Sunday, May 9, 2021

Neo-Noir Watch: The Grifters (1990)

Watched:  05/08/2021
Format:  Amazon Streaming
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1990's
Director:  Stephen Frears

Just in time for Mother's Day I finally (finally!) watched the 1990 film, The Grifters.


The problem with The Grifters I've had since 1990 has been that - for reasons I cannot fathom - in both print and in conversation, folks have had no problem spoiling it for me.  

The term "spoiler" hadn't entered my vocabulary by the time I had the movie's final moments relayed to me, which was shortly after it hit VHS, which would have been in 1991 or so, and someone told me exactly how it ends as their reason why they thought I wouldn't like it.  

People, that is a dick move.

I don't know why this person did this - clearly the moment is intended to be a shock and surprise and maybe that's what had stuck with them, but, anyway.

Add in that people writing about other movies will tend to mention The Grifters and immediately begin talking about the psycho-sexual tension between mother and son in this movie, which is actually a slow boil to full confirmation in the third act, and - 

Anyway, at some point I said "well, it's Jim Thompson, and I keep meaning to read some Jim Thompson, so I'll read the book first, and then get to the movie".  But I didn't.  I read my first Jim Thompson in only the last two years, so - life being short - I decided to just watch the movie.

Here's what wasn't spoiled for me:  I had completely not known who Annette Bening was in 1991, but apparently was aware of Anjelica Huston and certainly John Cusack.  But, yeah - Annette Bening! and she's great.  

The movie is kind of odd in that it's based on Thompson, feels like Thompson right down to the works-on-the-page-feels-weird-coming-from-humans dialog, and is lovingly curated in screenplay form by Donald E. Westlake, who wrote a few hundred heist and crime novels both under his own name and as Robert Stark (when he wrote the 20-odd Parker and Grofeld novels).  

Directed by Stephen Frears, his follow up the 1988's Dangerous Liaisons and a very interesting entry in a remarkable career, the film's performances are all pretty terrific in what's really a small, grimy crime story - which must have felt liberating after 18th Century France.  He's really working with the actors to stick to the noir roots and make all of this heightened stuff seem natural as possible - and it works.  I buy it.  

It's also a remarkably small cast - only three main characters and a handful of supporting characters.  But among the cast are Pat Hingle as a sadistic rackateer, JT Walsh as a con-man who played long games before "retirement", Stephen Tobolowsky as a jeweler, "that guy" actor Henry Jones, Seinfeld-famous Sandy Baron as a shady doctor, and many more.  Not the least of which is a pre-fame Jeremy Piven as a sailor on leave.  

Frankly, I expected the movie to be about three con-artists teaming up.  That's usually what we get.  Instead, Thompson's story does something infinitely more interesting:  but what if they didn't do a scam?  

No, seriously, the movie we always get is the story of the con, heist, what have you...  But instead we get a character study of bottom-feeders at odds, one trying to get out while he can, one addicted to the rush and one who can't figure any other way to be and who pushed it too far.

It's a curious period for the film.  This is a few years before Grosse Point Blank and a few years after the Savage Steve Holland movies for John Cusack.  He's trying to do some real acting here, and he's playing alongside Anjelica Huston.  That's not nothing.  

Huston herself was aging into mother roles (she's be in the Addams Family in in 1991), and entering what I think was a great period for her in film.  She looks like a Robert McGinnis paperback model in this thing, and plays a wildly f'd up character, who never has the convenience of a sounding board to explain who she is to the audience.  Still, inbetween the lines, she manages to get it all through.  

And, of course, an early-career Annette Bening - who has so successfully avoided getting pegged as a character actor, it's almost hard to point to a signature role - plays a worthy foil to Huston, a reflection of maybe what Huston was, herself, 15 years ago.  It's a role that I can see many reading in a way that they'd tsk tsk, but there's something oddly self-actualized about Bening's character, her ownership of her body (which I'd separate from the film's intensely male-gazy intake of  Bening), and that this is *her* choice.  

But, yeah, look, I like a good con or heist movie, but as a change up, seeing these characters in crisis provided for a movie I found more interesting than what I'd expected all these years.  It's not a beautiful movie - it's sunbleached and faded, and makes the sexiness alternately tawdry and troublesome - but I dug it.  Wish I'd pulled the band-aid off from grumbling about feeling like it had been spoiled for me and just watched the thing a couple of decades ago.

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