Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Grifters (film)
Frears' second Hollywood production opened to warm reviews in specialized maganizes, but was generally considered less sucessful than his previous feature film, Dangerous Liaisons. According to critics, one of its major achievements lies in Anjelica Huston's brilliant performance as Lilly Dillon, which granted her a third Oscar nomination. Annette Bening was also nominated for her work as Myra Langtry. After Valmont's Madame de Merteuil failed to attract as much attention, this part may be considered a turning point in her career as a serious drama actress.
John Cusack stars as Roy Dillon, Lilly's son. Notable supporting performances include Henry Jones as Mr. Simms and Pat Hingle as Bobo. The film also features cameo appearances by J.T. Walsh, Stephen Tobolowsky and Frances Bay in minor roles.
The movie was adapted by Donald E. Westlake from the homonymous novel by Jim Thompson. In general terms, the screenplay respects the plot of the book, adding a few action scenes for material which originally consisted of memories or inner thoughts. One of its distinctive marks is the extensive use of sharp, witty dialogues, most of which come directly from Thompson's pages.
The choice of film locations reflects the urban atmosphere conveyed by Thompson's novel, and include large American cities in California and Arizona such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix. The Turf Paradise Racetrack, where race track sequences were partially shot, is located in the latter.
The Grifters was co-produced by Peggy Rajski . Oliver Stapleton was in charge of the cinematography, and Elmer Bernstein composed the original score.
The Grifters was nominated in 1990 for four Academy Awards:
- Best Director (Stephen Frears)
- Best Actress in a Leading Role (Anjelica Huston)
- Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Annette Bening)
- Best Adapted Screenplay (Donald E. Westlake)
It lost in all categories. Some magazines remarked that Elmer Bernstein might have deserved a nomination for his original score.
The actresses were also nominated for a few notable international prizes, including the BAFTA (Bening) and the Golden Globe (Huston): they were both awarded by the American National Society of Film Critics . Westlake's screenplay was nominated by the Writers Guild of America, losing - as he did at the Oscars - to Michael Blake's Dances with Wolves.
- Frears wanted Westlake to write the screenplay under his sometimes pen name Richard Stark
- The uncredited short narration at the beginning of the movie was done by Martin Scorcese
- Cher was considered for the role of Lilly Dillon, and Sissy Spacek auditioned for the part, before Anjelica Huston was chosen.
The Grifters tells the story of Lilly Dillon, a long-time female con artist who begins to rethink her life when her son Roy, also a grifter, is beaten following a failed scam. She works for a bookmaker, Bobo, handling playback at the tracks, i.e., betting money to lower the odds of longshots. Driving to the La Jolla races, she stops at Los Angeles to visit Roy, whom she hadn't seen in seven years. She finds him in a miserable state: he had been hit with a baseball bat trying to con a bartender, and has an internal bleeding.
At the hospital, Lilly meets and despises Myra, Roy's girlfriend, who also lives on scams. She urges her son to quit the grift and leaves late for La Jolla, missing a race where the winner was paying 15-1. For this mistake, she is later tortured by Bobo, and gets her hand burnt with a cigar.
Upon leaving the hospital, Roy takes Myra to La Jolla for the weekend. On the train, she notices him conning a group of sailors, and later reveals that she is also on the grift and looking for a partner for a long-con operation.
Roy hesitates at first, but finally refuses her proposition, in fear that she may try to dupe him herself. Myra sees his mother behind Roy's decision and moves for revenge. She hints to Bobo that Lilly keeps a large sum of money stashed in her Cadillac, money she had stolen from him over the years. Lilly is warned by a friend and flees. Myra follows with the intention of killing her.
Roy is called by an FBI agent to identify his mother's body, found in a motel room with the face completely destroyed. While sustaining it was Lilly's, he silently notes a cigar burn is missing from her right hand. Coming back home, he finds Lilly trying to steal all his money so that she may keep running away from Bobo. She had shot Myra while being attacked at the motel and arranged things so that it looked like she was the one who got killed.
Roy refuses to let her go with his money. In a desperate attempt to get away, she hits him with a suitcase and unintentionally breaks a glass onto his neck, slashing his artery.
The Grifters was modeled after B-grade film noirs. Critical reviews pointed out similarities between this movie and genre classics such as Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street, Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly and Fritz Lang's The Big Heat. According to Frears, Bening had based her character in similar roles played by Gloria Grahame.
It is also worth mentioning that Westlake's screenplay develops the psychological background laid out in Thompson's novel way beyond the usual cynicism that constitutes the distinctive mark of film noir heroes. The three leading characters are crooks, but it's ultimately their obsessive and often disturbing passions that push the plot towards its inevitable tragic ending. For instance, the film explores the problematic relationship between Roy and his mother, hinting at a level of sexual tension and incest that may also partially acount for Myra's aggressive behaviour towards Lilly.
In this sense, The Grifters may be seen as following a subgenre of film noir that enhances the dramatical aspects of character interaction. Movies in this tradition include Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, which had Thompson himself as a screenplay co-writer, and a few pictures by John Huston, Anjelica's father, most notably The Asphalt Jungle and The Maltese Falcon.
The Opening Scene: Stephen Frears is known to use opening scenes as an introductory insight into his characters' personalities (cf., for instance, Dangerous Liaisons). Here, the screen image is split into three halves, where Lilly, Roy and Myra are followed by independent cameras while preparing for action. Each individual sequence eventually closes to a face shot: at that point, Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening and John Cusack simultaneously make the same gesture of looking around before their con acts begin.
Troubador: Leaving late for the La Jolla races, Lilly gets stuck by the traffic. This sequences alternates shots from a race where Troubador, the longshot, won at 15-1, and images of her nervously listening to the results through her car radio. Many elements employed by Frears in these scenes were taken from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, a movie whose screenplay was partially written by Jim Thompson.
The Chase: Lilly runs away when she finds out Bobo knows about the money she's been stealing from him over the years. Myra chases after her up to a little motel in Phoenix. The pounding notes of Elmer Bernstein's soundtrack provide the background for this sequence, which evokes the famous drive by Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.
Descent: After accidentally killing her son, Lilly runs away carrying his money in a suitcase. This stylish, slow-paced sequence, which depicts only Anjelica Huston standing motionless as the elevator goes down, is usually interpreted as a symbol of the tragic descent of the film noir hero.
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