So after seeing Serie Noire, I thought I was probably ready to make a "Jim Thompson on Film" article, when it suddenly hit me: I don't have The Grifters on the site. And while I said that Serie Noire was perhaps the best at capturing Thompson's really harsh and morbidly comic moral complications, this one is perhaps best at everything else. Everything here just works, and although I have seen this many time before, I had the rare pleasure of discovering it's actually better than I recalled.
We open with a quote from Rodgers and Hart which I suspect is there for the sole purpose of providing a definition of "Grifter," that is, small-time crook. We then have a fairly fabulous credit sequence featuring black and white photos of 60s Los Angeles, and Elmer Bernstein's excellent, pulpy score. Now, this novel was written in the 60s, and the story is a very 60s story, and one of the things the movie successfully does is have it both ways in terms of time period: You have a few 90s touches like a Bennigans restaurant and mobile phones, but the interiors, the decor, the fashions and the cars are all very 60s, so you aren't distracted that it's taking place in a distant past, yet it's also right at home IN that past. Nice solution!
So we open with our three characters, Lilly Dillion, played by Anjelica Huston [who was nominated for best actress for the role], Roy Dillon, her estranged son, played by John Cusack, and Myra, played by Annette Bening. We see the three of them in a three-way split screen, and at a certain point they all turn around to face the camera at the same time, dark glasses deployed. I was all set to wonder at the marvel of timing that would have these three continuous split-screen shot timed to have them all turn around at the same time, but to my disappointment, there's an edit. So mom Lilly is working the race tracks and skimming a little for herself, which she keeps in her car trunk. Myra is trying to sell knockoff jewelry and if that doesn't work, her body. Roy is very small time, doing little schemes that might make him $10 at a time. He is caught at one of these, and a bartender butts him in the ribs with a baseball bat. He goes home and has a remembrance of the man who taught him all the little small-time schemes he knows. Myra, it turns out, is dating Roy. One of the things you're supposed to understand is that neither Roy or Myra know that the other is a grifter, too.
Lilly is sent to L.A. and stops by to visit Roy. Lilly had Roy when she was 14 and they grew up posing as brother and sister. He hasn't seen her in eight years and there doesn't seem to be a lot of love lost. She sees that he is seriously injured and calls an ambulance. I definitely recall the moment, twenty minutes in, when you know this movie ain't kidding: Lilly turns to the doctor, who is saying that there's only so much he can do, and seethes: "You know who I work for. My son is going to be all right. If not, I'll have you killed."
Lilly meets Myra at the hospital and makes no bones about the fact that she hates her. It's funny a few scenes from now when Myra is walking out of the hospital and Lilly nearly runs her down, honking loudly for Myra to get out of her way, and dropping her keys in front of Myra so as to bend down and present Myra her ass. One thing the movie leaves us to pick up on our own is that Myra and Lilly look very much alike--i.e. he picks a girlfriend that looks like his mother. Note also the "misunderstanding" at the hospital in which Roy mis-hears his mother as offering him sex. Anyway, Lilly can tell that Roy is on the grift, and she wants him to get out, not end up like her. She also wants to be recognized for saving his life, and for giving him his life by being his mother. But Roy is so bitter at her, all he wants is to owe her nothing, and be completely separate from her. I started re-reading the book, and this whole aspect is more clear: Lilly was a total hardass on this son she didn't want growing up, and when Roy would come home with a broken arm from bullies at school, would say "Only one arm? I don't know what you're whining about. It could have been two." But as she grew older, her feelings changed and she started to care about Roy, but by that time it was too late, and one piquant piece of dialogue that didn't make it into the movie is when Lilly is asking for recognition as his mother, and tells him she's breaking his heart. "Only one heart, Lilly?" he responds. While we're on that topic we should note that many of the best exchanges from the novel are brought with minimal change into the movie.
