The Grifters (Stephen Frears, 1990)

Discuss films and filmmakers of the 20th century (and even a little of the 19th century). Threads may contain spoilers.
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Fletch F. Fletch
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#1 Post by Fletch F. Fletch » Tue Jun 13, 2006 4:34 pm

I just listened to an excellent podcast episode of Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir (http://outofthepast.libsyn.com/) dedicated to one of my fave neo-noirs, The Grifters.

I can remember a lot of noirs coming out of the '90s (After Dark, My Sweet, The Hot Spot, etc.) but I have always felt that this was the best of the bunch and the closest to the noirs of the 1940s.

This podcast made me want to watch the film again and I was struck by that stunning opening sequence with the split screen of the three main characters Lilly, Roy and Myra and how each individual sequence closes on to a face shot simultaneously.

The podcasters point out some significant moments from the film, like the brutal punishment given to Lilly by Bobo Justus with the use of a lit cigar. Even though you are expecting something bad to happen, the scene is still tough to watch because it is so painful, not just for Lilly (obvious, duh!) but for us.

I also love how Stephen Frears depicts Los Angeles in the film. Again, he seems to be evoking the L.A. of a bygone era, like the hotel that Roy stays in. It doesn't feel like a modern setting (esp. the old school elevator that takes him up to his floor) but kinda retro in tone. This, in turn, is also enhanced by Elmer Bernstein's top notch score -- esp. the opening credits which always makes me think of an old Robert Alrich film or something.

I remember being struck, at the time that it came out, how good John Cusack was and how it seemed like one of his first more mature roles after all the '80s teen comedies he did. He really did a good job as the doomed protagonist and was very believable as a small-time con man.

It's been ages since I've read the novel and I was trying to remember how faithful the film is to it... I love that they got crime novelist Donald Westlake to adapt it. That was a nice touch.

Anyways, you should check out the podcast (http://outofthepast.libsyn.com/index.php?post_id=53786). It runs about 30 min. and is quite a good listen.

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#2 Post by souvenir » Tue Jun 13, 2006 5:11 pm

I remember enjoying this one quite a bit but it's been a few years (and a lot of noirs) since I saw it. I really thought all three leads were terrific in their roles. I think I'll order the dvd from the DDD sale since it comes out to just over five dollars.

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#3 Post by jesus the mexican boi » Tue Jun 13, 2006 5:23 pm

This is also one of my favorite films of the era, of that brief renaissance-ish revival spurt of Jim Thompson (which also included James Foley's glamour-less AFTER DARK, MY SWEET and Maggie Greenwald's no-budget THE KILL-OFF), for all the reasons Fletch listed. Cusack and Huston are terrific, no doubt, but this remains my favorite Annette Bening performance. I will always remember the jeweler scene w/Stephen Tobolowsky and the scene with the landlord. It's gorgeously lensed, edited, acted, directed and scored, and none could be more agile at adaptation than Donald Westlake. There's something simultaneously L.A. and fraudulent about the set decoration, with its 80s bars and sepia traindepots, its hotels and racetracks, that harkens back to the classic noir iconography in feel, a kind of glittering unreality that we accept as a simulacrum real-enough-to-pass. An East-Coast little sister to The Grifters, imho, is George Armitage's MIAMI BLUES, based on the novel by Charles Willeford.

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#4 Post by Fletch F. Fletch » Wed Jun 14, 2006 9:01 am

jesus the mexican boi wrote:This is also one of my favorite films of the era, of that brief renaissance-ish revival spurt of Jim Thompson (which also included James Foley's glamour-less AFTER DARK, MY SWEET and Maggie Greenwald's no-budget THE KILL-OFF), for all the reasons Fletch listed.
Yeah, I've always felt that After Dark, My Sweet was kinda underrated. I still think it's Jason Patric's best performance to date.
Cusack and Huston are terrific, no doubt, but this remains my favorite Annette Bening performance. I will always remember the jeweler scene w/Stephen Tobolowsky and the scene with the landlord.
I agree with you about Bening. She was fantastic in this role. I know, her flashier performance in Bugsy gets all the hype but I think she was just fantastic in The Grifters -- it's like they split the femme fatale role between her and Huston.
It's gorgeously lensed, edited, acted, directed and scored, and none could be more agile at adaptation than Donald Westlake. There's something simultaneously L.A. and fraudulent about the set decoration, with its 80s bars and sepia traindepots, its hotels and racetracks, that harkens back to the classic noir iconography in feel, a kind of glittering unreality that we accept as a simulacrum real-enough-to-pass.


What a fantastic description! I couldn't agree more. The look of the film always gets me everytime for the reasons you stated above. As I said before, there is something about the film, a certain mood or atmosphere that I find so interesting.
An East-Coast little sister to The Grifters, imho, is George Armitage's MIAMI BLUES, based on the novel by Charles Willeford.
Yeah, I really dig this film too. I love the balls out black humor of this film -- esp. in the opening bit where Baldwin's character kills a Krishna by breaking his finger!

