Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

The Grifters (1990)

Dolores protested,] “Surely, you cannot think that—”

Think it?” Toddy shook his head. “I don’t even think that you’re trying to steer me away from my one chance to find the murderer. I don’t even think that I might find myself in trouble if I picked you up on that steer—if I tried to leave. I don’t think a thing. All I know is that hell’s been popping ever since I came to this house this afternoon, and you’ve been right in the middle of the fireworks. I don’t think a thing, but I don’t not think anything either. That’s the way it is…”

from Jim Thompson’s The Golden Gizmo

You don’t deserve a second chance. You won’t get one. You’ve messed up and you’re going to die. And even if you get a second chance, it’s only to allow you more time to suffer. Then die. I could be giving you this cheerful news because this month’s movie review is about a great, classical tragedy…. Uh-huh. No cigar. I could be starting out this way because I’ve just had a less-than-stellar day in the classroom and it has therapeutic value…. No siree, Bob.

Or I could be doing another film noir review…. Bingo! Welcome back to the world of small-time hoods, con men, scams, treachery, very dangerous women, and dead ends. Welcome to the world of The Grifters (1990). In this cynical masterpiece, directed by Stephen Frears and based very closely on the 1963 novel by Jim Thompson, Mother’s Day is a day of mourning.

A “grifter” is a short-con artist. Someone who travels constantly, building up a grubstake through hundreds of small-time swindles with names like the twenties, the smack, and the tat. Always a bare half-step ahead of the law; always a half-step from being the victim rather than the victimizer. In The Grifters, John Cusack plays Roy Dillon, a young short-con operator who’s been on the grift since he walked out on the mother who was too young and too caught up in her own “angles” to have time for a kid. When mom finally drops by to say hello, eight years later, Roy is on the verge of dying because of a mistake with a twenty-dollar bill in a bar.

Angelica Huston is top form as Roy’s mom, Lily. Lily Dillon’s playing with the big boys. She’s running playback for the Mob, illegally laying down big wads of cash on long-shot horses at the track to drive down the odds. For a life of crime, it’s almost job security. It’s even O.K. to steal a little from your employers. As Lily’s boss (played with an unforgettably sinister mix of charm and brutality by Pat Hingle) so magnanimously says, “A person who don’t look out for himself is too dumb to look out for anybody else. He’s a liability or he’s working an angle. Take a little, leave a little. If he’s not stealing a little, he’s stealing a lot.” Never one to play it safe, Lily is stealing a lot. She saves Roy’s life by hiring a Mob doctor whom she threatens to kill if her boy doesn’t pull through. Roy, unfortunately, has little reason to rejoice at his resurrection.

The Grifters is like a new game of Paper, Scissors, Rock, and Dynamite. Roy’s the paper, Lily’s the rock, the Mob’s the dynamite. Which leaves the scissors. Say hello to Myra, Roy’s girlfriend. In tandem, Myra and Lily make Scylla & Charybdis look like the Sisters of Charity. As played by Annette Bening in an Oscar-nominated, breakthrough role, Myra Langtry uses her body like a travelling salesman uses his smile. Where Lily is ruthlessly efficient, Moira is recklessly hungry. The men involved with her make the mistake of believing that hunger is sexual. Even Lily fails to take Myra’s full measure until it’s too late. Roy’s at the bottom of this food chain. That he still holds our attention down there is a measure of John Cusack’s acting ability.

As if the mix I’ve just described weren’t volatile enough, Jim Thompson’s story takes the mother-son relationship into even darker territory. Freud would have had a field day. Having a mom who packs a silencer, dresses to kill, and says things like, “You don’t know what I’d do. You have no idea” was something even Oedipus didn’t have to deal with.

Fleeting breaks in the grimness are provided by Henry Jones as the desk clerk in Roy’s hotel. He indulges in the kind of rambling monologues on the state of contemporary morals & civilization which endear some of us to life in the Big Town, and have made the careers of Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski.

In writing the screenplay, novelist Donald Westlake had the good sense to stick closely to Jim Thompson’s original story. Along with David Goodis, Charles Williams, Charles Willeford, and several others, Thompson picked up the tradition of the roman noir handed down by James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. Such writers, dismissed in their lifetimes as denizens of a literary sub-cellar, have had to wait for posterity to credit them with unique and powerful voices. Out of print for 30 years, publishers such as Black Lizard Press are re-issuing much of the work of Thompson et al. in expensive, trade-paperback editions. An original 25-cent Jim Thompson paperback from the early Sixties now sells for $300 in Vancouver used book stores. The irony goes even deeper. As was the case with many of the now-acknowledged B movie classics of the 40’s and 50’s, the most of the people who kept the faith with the creators of stories with titles like Shoot the Piano Player, A Swell looking Babe, I Wake Up Screaming, The Hot-Spot, The Burnt Orange Heresy, etc. were foreigners: the Finns, the French, the Germans. It was actually a young Finnish journalist who recommended Thompson, Goodis and Williams to me some 15 years ago. If you like Hemingway’s short stories, and old Bogart, Cagney, and George Raft movies, check out the Black Lizard boys. While you’re at it, rent a few videos to follow up on The Grifters: The Ashphalt Jungle (John Houston); The Killers (Stanley Kubrick); To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks); Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder); Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur); and The Third Man (Carol Reed).

