The Grifters

(1990) director Stephen Frears
viewed: 07/01/10

The second film of my Jim Thompson films of 1990 double feature, The Grifters, is doubtlessly the best adaptation of Thompson to the “silver screen”.  Credit goes heavily to director Stephen Frears (The Hit (1984), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Prick Up Your Ears (1987), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), High Fidelity (2000), Dirty Pretty Things (2002), The Queen (2006)), but also to producer Martin Scorsese and the excellent cast: Angelica Huston, John Cusack, and Annette Bening.

Like After Dark, My Sweet (1990), the first film in my double feature, the story is lifted from its original present-day setting of the novel, 1963, and re-set in the film’s present, 1990, but in a very interesting tweak on reality, the film echoes eras not only of the present but a past even perhaps older than that of Thompson’s novel, using costume designs for Bening and Huston that echo of an older, more classical Hollywood, with headscarves and stylish dress, as well as the settings of the living locations of the characters, in older Los Angeles structures from a more classical era.  The effect is one of the present and the past merging, melding, in what plays out as an interesting theme, not just visually, but of the story itself, which feels not just something of a deeper 20th century, but of something more classical.  The story is downright Oedepian, a theme reaching back into antiquity, yet still full and alive of danger, transgression and taboo.

Cusack is a small-time, short run “grifter”, a term for someone who is a bit of a shyster, playing chumps for money with various different scams.  His are all small-time, but allow him to live well without a job, living outside of the regular working stiffs, the normal people of the world, whom they hold themselves above.  Huston is Cusack’s mother, from whom he took leave at the age of 17, an age only a tad older than when she had him.  She’s a grifter of a different sort, leaching off of a small-time mob boss, getting slowly fat.  It’s been years since they’ve seen one another, but a trip to a La Jolla racetrack brings her close enough to approach her son.

Cusack, in the meantime, has taken a nasty blow to the stomach that causes potentially fatal bleeding, while performing one of his short-term grifts.  His mother recognizes the severity of his illness and has him hospitalized.  Cusask, as well in the longer meantime, has taken up with Bening, playing very against type as a smart floozy, appearing in full frontal nudity that is strikingly strange considering that it’s her.  And she’s also on the grift, but traditionally on the bigger type than Cusack has been taught to believe in.

So the mother-son-girlfriend triangle is set, and it’s as poisonous and lethal as it comes.  The film gives each of the characters good room to develop, not existing purely as cliche “types” but as more wholly realized characters.  And the story and direction makes for more than a just “by the books” neo-noir.  If anything, this film is perhaps the finest of the “neo-noir” genre.

What’s interesting about “neo-noir” is that film noir is a style, not a genre, but as modern interpretations have adopted the style, it’s developed into a genre, not a genre to project on the past, but a genre of the (well, okay 1990 is 20 years ago, so it’s the past but I mean the original period of film noir) contemporary.  Frears strikes a truly wonderful nuance of past and present, self-aware, somewhat post-modern, but still deeply steeped in the traditons of the style and genre, something that straddles and rides the setting and story, and set in Los Angeles, as it is, in many ways the film makes sense, the city of noir, even in the modern era.

Frankly, I was duly impressed with The Grifters this time around, not only reinfocing my previous concept of the film, but of really admiring the work on its own.  It made me want to consider what some of the best films of that period really were/are and set in my mind, at least, that The Grifters may indeed be one of the best of its period.

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