‘The Grifters’ (1990) Limited Edition reviewed

Stephen Frears’ adaptation of The Grifters, a hard-boiled tale of small time scam artists looking to get out of the life of the short con, arrives on Blu-Ray.

The tragedy and disappointment that marred much of crime writer Jim Thompson’s life continues to this day. Before writing this review I needed to double check a couple of things, so like all hard working writers dedicated meticulously to research I googled him. Jim Thompson the “dimestore Dostoevsky”, and early Kubrick collaborator, carved a path in pulp fiction by describing the psychological Hells of the various criminals, con men and pathetic psychopaths in his considerable body of work, is only mentioned once nearly halfway down on the first page of results. The other Jim Thompson who dominates the search results is a fabric magnate who mysteriously disappeared in Asia. This marginal online recognition of the author only contributes further to the bitter irony that permeated his life and his novels and which was captured most successfully onscreen in 1990 with Stephen Frears’ adaptation of The Grifters, a hard-boiled tale of small time scam artists looking to get out of the life of the short con.

John Cusack in The Grifters (101 Films)

You could not ask for a better pedigree of talent that was involved in bringing Thompson’s 1963 novel to the screen. Frears was brought on after Martin Scorsese decided to produce The Grifters. Scorsese, who has more than his fair share of credentials when it comes to all things noir, was looking for “the best unfilmed crime novel” and after getting Frears on board to helm the production they managed to convince crime writer Donald Westlake to write the script. (Westlake rose to prominence himself at the same time as Thompson and under the pseudonym Richard Stark created one of crime fictions greatest anti-heroes in the Parker novels, the first of which would go on to be adapted itself into the all-time classic Point Blank.)

Westlake’s script retains a lot of Thompson’s own dialogue and it is delivered expertly by its trio of leads in John Cusack, Annette Bening and Angelica Huston. The latter in particular, as Lily, mother to Cusack’s Roy, manages to capture the often breathless style of Thompson in a number of scenes where she schemes and self-rationalises her criminal and deadly actions; “I gave you your life twice. I’m asking you to give me mine once.” It is a great performance, one of the best in latter day crime cinema, showing equal parts bravado and fear for her life, particularly when she runs afoul of the greatly named Bobo Justus, a chilling character expertly portrayed by the usually warm and avuncular Pat Hingle.

Watching Cusack here as Roy is a reminder of how good he was back in the day, before getting stuck in the mire of direct to video thriller titles he finds himself in nowadays. He gives a spiky performance of someone who isn’t quite cut out for the life but still manages to deliver stinging dialogue. His delivery of the simple line “Thanks Mom!” in one early scene underscores the shall we say complicated relationship he shares with his mother. Bening in her breakthrough role as Myra, makes a fine latter-day femme fatale, all leopard print and breathy dialogue, not above demeaning herself to get what she wants or needs and earning herself an Oscar nomination in the process, as did Huston.

Frears love of pulp and respect for Thompson, shines through the film in every frame. Where another director may take the incestuous overtones between Roy and Myra into camp or straight out luridness. Frears avoids this concentrating on delivering a tough portrait of near Freudian relationships and the life and death stakes that result of the feelings that boil over because of them. The film is as hard boiled as they come. This is no light-hearted affair of con artists and the fun tricks they play to make a little money, this is crime fiction played out to the psychological extremes, not everyone makes it out alive and those that do find themselves running for their lives and from themselves.

101 Films have launched their Black Label imprint with The Grifters. It is a great choice as the film has never really had a decent home release before. The extras may be sparse but the quality makes up for the quantity with the inclusion of an original making of documentary that shows Frears, producer Barbara De Fina, editor Mick Audsley and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton recollections and views on the film and how it came to be.

1990 was a great year for Thompson adaptations. With this and James Foley’s After Dark My Sweet, a future Black Label release I hope, it brought the great author back into the spotlight giving him the clout and respect he rarely got when he was alive. Kudos to 101 Films for reminding us of The Grifters and Thompson’s darker than dark prose.


Brand New Extras

• Seduction. Betrayal. Murder: The Making of The Grifters: A brand new feature length documentary on the film’s production, including new interviews with director Stephen Frears, cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, editor Mick Audsley, executive producer Barbara De Fina and co-producer Peggy Rajski.

• Limited edition booklet includes: ‘Jim Thompson, Noir, and the Popular Front’, an essay by David Cochran, and ‘Elmer Bernstein: Grit not Grift’, a review of the legendary composer’s career by Charlie Brigden.

 ❉ 101 Films released ‘The Grifters’ on dual format on 21 May 2018, RRP £14.99. Order Direct from 101 Films: https://101-films-store.myshopify.com/products/the-grifters-limited-edition

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