ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Grifters (1990) dir: Stephen Frears Blu Ray & DVD (101 Films)
This adaptation of Jim Thompson’s crime novel focuses on three interrelated characters who are involved in their own respective “grifts” (scams). Lilly Dillon (Anjelica Huston) works for the financial benefit of a crooked bookmaker named Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle) by participating in a horse racing odds rigging scheme. However, she has her own little side hustle by way of stashing some of the winnings in a hidden compartment underneath the boot of her car. Her son Roy (John Cusack), meanwhile, is involved in lower level tricks such as switching bills when paying for drinks at bars. Roy’s girlfriend Myra Langtry (Annette Bening), on the other hand, uses her most valuable asset - her sex appeal - to buy her way out of trouble.
When Roy is caught plying his trade at a particularly rough bar, the infuriated owner hits him in the stomach with a baseball bat, resulting in him being afflicted with a potentially fatal case of internal bleeding. Lilly, being the concerned mother that she is, pays for him to be given hospital treatment. However, when she and Myra meet face-to-face in the ward, there is an instant animosity between them. Lilly attempts to persuade her son that his sexy girlfriend is no good, even going to the lengths of bribing a nurse to try to seduce him, but he decides to reject her overbearing ploy.
As time goes on, Roy begins to learn about the underlying motivations behind the tensions between the two most important women in his life.
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An acclaimed yet overlooked neo-noir
Stephen Frears’ neo-noir crime drama received mostly strong contemporary reviews and was nominated for 4 Oscars at the 1991 Academy Awards (for actresses Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening, Frears himself and screenwriter Donald E. Westlake). Despite its widespread contemporary acclaim, however, it has become rather overlooked over the years, especially in comparison to the ostensibly similar films of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese (I mean Scorsese as director; he produced this one and also contributed an uncredited piece of opening narration).
Theoretically, there are at least two reasons why The Grifters isn’t discussed in the same breath as the likes of Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction. Firstly, while Stephen Frears is undoubtedly a talented director, unlike Tarantino or Scorsese he isn’t an auteur with any distinctive personal stamp running consistently throughout his work. Secondly, the films of the latter two generally feel like flashy modernisations of the crime drama and neo-noir genres: Tarantino adopts a kind of self-conscious referentiality towards the wider world of cinema and pop culture, whereas Scorsese opts to string out his films with a slew of fancifully-staged sensationalist scenes in order to wow the critics year in year out.
The Grifters, on the other hand, doesn’t draw as much attention to itself, a split-screen opening sequence which simultaneously introduces the three main characters notwithstanding. It is stylish in a way which truly hearkens back to the old film noirs of the 1930s to 1950s. Okay, so the black-and-white cinematography of old has been replaced by colour, albeit using a distinctively citrus red-orange-yellow palette to match the bittersweet (mostly bitter, come to think of it) relationships between the main protagonists. The violence is also more gruesomely graphic, naked female flesh is on full display (courtesy of Bening) and some strong swear words are used. However, the hardboiled dialogue, Elmer Bernstein’s moody jazz score and the doom-laden atmosphere of nighttime streets, lit up by car taillights peeking through the blackness, are distinctively redolent of that bygone era of cinema. The script positively drips with an air of cynicism and thinly-veiled malice, a classic example being the exchange of snidely catty remarks between Lilly and Myra when they first meet each other.
Human beings behind the con game
While John Cusack gives a decent performance as a cocksure young upstart in the con game, it’s the two leading actresses who are the main show here. Anjelica Huston brings out the different facets of her character superbly, be she an intimidatingly tough mob woman whom you don’t want to mess with, a pathetically vulnerable human being when threatened by a bigger fish, or a mother who is unhealthily overbearing towards her son’s life choices. Annette Bening is also superb as the type of unabashedly slinky, unashamedly trashy yet entirely self-aware vision of female sexuality who could believably bring just about any hot-blooded heterosexual male to their knees within seconds. Her performance was modelled on archetypal film noir screen siren Gloria Grahame - an actress whom Bening would later portray in the 2017 biopic Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Several familiar character actors also pop up for a few minutes worth of screen time each. The most memorable of these supporting cast members is Pat Hingle, who makes for a truly terrifying thug during one particularly wince-inducing scene of violence.
