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THE GRIFTERS (1990)
Starring: Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening, Pat Hingle
Directed by Stephen Frears
Nominated for four Academy Awards:
Best Actress, Anjelica Huston
Best Supporting Actress, Annette Bening
Best Director, Stephen Frears
Best Adapted Screenplay, Donald E. Westlake (based on the novel by Jim Thompson)
Film noir, two words that beautifully describe so many films we have come to love. You couldn't think of such films as THE MALTESE FALCON, CHINATOWN, THE THIRD MAN, KEY LARGO, PEPE LE MOKO and countless other films without being reminded of what category they fall under, the genre of film noir, or 'black film'. THE GRIFTERS, Stephen Frears masterful story of three cons and their spiral downwards from their gritty world of professional crime, certainly belongs in an impressive list of classic film noirs.
The story revolves around three con artists, or grifters, who know the business inside and out. Roy (Cusack), is a small time hustler who doesn't rise above the radar and is an independent grifter, conning unsuspecting folks into card games which are of course fixed, and pulling a few hand tricks while paying tabs (he waves a twenty in a bartenders face, while a ten is tucked nicely underneath). He enjoys the small time life, saving quite a bit of money that he keeps hidden behind a picture on the wall. He keeps his identity as a hustler away from his new hooker girlfriend Myra (Bening), who low and behold is a grifter herself and yearning for the days of pulling big heists on unsuspecting tycoons. For years she was taught under the best teachers around, and for a decade had a good con going with partner Cole (J.T. Walsh). But the stress got to him after awhile, and he was ultimately institutionalized, but that didn't keep Myra from continuing on with a life of crime. She wants the good old days back, and when she finally discovers that her new boyfriend is not a salesman as he proclaimed, she offers that they be partners and hit it big. But Roy is adamant that he prefer to work alone, not trusting the flamboyant but lethal bombshell Myra.
At one point Roy says to himself, Who can a boy talk to if not his mother? And what a mother he has. Lily (Huston), works for boss Bobo (Hingle), as a who goes from racetrack to racetrack all over the country pulling big time scams for her highly temperamental boss. But she at one point observes that only a sucker wouldn't keep a little extra cash for themselves, and Lily does just that with the money she collects for Bobo. Except she dips her finger into the pot a little more than she should, and stashes it away in the trunk of her car. She meets up with her estranged son after an eight year absence and soon enough starts in about his cheap nickel-and-dime operation, that he could be bigger. Unfortunately, Roy isn't to keen on listening to Mom talk about crime, as he was recently caught trying to scam a bartender, who decided to put the end of a baseball into Roy's gut. Lily rushes him to the hospital where her and Myra meet on a rather sour note.
Roy soon enough grows tired of Myra's constant nagging about teaming up and ditches her all together. Myra, not big on rejection, discovers that Lily is pulling a fast one over on her boss rats her out. With Lily on the run, and believing that she is the reason Roy isn't interested in teaming up, she follows Lily with the intents of killing her. Sorry to say that one of the women ends up with a rather nasty facial make-over thanks to a pistol. But of course our story doesn't end there, and I won't give away the finale, which has to be one of the most tragic, intense and gripping climaxes to any film to come out of the 90's.
Where to begin with praising the film? I suppose I should start if with the dynamic performances by the three leads. Huston, at this stage in her career getting better and more commanding with each passing performances, gives a stunning femme fatal performance to a very complex and jaded woman. Lily is willfully trapped by her lifestyle, knowing no other, and is only interested in her well being. She is a woman who takes chances and has fierce determination, but though she is a unique force onto herself she can still be the victim. In one of the films most stomach churning moments, Huston's boss Hingle meets up with her and is very upset about a botched operation at the horse track earlier in the day. He brings her back to his hotel where he violently strikes her to the floor, and than orders her to get a towel from the bathroom. As she does, he knocks over a bag of oranges onto the floor and orders her to place them in the towel and roll them up. As she does this, he tells her to explain the effects of what happens when a person is beaten with a towel full of oranges. If done right, a few bruises and nothing more. If done wrong... well, the tone of her voice as she trembles with fear explains enough. Huston is brilliant in the part as the aging woman who attempts to be a mother to a son who rejects her and her advances, smelling a con a mile away from the bright blonde haired woman. Like her co-stars, she maintains this cool, smooth talking arrogance about the life of a grifter. It is a stunning performance and one that should have won her a second Oscar (adding to her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for PRIZZI'S HONOR).
Cusack is in fine form here, playing a person who is both strong mind and willed, but still possesses a sensitive side that separates him from the rest. He isn't emotional, but he is caring in his own unique way. Bening is a lot of fun, as she walks around in skimpy outfits, giggles like Goldie Hawn and speaks a lot with body language. But don't let her sweet girl turned slut fool you, she is a dangerous and conniving woman, and Bening's performance is delightfully over-the-top, yet laced with slick and controlled anger and brains. If Huston leads the film, than Bening is the one who makes sure it doesn't stop going.
The story itself is handled with incredible care, with some thought provoking intelligence put into each character, their background and their current situation. We learn about the world they inhabit instead of merely watching them, and it zeros in and puts everything under a microscope that we can't help but feel respect for the lives they lead since they are so damn good at it. The movie is about immoral characters and the deception they inflict on one another, but never themselves. Each has their own distinctive and original personality, and the complexity of each performance demands the audiences respect and attention. The underlying of incest between Roy and Lily for example is superbly played out but never exploited for dramatic purposes, but only that of intrigue and understanding of why he might be repelled by her.
Stephen Frears, hot off the success of 1988's DANGEROUS LIAISONS, creates the ultimate atmosphere with the help of cinematographer Oliver Stapleton (THE CIDER HOUSE RULES), and editor Mick Audsley (who has worked with Frears on several films). They create this seedy and dirty world with the brilliant use of yellows, reds and oranges to give the overall effect a sleazy feel to it. Characters who lurk in the shadows with splashes of colors surrounding them is something stunning to watch. Though visually the film is memorable as well, it still never loses its humanity, no matter how tainted the characters are.
Each of these three people are sketched out beautifully, but never resemble a human being. They're flesh and bone, red blooded folks, but they are like no one you'll ever see onscreen again. And it is those performances, mixed in with Frears taut direction that make this film a cynical, satirical and dark movie that is edgy and entertaining all in one. The film succeeds because it depicts an abyss in the souls of each character.
My Grade: A+