The Grifters

January 28, 2012 9 Min Read

Review by: Christopher Bligh

Plot: What’s it about?

It was picking up a copy of Premiere magazine that I noticed these three people in a poster with a film about tricks, survival and conning. It was even more noticable when one was nominated for a Golden Globe and through it all came a film in a big year for films, 1990. It tells the tale of a mother, a son, a hot number and all three looking for a piece of the action at their lowest point. It’s setups without confusion, it’s the games these three people play and they are The Grifters.

Welcome to the world of the con game. There’s Roy (John Cusack), who makes his way with the old switcheroo of money, a young little number named Myra (Annette Bening) who uses her body to get what she wants and Lily (Anjelica Huston), an older woman who plays with the odds at the racetrack and reports to a shady character without a long shot pulling off the big one. But at this point, Roy wants to get out, Myra wants to move up and be partners wit Roy and what stands in the way is Lily who just happens to be Roy’s mother and its that connection that will play an angle that will change the lives of all three of them.

Usually these days when the big movies come out with a noirish element, there are umpteen twists and an ending so confusing that it takes days, and even months to figure it out and even repeat viewings can add on to the confusion. It’s been fifteen years since the release of this film and it was at a time when the twists were more subtle, the mood was gritty and straightforward and the performances flowed so well that anything extra would throw the entire movie off.

The Grifters seems to be lifted from a late forties, early fifties film noir that gets away with a little bit of color but manages to utilize the shadows, the eye lighting in the darkness and the bleak mood that the films of that genre and time were able to capture so well.

Here we have three central characters (the second of three consecutive Stephen Frears films that utilize that with Dangerous Liasons being the first and Hero being the third) all of which are at the low point of what they do best and what angle they play with each other with the results being slightly better or slightly worse.

Lily, wonderfully played by Anjelica Huston, is tough, can spot a loser a mile away and puts her life on the line in the name of her son. Along the way however, she notices competition and proves no one can get around it better than her. Which brings on the up and comer Myra, another winning performance by Annette Bening, who has her own story of how she got into this mess of grifting and how there’s a part of her that would want to block it out for good by plotting a way with her boyfriend’s mom. Roy, a superb John Cusack, on the other hand had a big wake up call given to him when one of his tricks falls flat and it’s through this that the other 2 women don’t know if it’s a ploy for them to be scammed or if he truly is looking to get out with as much as he can.

This film not only has one of the most solid scores of any film of it’s type (thank you Elmer Bernstein) but also has a most unique intro for all three of our characters as well as a lead in narration at the beginning by one of the producers on the film to set the film in motion.

At just under two hours, The Grifters has the right balance of backstory and present day activity to fit a lot of info into one picture and all three score very well as well as the dialogue and the direction (which were well deserved their year).

Video: How does it look?

This is the second release of The Grifters in the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Unfortunately, I don’t have the original release to fall back on but with this release the transfer has a solid picture with a few hints of grain but not much. The print remains pretty clean with the lighting and the blacks hitting the right visual notes along with little hints of color keeping the right balance without letting the colors bleed. The look is a bit warm and it holds up well throughout.

Audio: How does it sound?

The Dolby Digital Surround Sound track makes good use of balance between Donald Westlake’s dialogue and Elmer Bernstein’s score along with the effects thrown into the mix. The outer channels get to the meat of the score and of the effects while the front and center keeps the dialogue clear and easy to understand and makes good use of the surround track whether its the random helicopter noise or the ring of a telephone and that voice at the other end of the phone. Overall, a fairly good track. This disc also has a French Language track along with English subtitles.

Supplements: What are the extras?

The Grifters has been expanded to Collector Series status with this release beginning with a feature commentary track with director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Donald Westlake and cast members John Cusack and Anjelica Huston and here’s a track that rarely has a gap and has a lot to say about the making of this film. Some informative highlights include slight insight into author Jim Thompson’s life as well as who almost landed in both female roles before Huston and Bening came on board. Well balanced scene by scene and a very good commentary.

Also on board is the 17 minute Making of The Grifters which is grittier than the source material in looks but has a lot of info, along with some facts that were gone over in the commentary and once again, it’s the kind of repetition that a viewer (especially this one) doesn’t mind hearing again.

After that is the shorter piece, The Jim Thompson Story, where we here from the biographer and Donald Westlake into some insights about the author of The Grifters as well as incorporating similarities from the film and his life in all. A decent featurette.

Finally, there is The Grifters Scrapbook showing publicity stills and pictures during the making of this film.

Sadly, the film’s theatrical trailer is nowhere to be found so the “Who’s Conning Who” promo is featured more prominently in the Scrapbook section

A nice edition to the Miramax Collector’s Series, The Grifters with it’s pulp dialogue, it’s gritty mood and it’s film noir touches manages to not only be a fine film in itself but a worthy DVD at the same time.

Disc Scores