The Grifters Review

One of the absolute best films of the nineties gets the oranges from Optimum.

What a wonderfully nasty piece of work The Grifters still is. Released in 1990 and featuring a host of talent both in front of and behind the camera, this is a film where the bad things happening to bad people are tempered with a deceit and hurt you can only find in that line of cinema we call noir. It’s neo-noir, to be sure, but it’s also one of the very few post-1970s American pictures to understand why film noir, beyond simply being a stylistic bolt of lightning on the crime drama landscape, relied on a foundation built around the specific malaise which came with a postwar society stripped of its innocence. The Grifters is updated – in length, budget, and content – for a late 20th century audience but its main details would have been equally ready for most any decade from the ’40s onward. Celebrated pulp novelist Jim Thompson’s book of the same name was published in 1963, and his adapter Donald Westlake, no stranger to this genre, allowed The Grifters to be largely timeless. The art direction took care of the rest. The film’s grittiness seems entirely foreign to its decade, a time when the only halfway reverential noir updates were typically found playing on premium cable and going almost direct to home video instead of earning four major Oscar nominations.

Indeed, it’s surprising to now consider The Grifters as a somewhat lauded beast of the awards season, earning deserved recognition for the performances of Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening, director Stephen Frears and the adapted screenplay by Westlake at the Oscars. (Lest we ever forget, that was the year Martin Scorsese, who was also a producer on The Grifters, Francis Ford Coppola, Barbet Schroeder and Frears were all defeated for the Best Director statue by Kevin Costner.) Again, few movies of this era in this vein can touch The Grifters, but I still wouldn’t have counted on that level of contemporary recognition. Almost twenty years on and the film, and I can’t take the auteurist path of ownership to call it “Frears’ film,” holds up beautifully. Lead John Cusack gives his character Roy Dillon an impish and cocky sense of undue confidence, but you can still recognize the demons. They’re in the whiff of incest with mother Lilly (Huston) and the jaded but still disappointed reaction to Myra (Bening) revealing herself as favoring the long con. The audience knows better than to get too attached to Roy (or any of the characters) but we can’t help sort of admiring his self-sufficiency, the exception being, of course, Lilly’s repeated chirping that she gave him life on two separate occasions.

The first of those was his birth, when Lilly was just 14, and the second happens early on after a favorite con of Roy’s involving switching a $20 bill for a $10 note when ordering drinks at the bar goes bad. What next unfolds among Roy, Lilly and Myra is steeped heavily in tragedy. While the film never fully reveals its hand before it has to, the mood throughout is ominous, and it’s difficult to imagine a happy ending on the other side of the rainbow. The intended irony of exactly what does happen to Roy and Lilly takes on a painfulness that comes with the territory of anything noirish and of merit. In a typical film, Roy might be the bad guy operating on the fringes of the law instead of our protagonist, a guy slowly grifting his way to thousands of dollars hidden inside sad clown paintings in his Los Angeles hotel room residence. That Donald Westlake’s screenplay allows for the viewer to feel some impact in the fates of these relative lowlifes is, I’d argue, one of the real strengths of the film and the original noir cycle it clearly respects.

The terms “pain” and “beauty” combined in most any way encapsulate so much of the specialness of noir. You could take the Mitchum-inspired route from The Night of the Hunter and substitute L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E but I think it’s really closer to the fleeting attraction so often given to beauty and the accompanying hurt one experiences from pain. This is why nihilism doesn’t work in noir. There must be some sense of the ice chipping away before disappointment (or worse) follows. Noir is failed romance and the playground of burned idealists. In The Grifters, Cusack’s Roy finds himself involved with not one but two ladies destined to double cross. The feelings harbored for Lilly are obviously uncomfortable for him, and while the film dances around this point as much as it can without explicitly providing details, there seem to be definite incestuous ideas, perhaps even experiences. This too, in addition to the obvious mother-son dynamic, makes the final two scenes The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.(of Roy’s death and Lilly driving off in the night air with that inescapable weight on her) especially tragic. Lilly trips down the line from wounded and determined survivor to a devil figure in red, shown descending to her own personal hell.

Huston plays Lilly as a vulnerable yet tough mother figure whose animal-like survival instincts make up for any deficiencies in the brightness department. She doesn’t immediately show the danger of the character like Bening’s throwback to the femme fatales of the past, particularly Gloria Grahame whose purr we hear from Myra as she coolly tells Roy at dinner about an earlier scheme pulled with a con man named Cole (the always perfect J.T. Walsh). But Myra’s motives certainly drip of self-interest while Lilly’s can be harder to figure and, thus, fascinating to see unfold. Nothing in the film suggests Lilly has the indiscriminate calculation of Myra. Sure Lilly has skimmed from her powerful boss Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle, bringing the full amount of terror possible for just a single scene), but there’s no violence in her actions. There isn’t a late night attempted pillow smothering in a cheap motel room. And, yet, Lilly has stayed afloat throughout the years. She’s resilient. We can’t be sure what her past has involved, but Huston sells Lilly to us so well that we’d believe most anything about her. Aside from the brilliant storytelling, all around strong performances, and a nifty Elmer Bernstein score, it’s those extra spinning wheels in your mind which make The Grifters flat out great. So much is on the screen and so much more isn’t.

The Disc

Optimum has released The Grifters on Blu-ray using a single-layer disc encoded for Region B. The film is presented in 1.85:1 and exhibits no damage in the print. My point of reference was previously the R1 Miramax Collector’s Series edition, which is afflicted with too much noise and overall fuzziness in appearance. Optimum’s high definition offering is an improvement in comparison, though it’s really closer to how a good standard definition release should look rather than the expected dazzle of a Blu-ray. Some mild noise persists and sharpness is still less crisp than one would like. The film looks to have been shot with quite a bit of natural lighting and interiors here are prone to looking dark with very modest levels of detail. Some edge enhancement can also be seen at times. This transfer is more disappointing than definitive, but when you consider the relatively low price and superiority to the DVD releases (plus the current unlikelihood of Miramax/Disney putting out its own version) this disc might be worth having to fans of the film.

Audio offers a choice between an English LPCM mono track and a DTS-HD 5.1 option. My ears preferred the mono here. The DTS-HD track comes across as forced and unnatural, struggling to supercharge something perfectly fine without any boosting. Bernstein’s ace score and the rest of the dialogue-heavy soundtrack comes through more cleanly with the mono mix. Volume is pleasantly strong and consistent. While I’m grateful Optimum included both audio options, that doesn’t lessen the continued disappointment in the company’s practice of omitting subtitles.

It’s also hard to understand why Optimum neglected to include the bonus material from its earlier Special Edition DVD, duplicated from the R1 Miramax release.

clydefro jones

Updated: Sep 12, 2009

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