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The Grifters (1990, Anjelica Huston, John Cusack)

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More powerful then Matchstick Men but without the humour of Ocean’s 11 , Stephen Frears’ awesome drama The Grifters puts the con back into convincing. Con man Roy Dillon (John Cusack) maintains a persona as a salesman in Los Angeles, and is being pestered by his lover Myra (Annette Bening) – who is unaware of his deception – to enliven their relationship.

She soon gets her wish when Roy is attacked after a scam goes wrong, causing internal injuries. At the same time, Roy’s mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) re-enters his life and insists he get the best medical treatment, paid for by the funds she’s been skimming from gangster Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle).

Guessing that her son has followed the family business, Lilly tries to persuade him to go straight, and attempts to sever his love affair. Angry and bitter, Myra plans her revenge by guessing Roy’s real identity, and pleading with him to finance an audacious scam she learnt from a former lover. It marks the beginning of the end for all three of them…

Long before Stephen Frears silenced the doubters with his majestic adaptation of High Fidelity he took on novelist du jour, Jim Thompson. Of the three Thompson movies that year – alongside The Kill-Off and After Dark, My Love , this was easily the best, a rare example of great source material augmented by sheer talent.

Frears strength is to tell a complex tale very simply, injecting a darkness that weighs down his cast without once losing coherence or credibility. But this is a team effort, and Donald Westlake’s script – adding here, truncating there – is the exemplar of intelligent adaptation, although the writer gives Thompson the credit, claiming, ‘to update it, all you have to do is take their hats off.’ They were both helped by Martin Scorsese, who worked as producer, watching the dailies and barking the odds from New York while shooting continued in LA.

On screen, it’s a dead heat between Cusack and Huston. He is bitter and broken, she dominant and scheming, and the unspoken but palpable sense of incest lends their relationship a Shakespearean depth as seen with that great dissembler Prince Hamlet and the wayward Gertrude and Bening also excels, showing all the duplicity and determination that would make American Beauty such a joy. Also watch out for an early appearance by Pamela Anderson, cast here as a hooker. We’re saying nothing more.

production details
USA / 110 minutes / 1990

Director: Stephen Frears

cast
Anjelica Huston as Lilly Dillon
John Cusack as Roy Dillon
Annette Bening as Myra Langtry
Jan Munroe as Guy in bar
Stephen Tobolowsky as Jeweler
Jimmy Noonan as Bartender
Richard Holden as Cop
Henry Jones as Sims
Robert Weems as Racetrack Announcer
Michael Laskin as Irv
Eddie Jones as Mintz
Sandy Baron as Doctor
Lou Hancock as Nurse
Gailard Sartain as Joe
Noelle Harling as Nurse Carol Flynn
Ivette Soler as Maid
Pat Hingle as Bobo Justus
Paul Adelstein as Sailor – Young Paul
Jeremy Piven as Sailor – Freshman
Gregory Sporleder as Sailor – Spooney
David Sinaiko as Sailor – Stinky
Jeff Perry as Drunk
Jon Gries as Drunk’s Friend
Charles Napier as Gloucester Hebbing
J.T. Walsh as Cole
Teresa Gilmore as Receptionist 1
Elizabeth Ann Feeley as Receptionist 2
Billy Ray Sharkey as FBI man
Frances Bay as Arizona Motel Clerk
Xander Berkeley as Lt. Pierson
Micole Mercurio as Waitress

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