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#5 Post by David Ehrenstein » Wed Jun 14, 2006 9:32 am

The Grifters is a gem. The art direction is particularly stunning in that they found specific sites in L.A. redolent of the 40's and 50's. This is particularly effective in a film that doesn't really seem to be set in the presetn as it's generally known. Kind of like Rivette in that way.

Elmer Bernstein's very Kurt Weill score is one of his best and, Cusack and Benning are splendid, and as for Anjelica Huston this is the greatest performance of her career. In the indelible last scene she evokes pity and terror as few actors ever manage to do.

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#6 Post by Fletch F. Fletch » Wed Jun 14, 2006 1:12 pm

David Ehrenstein wrote:In the indelible last scene she evokes pity and terror as few actors ever manage to do.
Agreed... like how she's able to grieve yet also pick up all the money that she can. Incredible stuff...

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#7 Post by David Ehrenstein » Wed Jun 14, 2006 1:32 pm

She's like a wounded animal in a Greek tragedy -- Medea on the run. No one ever goes where this movie goes, save for Pasolini. That Frears is willing to take us there is a testament to his strengths (also on view in Bloody Kids and Dirty Pretty Things). That Huston understands precusely what it is she's doing is uncanny.

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#8 Post by jesus the mexican boi » Wed Jun 14, 2006 1:36 pm

David Ehrenstein wrote:She's like a wounded animal in a Greek tragedy -- Medea on the run. No one ever goes where this movie goes, save for Pasolini. That Frears is willing to take us there is a testament to his strengths (also on view in Bloody Kids and Dirty Pretty Things). That Huston understands precusely what it is she's doing is uncanny.
That decides it. I'm watching this again tonight. Thanks Fletch & David.

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#9 Post by Polybius » Wed Jun 14, 2006 11:22 pm

Fletch F. Fletch wrote:
An East-Coast little sister to The Grifters, imho, is George Armitage's MIAMI BLUES, based on the novel by Charles Willeford.
Yeah, I really dig this film too. I love the balls out black humor of this film -- esp. in the opening bit where Baldwin's character kills a Krishna by breaking his finger!
Put me down for this one, as well. Great dark comedy with some moments of real drama and even a little wistfulness (I love the scene where Baldwin's Junior stops before getting into the car and looks at the "normal" people playing frisbee on the beach. You sense that he regrets not being part of that, but that he knows he never can be.)

Terrific performances from Baldwin (who is greivously underrated, IMHO), Leigh (brilliant, as usual) and the always reliable Fred Ward. Even a great cameo from Charles Napier.

Also the single funniest convenience store robbery ever filmed, even over the one from Raising Arizona.

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#10 Post by Fletch F. Fletch » Thu Jun 15, 2006 9:06 am

Polybius wrote:Terrific performances from Baldwin (who is greivously underrated, IMHO)
Definitely! This role and his brief one in Glengarry Glen Ross are his finest moments, IMO.

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#11 Post by jesus the mexican boi » Thu Jun 15, 2006 10:20 am

Polybius wrote:Terrific performances from Baldwin (who is greivously underrated, IMHO), Leigh (brilliant, as usual) and the always reliable Fred Ward. Even a great cameo from Charles Napier.

Also the single funniest convenience store robbery ever filmed, even over the one from Raising Arizona.
I love the Baldwin/Leigh scene where he gets mad at her for not taking out the money and she says, "They told me if I kept the account open a few more days I'd be eligible for a teapot." And, of course, the haiku assignment from the college at Lake Okechobee. "We make love a lot..."

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#12 Post by Polybius » Thu Jun 15, 2006 6:39 pm

I'm quite partial to the impromptu surgery the landlady does.

Junior: "Your husband must've been glad to die..." :lol:

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#13 Post by Len » Fri Jun 16, 2006 6:53 am

Miami Blues has one of my favorite lines ever (someone correct me if I remember this incorrectly, it's been ages since I've last seen Miami Blues).

"I fired a warning shot and it hit you."

Should check out Grifters asap, I love Thompson's novels, and from the descriptions in this thread, it sounds really interesting. On a somewhat offtopic note, anyone here seen Alain Corneau's Thompson adaptation Serie Noire (based on A Hell Of A Woman)? Going tonight to check it out in the finnish film archive.

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#14 Post by Polybius » Fri Jun 16, 2006 6:35 pm

That's it, essentially. IIRC he said "I fired a warning shot. It missed." dry and cool, in a nice mock Harry Callahan tone.

Napier telling Ward they should leave him alone until he cleared a few more of his cases was classic, too. Just a hummer of a script. That film was, in large part, Fred Ward's baby. It was a pet project for him.

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