“They probably had grifter parents and grifter grandparents and someday they’ll each spawn little grifter kids.” – Miller’s Crossing (1990)
This quote always makes me think of The Grifters (1990), a film that presents a world of confidence artists – people who gain the trust of their targets only to then fleece them of something valuable. Essentially there are two kinds of people in this world: the grifters and the people they con. The film takes it one step further and has the grifters con each other but muddies the waters with notions of family and love. Who can you trust? The answer is simple and yet hard-earned: no one.
Roy Dillon (John Cusack)
is a small-time operator working the short con, scamming bartenders and hapless
patrons out of chump change. His estranged mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) is a
mid-level grifter, working for a powerful mobster (Pat Hingle) at race tracks,
betting on certain horses to lower the odds. Roy’s girlfriend Myra (Annette
Bening) is a high-end grifter who works the long con – ambitious schemes that
swindle wealthy marks. All three have their established methods that work for
them except when they don’t as evident when Roy tries to scam a savvy bartender
who proceeds to hit him so hard with a club that he suffers serious internal
When Myra can’t get what she wants from a local jeweler (Steve Tobolowsky) she attempts to use her feminine wiles with no success. When Lilly fails to lower the odds more than she should have, her boss punishes her by stubbing out a lit cigar on her hand in an ugly display of power. Their lives all get complicated when Lilly decides to visit her son while on business in Los Angeles. There’s visible tension between them that goes way back. When Myra finds out that Lilly is a fellow grifter she sets her sights on the elder Dillon unbeknownst to Roy who is unaware that his girlfriend is in the game.
For years John Cusack had done a series of successful teen comedies and by 1988 was looking for more mature roles in films made by auteurs like Roland Joffe (Fat Man and Little Boy), John Sayles (Eight Men Out) and with The Grifters, British director Stephen Frears. Back then there was an innate likability to Cusack that audiences identified with but on this film, he dials it back in a much more controlled performance as a grifter that thinks he’s in control and can walk away from the life whenever he wants only to find out it’s not that easy.
Director Stephen Frears gives the film a timeless look. Even though it is set in 1990, it could easily be the 1940s as all three main characters do not wear any trendy clothing that would date them instantly. Even the dialogue treads the line between classic grifter lingo and contemporary speak courtesy of legendary crime writer Donald E. Westlake (The Hunter), who does a brilliant job of adapting Jim Thompson’s 1963 novel. He populates the film with snappy dialogue, such as Lilly and Myra’s first meeting when the latter says, “I’m Roy’s friend,” to which the former responds, “Yes, I imagine you’re lots of people’s friends.” He immediately establishes an antagonistic relationship between the two characters that starts off as playful verbal sparring but escalates when Myra finds out that Lilly is also a grifter.
The screenplay was initially developed at Disney where Scorsese had a deal and Donald E. Westlake went to work adapting the novel but the studio eventually decided not to back it. Originally, Westlake didn’t want the job but Frears told him the think about it terms of Lilly’s story as opposed to Roy’s and the writer agreed to do it. Cineplex Odeon agreed to finance the film but over the course of the production the budget gradually shrunk as the backers were going bankrupt.
When The Grifters concludes, we are left with a world of con artists that aren’t all that attractive. It can be a brutal and ugly world where people go insane, get killed on a deal gone bad, or go on the run, always looking over their shoulder. There’s a reason why Lilly has survived for this long. Years of experience of making mistakes and learning from them has toughened her up as evident from the final scene where she accidentally (or was it?) causes the demise of another character that ends the film on a decidedly dark note. The Grifters isn’t a cute, we-all-got-away-with-it ending like Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies, just people surviving any way they can even if it means killing in order to do it.
Van Gelder, Lawrence. “At the Movies.” The New York Times. August 31, 1990.