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THE GRIFTERS ****
Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening, Pat Hingle, Stephen Tobolowsky, J.T. Walsh, Charles Napier, Xander Berkely. USA 1990 110 mins Certificate: 15
Released on Blu-Ray on May 21st 2018 from 101 Films: Black Label
“Life is a bucket of shit with a barbed wire handle” – Jim Thompson
Still arguably the most satisfying adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel, this marvellously caustic interpretation of 1963’s “The Grifters” has impeccable credentials: director Stephen Frears was hot off DANGEROUS LIAISONS, GOODFELLAS-era Martin Scorcese was among the high-profile producers (and also provides the opening narration), and three dynamic actors at contrasting, pivotal points in their career were perfectly cast in the title roles. Novelist Donald E Westlake, whose relatively rare forays into screenwriting include the still-underrated 80’s domestic horror THE STEPFATHER, expertly translated the twisting, mean-spirited narrative to cinema.
In one of the film’s few overtly showy stylistic touches, the central trio are tracked in the opening sequence via three-way split-screen, before their lives intersect. Perpetually boyish John Cusack makes a superb transition from likeably neurotic 80’s teen movie protagonist into complex adult roles, essaying a cocksure, charismatic small time crook in L.A., making around $400 a week from various scams and first seen pulling off the old bartender sleight-of-hand trick. One such grift lands him in hospital, where he is reunited with estranged mother (Anjelica Huston) after eight years. When not fiddling money at the racetrack for mob boss Pat Hingle (and pocketing plenty for herself), Huston strives to intersect the growing entanglement between her son and vivacious, unpredictable seductress Annette Bening, and the labyrinthine plot constantly pulls the rug out from under our feet as these three dedicate their time to outwitting each other.
Much of THE GRIFTERS is playful and fun, with marvellously bitchy banter between the ice-cool Huston and sexy livewire Bening – the latter, a relative newcomer in 1990, cannily exploiting typical male weakness to get what she wants and bringing considerable nervous energy to the unpredictable who’s-conning-who plot. Huston and Cusack heighten the incestuous undertones of their characters’ dysfunctional relationship (“You like to go back where you’ve been, huh?” jests Bening), with Huston even bringing a very specific physical touch to seemingly innocuous moments like dropping her car keys in a car lot. A whole host of exceptional character actors add colour to the supporting cast: Xander Berkeley, Stephen Tobolowsky, Charles Napier – plus David Lynch veteran Frances Bay amusingly overseeing the kind of low-rent Arizona motel that has so often been the backdrop for catalytic violence in modern American cinema.
As reflected by the evolving menace of Elmer Bernstein’s robust, old-school score, a pervasive sense of threat and dread ensures this visually sunny neo-noir maintains the tension of the original novel. Tracking its way to a bloodbath and a suitably sour end note, the film has a percolating intensity vital for any good Thompson adaptation. It’s particularly uncomfortable seeing an actor as amenable as Cusack hitting a woman, and a genuinely sinister sequence finds a distinctly intimidating side to veteran actor Pat Hingle, cast against type as an unpleasantly grinning gangster, subjecting Huston to an alarming assault involving a bag of oranges and a cigar. The tonal shifts throughout sustain a sense of unease, right to the closing scene’s sharp turn into full-blown tragedy – and the descent into Hell for its sole survivor.
Black Label’s welcome Blu-ray release of this well-regarded movie is accompanied by a terrific 70 minute documentary entitled “Seduction. Betrayal. Murder”. Although lacking contributions from any of the cast, it offers a vivid insight into the film’s evolution and production. Frears, cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, producer Barbara De Fina and others reflect on Scorcese’s role (he was looking for the best unfilmed crime novel), controversy surrounding Bernstein’s score, unused footage (including an early Steve Buscemi role) and the film’s ultimate home under the Miramax banner.
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