Looking Back & Second Thoughts

Surprisingly, this film is not readily available through iTunes or YouTube. I could have sworn I had a copy, but seem to have been mistaken. My original review will have to do for now, but I’m definitely going to track down a copy The Grifters in the next couple of months to take a second look.

Movie Information

Genre: Drama / Crime / Film noir
Director: Stephen Frears
Actors: Angelica Houston, John Cusack, Annette Bening, Pat Hingle, Henry Jones
Year: 1990
Original Review: April 1996


Movie Posters on Pinterest

Self-explanatory. Endless browsing. They know what you’re looking at, so expect follow-ups in your mailbox. Try narrowing down your searches to cool stuff like Movie Posters Art Deco.

Indian Cinema

Some background notes, a list of recommended films, Historic Hindi Film Poster0-cards, and a syllabus for an introductory university course on Popular Hindi Cinema. The site’s author is Philip Lutgendorf, with additional contributions from Corey Creekmur.

Who do you read? Good Roger, or Bad Roger?

Roger Ebert posted this lengthy letter he’d received, comparing his critical writing on film with that of another critic, Dan Schneider. The comparison provides some fascinating insights into the different ways of writing about movies.

Films Worth Talking About:

le Bal du gouverneur (The Governor’s Ball), Stan the Flasher, The Krays, Atame (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down), An Angel at my Table, The Killer, Ghost, GoodFellas, Milou en mai (May Fools), An Officer and a Gentleman, The Nasty Girl, la femme Nikita, Pretty Woman, Cyrano de Bergerac, Mountains of the Moon, Wild at Heart, Total Recall, Dick Tracy, Metropolitan, Postcards From the Edge, La Gloire de mon père (My Father’s Glory), le Château de ma mère (My Mother’s Castle), Dances With Wolves, Edward Scissorhands, Home Alone, Godfather Part III, Green Card, Blue Steel, Celia, Strapless, The Two Jakes, Europa Europa, The Unbelievable Truth, The Comfort of Strangers, Come See the Paradise, Beautiful Dreamers

The Bigger Picture

Films: Coup de Torchon (1981); The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Double Indemnity (1944), Out of the Past (1947)


Books: Jim Thompson, The Grifters, The Golden Gizmo, Pop. 1280

The Word on the Street

The story has some very dark undertones. It isn’t just that Bening is trying to rope Cusak into the grifter’s way of life, or that Huston and her son Cusak have been estranged for eight years, or that Huston is skimming off the top while working for Bobo the Dangerous, or that Cusak is trying to minimize his cons. These themes are interesting enough in themselves and would add up to something resembling “House of Games.” But it’s a lot more Freudian than that. Of all the forms of incest in the nuclear family, mother-son incest is the rarest. And when it happens, or even when the impulse manifests itself, it’s a shocker. Huston and Bening, on first meeting, take an immediate dislike to one another and trade open insults. Bening: “I’m Roy’s friend.” Huston: “I imagine you’re a lot of peoples’ friend.” Bening: “Oh — NOW I see. Yes, in the light you look easily old enough to be Roy’s mother.” The hatred is based on a jealousy that only Bening is able to discern. Some outstanding script writing has gone on here.

Robert J. Maxell

1990 was a grand year for neo-noir, of the dozen + titles that came out that year, The Grifters sits atop of the pile. A superlative film noir that boasts class on the page and on both sides of he camera. Set in modern day Los Angeles, the story follows three cynical and sly con artists through a psychological fog of bluff, double bluff, pain, misery, manipulations and shattering developments. That the trio consists of a boyfriend, girlfriend and an estranged mother only darkens the seamy waters still further.
Los Angeles positively bristles with a smouldering atmosphere thanks to the work of Frears, Bernstein and Stapleton. Sexual tension is ripe, Westlake’s adaptation doing justice to Thompson’s novel, while the three leads – and Pat Hingle in super support – are on fire, bringing complex characters vividly to life as they trawl through the devilishly labyrinthine plot, adding biting humour and shallow savagery into the bargain.
A top draw neo-noir that doesn’t cut corners or pull its punches, from the split screen opening salvo to the pitch black finale, The Grifters delivers high quality for neo-noir fans.”


This is one mean movie. It seduces, wraps your arms around you, and they guts you and leaves you stunned. Directed with striking precision and focus by Stephen Frears (“Philomena”, “The Queen”), and written by Donald E. Westlake, one of the literary princes of crime fiction, and based off pulp author Jim Thompson’s pulpy novel, in a manner so intricate with detail, so hardboiled that it cracks under the weight of each step it takes, one twist of the knife after another.
It’s all too good to be true for this neo-noir, even when Martin Scorsese’s producing it. Then comes the actors – and my word, are they fantastic in their roles – John Cusack is sly yet undeterred in a role that is a slightly more edgier variation on Humphrey Bogart, with a cross of Lee Marvin, to boot; Annette Bening is simply drop-dead sexy as the woman who thinks she knows it all, yet is a timebomb waiting to explode. The real star of the show is Angelica Huston in a well-deserved Oscar nominated performance, perfectly balancing the ruthless, desperate act with a honest, focused, motherly concern that doesn’t feel cliché at all.
Who knew modern day, sunny Los Angeles and Phoenix can be the backdrop of so seedy a neo-noir, perhaps the best since Chinatown?”