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The Grifters: Collector's Series

Sometimes called the "dime-store Dostoyevsky," influential pulp novelist Jim Thompson had an unerring talent for letting his readers inside the minds of his characters — characters who were often paranoid, conflicted, and usually had deeply Freudian mommy issues. The public's hunger for pulp crime in the 1950s was good to Thompson, who wrote 16 books in that decade, starting with 1952's intensely creepy The Killer Inside Me, a hard-boiled first-person account of a pathological killer (which was transformed into a tepid 1976 film starring Stacy Keach) and ending with The Getaway in 1959. Like many successful novelists, Thompson found work toiling behind-the-scenes on Hollywood scripts, most notably for Stanley Kubrick on The Killing and Paths of Glory. A sheriff's son from Oklahoma, Thompson never was a Hollywood bigshot. However, according to Robert Polito's excellent 1995 biography of Thompson, Savage Art, the writer "loved the idea of Hollywood, especially the old Hollywood that endured around such vintage establishments as Musso & Frank's Grill. But he never understood the workings of the film industry, never would be mistaken for an insider." He worked on TV series for awhile in the '60s ("Dr. Kildare," "Combat!") and saw big-screen adaptations of his novel The Getaway in addition to The Killer Inside Me. But the real swell of interest came after his death in 1977, with the '80s and '90s seeing adaptations of his books Pop. 1280, Kill-Off, A Swell-Looking Babe (adapted as Hit Me), After Dark, My Sweet, and a re-make of The Getaway. The best of the bunch is The Grifters (1990), adapted by crime writer Donald E. Westlake, produced by Martin Scorsese, and directed by Stephen Frears. This dazzling piece of stylized, modern film noir follows three "grifters" (i.e., con artists) embroiled in an ill-fated and creepy love triangle. John Cusack is at his best as Roy Dillon, a small-time conman who nickel-and-dimes his way around town pulling $20-bill switches on bartenders. Dillon is torn between two women: Myra Langtry (Annette Bening), a sticky-sexy grifter who's a lot harder and colder than Roy realizes, and his mother, Lily (Anjelica Huston), a lifelong grifter who had Roy at 14 and abandoned him. Both women want Roy's talents and his love — and when they meet in Roy's hospital room after he runs afoul of a potential con, the claws come out. Myra and Lily are savvier than Roy and they have much more at stake than him, leaving the poor, dumb sucker outclassed on both sides. Torn between his attraction to Myra, his intense Oedipal attachment to Lily, and his desire for independence, Roy's predicament becomes increasingly tense and complex, leading to a brutal — and surprising — conclusion.

*          *          *

A dark, twisted, powerful film, The Grifters wins on every level — whip-smart noir writing by Westlake ("He's so crooked he could eat soup with a corkscrew"), assured direction by Frears, and phenomenal acting by all involved. Cusack is compelling, playing Roy as a weak-willed kid acting the grown-up, burning with more ambition than talent and unable to escape his mother's towering shadow. Bening's Myra is both alluring and revolting, a genuine monster who seems sweet and vulnerable but lacks any sort of conscience. The powerhouse here, though, is Huston. She makes Lily surprisingly sympathetic, hateful as she is; she genuinely seems to love Roy and regret their past, even as she deliberately stirs up both his deep-seated hatred for her and their perverse sexual attraction, all in the name of getting what she wants. It's a subtly nuanced performance, and perhaps the best work of her career. Frears colors in the rest of his noir storybook with character actors such as Pat Hingle, J.T. Walsh, Henry Jones, and Charles Napier, giving The Grifters the feel of a timeless classic. It's an amazing film, with every detail pointing to the tragic, inevitable conclusion as the web of consequences closes in on Cusack's hero/victim. Buena Vista's DVD release of The Grifters — part of Miramax's "Collector's Series" imprint — replaces an earlier, bare-bones HBO disc. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is very good with a sharp Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. On board is a terrific, chatty commentary track with Frears, Westlake, Cusack, and Huston, "The Making of The Grifters" behind-the-scenes featurette showcasing an exceptionally frazzled-looking Frears (16 min.), "The Jim Thompson Story" featuring biographer Polito and screenwriter Westlake (8 min.), and production and publicity stills. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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