All in all, The Grifters is a truly involving and ultimately tragic portrait of the fundamental impossibility of maintaining much-craved human relationships when the participants are all inherently untrustworthy individuals. Tellingly, the various scams here, while slickly portrayed, are kept somewhat opaque in terms of their mechanics. It’s not the art of grifting that’s the raison d'être behind the film, it’s the human beings who practice it.
Runtime: 110 mins
Dir: Stephen Frears
Script: Donald E. Westlake, from a novel by Jim Thompson
Starring: John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening, Pat Hingle, J. T. Walsh, Charles Napier, Stephen Tobolowsky, Xander Berkeley, Martin Scorsese (opening narration)
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Those warmly-coloured visuals really jump out of the screen in the Blu Ray format. There’s a little grain on some of the darker shots - but it’s only brief. That Elmer Bernstein score sounds wonderfully booming and ominous here. A job well done on the restoration here.
The lavish paperback-styled booklet entitled The Grifters: Who’s Conning Who? features two essays. The first, Jim Thompson, Noir, and the Popular Front, by David Cochran, takes a look at the writing career of original novelist, including an examination of how his worldview was shaped by his radical leftist background.
The second, Elmer Bernstein: Grit not Grift, by Charlie Brigden, examines the legendary composer behind the film’s soundtrack. His career is indeed fascinating to look back on: he was “greylisted” during the early 1950s for writing for a pro-Communist journal and could only score independently-made films such as the notoriously bad Robot Monster (1953). However, the ban was lifted after a few years and he ended up becoming a big name in Hollywood due to his work on The Ten Commandments (1956). Since then, his career choices have veered all over the map, from westerns such as The Magnificent Seven (1960), through such weighty classics as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), to fondly-remembered comedy fare like National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and Ghostbusters (1984). His work on The Grifters (1990) also resulted in him collaborating with Martin Scorsese on a number of occasions.
Seduction, Betrayal, Murder: The Making of The Grifters
This 71-minute documentary features interviews with various personnel involved with the production, including director Stephen Frears, executive producer Barbara De Fina and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton. Although long by the standards of a making-of feature, it holds the interest incredibly well throughout. While the narrative was focussed squarely on Roy in the novel, it was shifted heavily towards the women in the film - something which attracted the initially reluctant Donald E. Westlake to adapt it for the screen. The budget was cut repeatedly during production as the backers (Cineplex Odeon) were running into dire financial straits at the time.
Various actors and actresses were earmarked at different points, with Melanie Griffith being the initial choice to play Lilly. However, her then-husband Don Johnson persuaded her not to take the role. While actor Pat Hingle is believably intimidating as a mobster type in the film, he apparently found it hard to play his violent scene as he had long been used to being typecast as generally good-natured characters. Some scenes were also shot with Steve Buscemi (who became better known thanks to his involvement in Reservoir Dogs two years later) but ended up on the cutting room floor. Frears moved around parts of Elmer Bernstein’s score so that they accompanied scenes other than those which they were intended for - something which initially upset the highly-venerated composer.
The timeless look of the film was achieved via a process called “bleach bypass”, along with subtle production design decisions such as ensuring that all of the cars seen in shots were bulky American models.
While this is the only extra on the disc, the quality level more than makes up for the lack of quantity. The only slight criticism here is that the Elmer Bernstein soundtrack playing over the top of the interviews occasionally results in them being drowned out.
The Grifters is an outstanding film which has never quite been given the full credit that it is due. 101 Film’s package bestows it with the treatment that it really deserves.