The Grifters

British director Stephen Frears was handpicked by first choice Martin Scorsese (who served as the executive producer and un-credited narrator) to helm the big screen adaptation of Jim Thompson’s hardboiled novel about three crooks. At the time Frears was mostly known for his huge hit for British television—the interracial gay love story My Beautiful Laundrette starring Daniel Day Lewis and the lush period film Dangerous Liaisons. After securing The Grifters, his reputation was cemented as one of the most stunning and diverse talents in England—he’s directed several actresses in their Oscar nominated performances (including both Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening in The Grifters) and seems to be especially fond of films involving love triangles and bitchy women. He found a humdinger in the work of Jim Thompson, whom his biographer calls the most “nihilistic” of the second generation of American Noir Crime Writers. Thompson’s work echoed his pessimistic view of nature, which Donald Westlake (the screenwriter of Grifters) said seemed to argue that everyone was doomed to go to hell. Thompson’s life was a sad one—as a child his father was convicted of embezzlement and scandal and the job of supporting his family fell on Jim’s shoulders. Donald Westlake also admits that Thompson was always in the wrong place at the wrong time and argues that a writer of his caliber was in a dead-end living in the southwestern desert (not that literary of a location) where his work would never fully be appreciated or understood during his lifetime. Thompson’s first real job was as a bellboy in Hotel Texas, a Fort Worth dive that acquainted him with the city’s low lives and underworld and part of his job was procuring women, men, drugs or whatever the clients had in mind. This training ground and the works of the first generation of crime writers (men like Hammett and Chandler) inspired his fiction. Westlake and Thompson’s biographer argue that there was a political subtext to his work as he did his best writing when Eisenhower was in office and his work became popular after his death (when none of his books were in print) when the Regan/Bush administration turned back the clock in the political climate of America. Thompson was a member of the communist party and used the name Dillon as his party pseudonym—the name Dillon is littered throughout his fiction and it’s given to characters for whom he has the most sympathy such as Roy Dillon as played by John Cusack in The Grifters. Roy is a small time cheat who finds himself in a weird triangle involving his young, beautiful mother who’d had him when she was fourteen (there are Greek tragedy elements of incestuous overtones although everything is beneath the surface) and his sexy, slightly older girlfriend Annette Bening. The three characters are introduced in a bravura opening sequence that has all three onscreen in separate settings at the same time. The film and novel upon which it’s based contain some autobiographical elements from Thompson’s life as he’d written The Grfiters after being hospitalized and nearly dying from severe bleeding ulcers (he gives Roy Dillon a serious near death stomach ailment) and throughout the film Roy’s addiction to “the grift” seems to represent Thompson’s alcoholism as Roy tries convincing his mother in a classical alcoholic way that he is in control and can quit anytime he wants to although he’s a hopeless addict. When he finally makes his mind up to quit and his mother does the same, a tragic event occurs, solidifying the character’s descent into “hell.” The film is visually impressive with painter-like decisions (Frears’ wife is a painter) as the color red is carefully avoided until the introduction and entrance of Benning’s character and her red dress that she becomes known for wearing and plays a key role near the end of the film, according to IMDB Online. Critics have pointed out the number of influences from noir classics and indeed there is a Phoenix motel sequence lifted homage-like right from Hitch’s Psycho but it’s Frears’s own work and he brings out the best in his actors, especially the underrated Cusack who developed such a bond with Frears that he asked him to direct his adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity years later.