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The Grifters (1990) – DVD Review


Written by: Donald E. Westlake, based on the novel by Jim Thompson
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Starring: John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and Annette Bening


  • Commentary with director Frears, screenwriter Westlake, actors Cusack & Huston
  • The Making of The Grifters
  • The Jim Thompson Story
  • The Grifters scrapbook

Released by: Miramax
Region: 1
Rating: R
Anamorphic: Yes

My Advice: Own it.

[ad#longpost]To con or grift someone is to manipulate their trust and their greed. Roy Dillon (Cusack) isn’t greedy; he’s content running short cons, quick tricks that earn a few bucks here and there. Those bucks do add up and he’s has a comfortable lifestyle and a sexy girlfriend, Myra Langtry (Bening). Things start falling apart appropriately when a disgruntled victim of Roy’s expresses this displeasure with a baseball bat to the stomach. This is followed by a visit from his mother, Lily (Huston), a woman Roy doesn’t trust since she’s been on the grift as long as he can remember. Her presence stirs up old and very complicated ghosts of the past. Then Myra reveals that she used to be the roper (person who brings the victim to the con) for the best conman in the business. He retired (to a mental institution) and she wants Roy to be her new partner. Of course Myra and Lily hate each other and are in competition for Roy’s attentions. Roy doesn’t want to play, but he may not have a choice. In a deadly triangle like this, there will not be a happy ending.

The Grifters is a modern classic. I can think of very few films where the acting, the directing, the writing, and the look are done well and work well together to the extent it all does here. The acting by Cusack, Huston, and Bening is near flawless. Everything they do, the way they carry themselves, their facial expressions, and their voices are perfect for their characters. And you can feel that they are putting everything into their portrayals. It’s easy to see how this film got Cusack out of Teen Movie Limbo and got Bening noticed by Hollywood as a talent.

Screenwriter Westlake did a masterful job of cutting out everything that couldn’t work on film and leaving us the core of the novel with its dark spirit and sharp dialogue. Frears gives us a masterpiece of film noir even in the sunshine of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles he creates is timeless: women in 40s dresses driving 70s automobiles around 50s architecture. His use of long scenes with one camera allows the audience to focus on the action without being distracted by any cutaways. I’m only scratching the surface; you really have to see the movie to get a sense of how good it is. Watching The Grifters is an emotional roller coaster ride: you’re exhausted from the twists and turns, but at the end you feel a sense of catharsis.

Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening from The Grifters
Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening

The DVD features help the viewer get a better idea of the creation and production of this film. The making-of featurette goes into how Westlake was initially wary of adapting the novel and how Frears rejected his first draft completely. The talk about the casting is especially interesting since at one time they were considering Sissy Spacek and Cher. What’s nice about the featurette is how it doesn’t feel like a commercial when the cast and crew say how great it was to work with everyone. The Jim Thompson bio gives a brief look into this tortured man’s life and how he tried to exorcise his demons through his writing and it was only recently that people recognize the value in his ‘pulp’ novels.

The commentary is very good because while you hear from Frears, Westlake, Huston, and Cusack, they aren’t in the same room so they don’t interfere with each other’s thought process. There must have been some cleanup because they come off a lot more coherent than the usual running commentary. The group gives insight into what was going in the movie and their role in it. I had two problems, though. It’s a shame that Bening either couldn’t find the time to take part in the commentary (or had demands which couldn’t be met). Also, Frears kept mentioning various scenes, mostly flashbacks, which were cut from the movie to make it tighter and flow better. But why weren’t the deleted scenes included on the DVD? If you’ve got the content, why not include it?

John Cusack from The Grifters
John Cusack and friends

Besides these two omissions, the disc is most worthy. If you have any interest in great cinema, buy it.

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