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A superior thriller all around, The Grifters is the best of a string of Jim Thompson adaptations that followed the pulp author's literary rediscovery in the middle 1980s. Stephen Frears' tense direction succeeds in capturing much of the nastiness of the author's self-loathing, and the actors breathe life into dialogue that taps accurately into Thompson's hardboiled roots.
In the late 80s Savant finally started reading some of the source novels of his favorite film noir hits, enjoying Mildred Pierce and Love's Lovely Counterfeit, and Nightfall. Then Steve Nielson showed up with old and new copies of great little books by Jim Thompson, an author who seemed to be the Philip K. Dick of pulp crime fiction. Thompson's books were gripping good murder tales that either centered around outright criminals (The Getaway) or ostensibly normal citizens with horrid secrets to hide (Pop. 1280, The Killer Inside Me, The Nothing Man). Many were told as flawless interior monologues, from inside the heads of paranoid lawmen or compromised weaklings, and some indulged in experiments with the literary form that would (or should) dazzle snooty English professors. Hell of a Woman has a concluding chapter consisting of two interwoven lines of prose that psychotically mesh its hero's warped version of events with a more subjective viewpoint; The Kill-Off is a dazzling whodunit with a 'straight' story, but each of its chapters introduces the new first-person viewpoint of a different character.
Bertrand Tavernier relocated Pop. 1280 to French Colonial Africa with great success, but The Grifters brings Thompson and his characters back to the Los Angeles bars and racetracks that are their proper habitat. Far from glamorizing Thompson's criminals, screenwriter Donald Westlake shows them to be emotional cripples who believe themselves superior, as they skim their lives off the top of a sea of suckers. As conmen, they're experts at exploiting human weakness, but their untrusting, paranoid lifestyles make them unfit to live with, not even with each other. Roy thinks he's independent, when he's actually defensively insular, and his mother Lilly is a realist trying to find some semblance of tenderness in a life so confused that she's attracted to her own son - presumably the only human she could trust. The cold killer of the three is Myra, a golddigger with a heightened sense of her potency as a mantrap, and a ruthless drive to get hers, now, over any dead body that's convenient.
Thompson's nasty sense of self-hatred, and sardonic distaste for humanity in general seeps from each of his pulp novels ... you get the feeling that if he didn't have the outlet of spilling this bile onto paper, he'd kill himself. All three of the con artists in The Grifters are functioning misanthropes who in their own way manage to prosper, but Roy is the central Thompson character. He cheats and cons his way through the people he meets, erasing any hope of establishing a relationship with any of them. One might find out who he is, or recognize him from an earlier scam. Besides his secret cache of amassed loot, Roy cherishes the sick delusion that he is tapped in to the 'truth', superior to the stooges who work for a living. The perfect Thompson moment is in the morgue, when Roy turns from a dead body with a curious smirk on his face. It's all a fraud, he realizes, and nobody, not even the cops or the FBI, know the score except him. You can't help but think that Jim Thompson hated people and living, and writing these un-read, nasty books was his way of expressing his existential superiority.
But Roy labors in a rut worse than the straights he detests. Cheap $20 change tricks may deliver the thrills he covets, a dozen times a day, but in reality he's taking heavy risks for a paltry reward. He's building up a bankroll, but it's obvious that how he makes his money is more important to him than the money itself.
John Cusack's polite good looks and innocent eyes make him a perfect Roy Dillon; when he tricks some sailors on a train we see his chameleon talent at its best. Anjelica Huston gives Lilly a certain level of gravity - of the three she's been roughed up most by the underworld life, and she's emotionally hardened for it. It should be an exploitative gimmick to have her sexually attracted to her own son, but here it makes total sense. We like Lilly, and want her money skimming racket to work out. Her indentured status with the utterly horrible Bobo (a terrifyingly convincing job by Pat Hingle) is like a parody of the working-class life: ya can't quit, and the boss owns you body and soul. Her character's problem with incest is more complex than Evelyn Mulray's in Chinatown - both women are victims with an unreadable backstory, but Lilly's vice comes from within.
Annette Bening demonstrates a sex appeal that's only a few clicks away from pulling wings off flies. Myra does nothing for nobody that doesn't benefit Myra in the long run. Some of her best scenes are flashbacks of the big con she and Cole (J.T. Walsh in another topnotch supporting role) pull off, where she's dazzled by Cole's unnecessary risks, taken just to spice up the game. But she has a moment before attempting a murder where she looks in a mirror, that shows her to be anxious and stressed as well, as if her entire persona were built upon a necessity to suppress her cheap worthlessness.
Stephen Frear's direction is immaculate, and the art direction stylizes scenes without resort to generic 'neo-noir' visual cliches. Elmer Bernstein's great music reminds of the emphatic harshness of Gerald Fried's score for The Killing, another racetrack-oriented pulp story where Thompson's unmistakable dialogue takes center screen, but it also has playful, ironic turns that add to the proper hardboiled atmosphere.
Miramax'es Collector's Series Edition of The Grifters at first seemed unnecessary, as there was an earlier HBO disc with a good anamorphic transfer and menus that at the time were considered very fashionable - a voice spoke each option as it was chosen. At the time, the star bios also seemed a nice extra. The new disc has an improved transfer, but not so superior that fans only wanting the movie shouldn't snap up the old disc when it surfaces in used disc bins.
This new effort has two nice docu extras. A piece looking back at the making of the film shows the director and two out of three of the stars proud as punch over their work. Stephen Frears looks as though he was caught in his pajamas for his fuzzily-shot interview, with his hair an unexplained wild mess. Another okay short piece on Jim Thompson shows some great original paperback covers, and talks about the author's background and alcoholism to give a rounded picture of his misanthropy. It's no substitute for trying one of his books.
Both docus appear low-budget for visual quality, but are nicely put together. Like previous work I've seen from Miramax and several other over-controlling studios, the docu makers are uncredited, a career-robbing policy with corporate roots. Uncredited DVD producers give the impression that the shows magically appeared from the studio's 'creative team', as in the frequent, infamous Disney 'credit' acknowledging the great contributions of technicians and artists, without bothering to name any of them.
Those wanting the inside story will enjoy the commentary track with Frears, Westlake, Huston and Cusack. When they praise one another's work, it doesn't get overly fluffy.
There are also two still and artwork galleries.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Grifters rates:
Supplements: Feature Commentary track with director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Donald Westlake, actors John Cusack & Angelica Huston; two docus: The Making of The Grifters and The Jim Thompson Story, art and still galleries
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 8, 2002