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.