joke that he was her little brother, but neither relationship justifies or explains the odd sexual attraction we sense between the two. Anyway, Lilly is the type that would never be around because she was too busy, but then would show up for 5 minutes and tell you how to run your life. By rushing Roy to the hospital, she's given him life for a second time, which in her mind gives her the right to try to do what's "best' for Roy. She would like to get him off the grift because she knows he's not suited for it and he's smart enough to be successful without hustling.

The other big change Lilly would like to make is getting rid of Roy's girlfriend Myra Langtry (Annette Bening). Her objection to her is the same as everyone else's; she is a whore. Myra used to find rich men and seduce them into a stock scheme she had with Cole (the late J.T. Walsh). The idea was they had a hacker who could delay the transmission of information from the Tokyo exchange to the New York exchange for 7 seconds. Thus, if something major happened and they had a lot of money on hand, they could put their transaction in just ahead of the big news. This flashback scene was hilarious because Walsh was on the top of his game, and he kept urging the mark to check out their room of mainframe computers that made it all possible. What made it funny is it was actually an unfurnished, empty room. Unfortunately for Myra, Cole lost his mind so she's down to using sex as/for currency any time she can.

It's hard to decide which of Roy's two major problems is the biggest. It may be that he's too sentimental or it may be that he's out of his depth with the two potentially ruthless con women. He sees them as wanting to win his love, but the only thing they really want to do is all costs. Actually, I think I know now. His biggest problem is believing he wants to be a con man because that's not what he really wants. What he really wants is someone he can love without having to keep his guard up at all times. If he was off the grift, he might be able to find such a person, but instead he associates with women that are similar to him only better at what they do. The major point the movie makes is that con artists can't trust anyone because the con or potential for it taints everything.

The Grifters is based on a novel by the late Jim Thompson, a blacklisted crime and noir writer whose credits include two Kubrick movies - The Killing & Paths Of Glory, The Getaway, and the supposedly great snoozer After Dark, My Sweet. Grifters really isn't about a grift, but rather a character study of three intertwined characters that grift for a living. Their actions bring them closer and closer to a deadly point, but in the end the movie is more about the depths the lifestyle leads the non-squares to. What's interesting about this is whether you'll feel they are the cause or effect of their career path, or perhaps that cause and effect are directly tied.

Grifters has its share of things that aren't going for it. I didn't like the pacing of the movie. Too much time was spent developing characters that weren't getting any deeper; it seemed more like muddling the waters. In particular, the screenplay seemed to be playing a big trick on us by setting everything up to go in the direction of a Roy & Myra partnership. Finally, when they leave this the last act flies by. The final scene was brilliantly done, but the previous key scene was dubiously explained at best. Bening, in her best role, isn't as annoying as usual. However, her over the top nature suggests characteristics that we never have any idea if her character really contains. Her character just seems way too ambiguous to me considering the movie is a character study. Huston is a fine actress, and particularly does a great job in the scene where she gets caught cheating the mob, but her looks don't fit this part at all. She's doesn't look hot, she looks a minimum of 10 years too old for the role.

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I can't see calling The Grifters a great movie, especially when a far more compelling and informative film about con artists, David Mamet's House of Games, came out just a few years earlier. However, Grifters has a lot of things going for it. Stephen Frears is a director who isn't afraid to have tales of deceitful passion end in tragedy, but knows how to keep multiple options open until the very end. Ultimately, what stands out about the movie the most is the tension. You know something insidious is eventually going to happen, but you don't know when, where, or what until suddenly there's a doomed confrontation. Even then, you might not know who is doomed until well after it's ended. There are good people all around Frears from the Martin Scorsese & Barbara De Fina production team that later did his most underrated movie, the western noir The Hi-Lo Country, to composer Elmer Bernstein, to performers Cusack, Huston, & Walsh who are all memorable in their roles.



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