The Grifters - Classic Film Pick
Stephen Frears’s 1990 masterpiece of neo-noir declares its shadowy intentions during a gorgeous opening credit sequence that features black-and-white photo stills of Los Angeles as a hotbed of lurking danger. A nighttime skyline switches to a stark picture of the famous concrete bed of the LA River. Elmer Bernstein's striking yet pensive musical score acclimatizes the viewer to the kind of sustained apprehension they will savor in a delightful way.
Based on the novel by Jim Thompson, "The Grifters" is about three types of con artists working at cross-purposes.
Producer Martin Scorsese's brief voiceover introduction informs us: "Around the country bookies pay off winners at track odds. It's dangerous when a long shot comes in, unless you have someone at the tracks to lower those odds."
Anjelica Houston’s Lilly Dillon is that person. Inside the track Lilly is all business in her oversized sunglasses, white wig, and a tastefully matching skirt and jacket. Lilly places a couple of big bets in order to lower the odds on a horse for her bookmaker boss Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle). In addition to her betting duties, Lilly has perfected the art of pocketing small amounts of money from Bobo over a long period of time. She feeds a false-bottom safe in the trunk of her two-tone Cadillac with cash. Lilly is a professional thief, one who has an eye aimed at a "long con" involving her son Roy (John Cusack).
Roy is a master of the short con. He hustles three or four hundred bucks a week with tricks that cheat bar tenders, unsuspecting suckers, and dice-playing soldier boys. Roy has amassed a sizeable nest egg, but it’s not the safest way to make a living. A baseball bat to Roy’s gut, courtesy of one very pissed-off bartender, nearly costs Roy his life. Lilly comes to her son’s rescue despite a threat from her boss. Bobo has a knack for violence, whether with a sack of oranges or a lit cigar. The visuals burn a spot in your memory.
While visiting Roy in the hospital Lilly meets Roy’s prostitute girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening). Cat claws come out. It’s plain that Lilly and Roy share an unseemly relationship. Lilly is so jealous of Myra she can taste it. She instinctively senses Myra is trying to run a con on Roy. The problem is, so is Lilly.
Anjelica Houston, Annette Bening, and John Cusack share a shining hour in Stephen Frears’s impressive career. Frears periodically splits the screen to provide a stylized vantage point for his audience. There’s plenty to savor. Hitchcock-inspired compositions complement the film’s unwavering tone of modern noir.
Although the movie recalls films by the Coen Brothers or the Dahl Brothers, “The Grifters” retains its source material’s voice in a thoroughly original way. Here’s a neo-noir you can never see too many times.