Thursday, October 13, 2011

John Cusack Focus Continues: The Grifters Movie Review

The Grifters is a brilliant little hidden treasure of neo-noir. It’s a film that doesn’t find its way onto anyone’s ‘best of…’ lists, but it is worthy. I knew of its reputation and I’d seen it once before many years ago, but had almost no memory of it. Now I can’t believe what I was missing. If you’re a lover of film noir, The Grifters is a beautifully rendered cross between old-style noir and modern renditions of the genre.

That it takes place in Los Angeles is not only par for the course within the genre, but also integral to the specific thematic elements of the film. L.A. is a mixed bag of old and new. There’s neo-classical architecture juxtaposed with garish modernity. It’s a young city within the context of America, but with a storied history made to seem even older because of the presence of Hollywood, which is able to recreate any time period it wants. How many of the great noir pictures have taken place in southern California? From Double Indemnity to Chinatown and Blade Runner, the genre has plumbed the depths of the city.

The Grifters is based on a novel by the pulp writer Jim Thompson, several of whose books have been adapted into film noir, with varying levels of success. Thompson’s novel was adapted by the crime fiction writer Donald Westlake, who had done some motion picture writing previously, and ultimately received an Oscar nomination for the incredible adaptation, owing much of the credit to Thompson’s story and dialogue, much of which remained unchanged.

The story focuses on three main characters: mother and son Lilly and Roy Dillon (Anjelica Huston and John Cusack) and Myra Langty (Annette Bening), Roy’s lover. The rather audacious opening simultaneously follows all three, at times in three-way split screen, each engaged in separate cons. Lilly works for a big mob boss from Baltimore. Her job is to go to the track and make big bets on long shots to bring the odds down, reducing the liability should they win thus necessitating big payouts. Roy works a small-time con at a chain restaurant, and Myra attempts to pawn fake diamonds for the real thing. Bening plays the shill to perfection, expertly flirting with the bald and lanky jeweler (Stephen Tobolowsky, consigned to a lifetime of playing similar roles), making him believe that she herself had no idea her diamonds weren’t the real thing. Frears establishes what could be an iconic shot when, all at once, the three characters turn toward camera in their individual frames, and smirk a little before moving in for the kill. All at once, the frame unites the three characters in terms of their profession and actions.

Roy and Lilly are estranged, though a job in L.A. brings mother into town for a chance to see the son who left home seven years earlier without looking back. She spent his youth playing con games (“on the grift” in Thompson’s lingo), but Roy learned his trade from a mentor in the Midwest after leaving home. He learned two important rules he tries to adhere to: don’t work with a partner and only play the short con. Roy is small time. He rips off bartenders for $10 a pop, sometimes taking a baseball bat to the gut when he gets caught. That he’s such a low-level operator leads him to believe he can quit whenever he wants because he’s never in too deep. This is like the alcoholic who doesn’t drink enough to get sloppy drunk and thinks he can stop drinking tomorrow if he chooses. But rock bottom is unlikely to hit such a slow-moving lifestyle.

This is a noir that gives us not just one, but two femmes fatales. Lilly is an ash blonde trying to make herself look ten years younger than she is. She’s trying to be as smooth as Barbara Stanwyck as she maneuvers to get out from under the thumb of her abusive boss. The script makes it fairly clear that her interest in reconnecting with Roy is purely self-motivated and has little to do with the loss of her son, but the final scene of the film suggests much deeper feelings than she had any idea existed. Myra is the second. She has probably never met a man she hasn’t played in one way or another. Her sexual relationship with Roy is a long con designed to rope him into teaming up with her for a big money scam. It’s telling that Myra has some physical resemblance to Lilly, the implication being that Roy has an unnatural attraction to his mother, who was still quite young and attractive during his teenage years. It’s never made explicit whether or not there was ever anything tawdry between them, but Lilly, not above using anything in her arsenal to get what she wants, makes a pass at her own son when trying to get him to give up what is most precious to him. Myra, an astute observer of human behavior, knows perfectly well how to press Roy’s manipulation buttons when she senses something odd.

The film’s got a great script, chock full of pulpy hard-boiled dialogue that is completely self-aware:

I have seen women like you before, baby. You're double-tough and you are sharp as a razor, and you get what you want or else.”
“You talk the lingo. What’s your pitch?”
“Do you want to stick to that story or do you want to keep your teeth?”

These are just a few of the choice examples of the ridiculous, yet pitch-perfect lines sprinkled throughout Westlake’s screenplay. Frears’ direction is self-assured, bearing the marks of an experienced hand behind the camera. Frears came up working in British television, probably giving him the tools to work fast, making quick decisions. He had a handful of features under his belt before this project, including the rough, but stylish The Hit. Almost as good as the script is the acting. Huston is the old pro in the cast. Bening was still little-known and untested, but proves her mettle with a tough and fast performance. But it’s Cusack who is the most surprising. Roy Dillon is unlike any film role he had previously, and still different to anything he’s done since. It’s a one-of-a-kind part and Frears obviously took a big chance casting him, but it pays off. He’s got the boyish innocence to play the 25-year old, but he can also handle the tough talk. He plays dark and mysterious better than I ever would have imagined from the guy who was most famous for Lloyd Dobler and Lane Meyer.

The script, the directing and the acting are the big three that we notice on the surface, but so much credit for the film’s atmosphere has to go first to Elmer Bernstein, who provides a score that echoes classical Hollywood, principally because he helped create it, and also to production designer Dennis Gassner. His choices in terms of costuming, set design, and locations are what give life to The Grifters. If you look at Gassner’s credits as production designer, you’ll see a list of films that each have a unique visual style in terms of what’s depicted on screen. In that case, The Grifters is that rare example of a film that gets all the details, from acting to costumes, just right. When we think about the great films with any depth, we find the same care has been put into those details across the board. Frears’ film may have gone under the radar during the last two decades, but it deserves more attention than it gets.

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