SPOILERS > > >
So when Huston really starts to earn her Oscar is when her boss, Bobo Justus, shows up. Lilly sees him and essentially shits a brick, knowing he wouldn't be there if she weren't in trouble, and that will likely result in some severe pain on her part. She finally breaks down in driving him to his hotel, confessing that she fudged a payment to him because she was busy taking care of her son. "A son?" he responds. "What are you doing having a son?" One of the best chilling lines is when he asks her if she has a long coat to wear home--i.e. she will be bruised from head to toe. He makes her get down and wrap oranges in a towel--we learn that this will cause severe damage and bruising, but without serious internal damage--and see Lilly nearly paralyzed in terror as she does so. He eschews the oranges, but gives her a nasty cigar burn on her hand. Later Lilly has to be grateful she got off relatively easy, and when Bobo tells her to take care of her son, it has the edge of him having discovered a new way to hurt her. That's Jim Thompson, folks--it's a nasty world in here! Actually, a lot of the big show moments of Thompson's novels are like this--they get their power from when you realize precisely HOW harsh and nasty his world is.
So, out of the hospital, Myra and Roy go away for the weekend. She sees him conning some sailors at cards, and realizes he makes his money through crime--remember when I said they didn't know each other is a criminal? Now she tells him to drop the act, and she wants to work together. She describes her past criminal work, which was a scheme almost entirely unique to the movie that includes an extravagant faked death. She wants to partner with Roy, and this is when he thinks "Woah, I'm not sure I trust this lady." When they return, Myra, presented as the least scrupulous of all of them, follows Lilly to the track and sees her stash of secreted money. When she again sees Roy and he tells her, in a great speech straight from the novel, that he won't work with her because in fact she scares the hell out of him, then beats her and tells her she disgusts him [it's one of the nastier breakups], we know that her knives are way out and she'll stop at nothing to destroy him--and Lilly.
< < < SPOILERS END
Well, I’ll leave you to discover the ending on your own. Only a few things to point out. Notice that the physical similarity between Lilly and Myra is never explicitly called out, but a plot twist near the end entirely depends on your having noticed it. At the end, the thematic element about a possibly incestuous attraction between Roy and Lilly is brought into the open, and watch how at a key moment the characters are positioned and camera angled to make it look as though they are having sex, though they are actually next to each other. Smart filmmaking! What a refreshing surprise not to be treated like an idiot and actually expected to pay attention!
All in all, one of the best Thompson adaptations, or quite possibly the all-round best, even if others might excel in certain areas. Everything here works, the story and characters are hammered into a good shape that can be adequately handled in a two-hour movie, and the central ideas and moments are in there. Everyone is quite good, although Cusack is, at his age at the time, just the tiniest bit out of his depth. Bening also could be just a shade less self-conscious. But Huston nails it. The movie ends with one of those moments where the thrill comes from just how very cold and low-low-down the characters can be, and Huston makes her final moments in the film so cold they’re genius.
So since watching this movie I have re-read the novel and one thing that must be said is that Donald Westlake did a brilliant job of turning the wide-ranging construction of the novel into a tight screenplay, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. For example, a lot of the character information is spread throughout the novel and emerges in small bits, but he is able to shape it into compelling chunks of information and dramatic situations suitable for a movie. He also wisely eliminates [well, reduces to a cameo] a whole character who simply wouldn’t have worked in the film, and barely works in the novel as it is. Sure there is some really obvious exposition [“Bobo knows about the money in the car—the money you stole from him!”], but hey, what’s a writer to do? When you read the novel you realize what a challenge it must have been. Westlake is an accomplished crime writer in his own right, and wrote the novels that became the films Point Blank, Payback, and Godard’s Made in USA.
Anyway, a quite good film of low-lifes trying to make their way, their twisted loyalties and how quickly they can turn on those closest to them. If you like that kind of thing, this has it done with professionalism and wit.
You sure should, especially if you’re a Thompson fan or just like movies about criminals.