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GRIFTERS, THE (director: Stephen Frears; screenwriters: from a book by Jim Thompson/Donald E. Westlake; cinematographer: Oliver Stapleton; editor: Mick Audsley; cast: John Cusack (Roy Dillon), Anjelica Huston (Lilly Dillon), Annette Bening (Myra Langtry), Pat Hingle (Bobo Justus), Henry Jones (Simms), Michael Laskin (Irv), J.T. Walsh (Cole), Ed Jones (Mintz), Charles Napier (Hebbing), Stephen Tobolowsky (Jeweler); Runtime: 114; Miramax Films; 1990)
“A love triangle among grifters (con artists), that plays out as a film noir morality tale.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A love triangle among grifters (con artists), that plays out as a film noir morality tale. It is adapted from Jim Thompson’s hard-boiled 1950s book, as the British director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons) sets the action in contemporary Los Angeles. It follows the trail of three grifters. The main story is about 25-year-old Roy Dillon (Cusack), who is a small-time con man who does nickel-and-dime jobs but saves his money and has built up a large nest egg. He is the one the two women fight over, and is the only one who is worth saving in the film. His 39-year-old mother, Lilly (Anjelica Huston), is someone who has been a terrible mother. She works for the Mob in Baltimore by pulling a playback scheme at the racetrack–which involves manipulating the odds so that the bookies will maintain a profit no matter which horse wins. She also would like to leave the Mob, but can’t. Her tough demeanor and artful ability to survive, are what keep her going. Roy’s sexy but dangerous girlfriend is Myra Langtry (Bening), who for ten years worked as a sex lure to hook businessmen into a deadly broker scam in Texas and is now looking for that type of bigger action again. These three can’t trust one another, as they are thrown together by strange circumstances and are reduced to trying to hustle anyone.

This modern film noir story is a forceful look at how evil all the grifters are, as they go from crimes of cheating to killing. The film is marvelously acted by Anjelica Huston, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. It also has a tight script by Donald E. Westlake.

In the opening scenes, Roy gets punched in the stomach by a bartender who catches him working a money changing scam. Roy gets change for a $20 bill and then switches to a ten dollar bill. At the same time, Lilly has been sent by her nasty boss Bobo (Hingle) to work the Los Angeles track. When Lilly shows up at Roy’s fleabag hotel to see what he’s been up to after being estranged for many years, as he went to live on his own when he was just 17, she meets Myra there and the two instantly hate each other. Lilly is not fooled by his talk of being a salesman, and lectures him on the negatives of being a grifter: “You either go up or down, sooner or later. Usually down.” She also notices how badly hurt he is and rushes him to a hospital just in time for emergency treatment to save his life.

At the hospital Lilly meets Myra again, and the two battle for the attention of Roy. Roy has been so damaged by his callous upbringing, that he treats both women with contempt. Firstly, refusing Lilly’s offers of help with money and maternal advice. Secondly, turning down Myra’s bid for him to go partners with her in the stock scam. Roy views them both as being unable to love someone else. Myra is desperate for another partner. Her former partner, the one who taught her the ropes, Cole (J.T. Walsh), has cracked and is now in the prison mental ward.

The story builds in violence and perversion and shocks, and by the climactic scene the untalented grifter, Roy, who believes he can leave the business any time he wants to, has to face his crafty mother in an Oedipal situation. He’s no match for the mother who never wanted a kid, but raised him when she was only a kid herself at 14. What she now exerts over him is a dominating will, as their strained relationship becomes both sad and comical. It’s a gritty melodrama that doesn’t leave you with much to think about afterwards. The film could have been better served with a more spirited actress than Bening, who’s best asset is her body. While Cusack seemed to not fit what a noir character should be like, as he seemed to be more like a guy who was just trying to be a good grifter rather than someone with a dark side. He looked like he would have fit more into a sports theme film than this one. But the film still works as a modern film noir vehicle, as the script didn’t have depth but it provided a full blast of cynicism and shocks that played effectively into the dark plot.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”