Everyone likes a good con, but like everything else in Hollywood, the con man is glamorized. Take The Sting for example; they’re nice folks, and they’re scamming a violent mob boss. In Matchstick Men, anxiety-ridden Nicholas Cage is teaching a young girl the ropes, only to get schooled himself. Even George C. Scott as The Flim-Flam Man is likeable in his irascible way. David Mamet’s con game movies are a bit more true to life, with House of Games being the paragon and The Spanish Prisoner being an enjoyable diversion. But if you want the dark gritty world of the con, to see what sociopaths they really are, you’ve got to watch Stephen Frears’s The Grifters.
Three excellent actors circle each other like a trio of sharks looking for weakness: John Cusack as the kid over his head; Anjelica Huston as his mother, a mob moll who knows the score; and Annette Bening, a vamp and veteran of the long con who lost her has partner and is hungry for more. Based on the novel by Jim Thompson, author of such pulp classics as Pop. 1280, The Getaway and After Dark, My Sweet, the story is down and dirty, pulls no punches, and harbors no pretensions about what kind of people they are.
Roy is purely small time, but the women in his life are ruthless professionals. His estranged mother Lilly works for a big mobster, evening out the odds at the track. She handles a lot of cash, and is skimming for her retirement fund. It’s expected; you can’t trust someone who doesn’t steal. Myra is between sugar daddies; her last one went off his rocker, and she needs a man to do the long con with. She sleeps with the mark, and leads him into the classic investment scam. We get to see it in flashback, so we do get a dose of The Sting with our dark noir tale. We meet Roy doing parlor-trick scams in a race track bar, switching a $20 for a $10 when he buys a drink; the bartender doesn’t fall for it, and punches him so hard in the gut he winds up in the hospital.
Lilly has been trying to steer him away from the life, and he resents it; he refuses to call her ‘mother,’ and treats her like shit. Through flashback we see how he left home and got mentored by your typical white suit gambling con man, a short con guy, and he thinks he’s ready for the life. But he’s soft. Myra on the other hand, knows how to play smarter men than Roy, and smells money once Lilly comes around. The two women circle him like a pair of jungle cats sizing each other up; they know each other’s motives, but they also know Roy won’t admit that mother knows best.
It all goes pear-shaped once Roy’s injured; Lilly misses her bets at the track that day to drag him to the hospital and save his life. Nothing stings more than a thankless child, and when he still sides with Myra, the story moves into higher gear. We get to see what a vamp Myra is, played with psychopathic delight by Bening, when she needs to cover the rent on her townhouse. The landlord is a fat, sweaty guy who knows she’s going to manipulate him into letting it go; we know immediately that she’s traded sex for favors with him before, and even after his stern denials, she gets her way again. And she’s so cynical about it, that she’s laughing while he’s pumping away, because she remembers the daily special at the cafe this morning: “Royal hothouse tomato, topped with a generous slice of ripe cheese!”
And she is quite the hot tomato; she’s naked more often than not in this film, and Frears manages to make every shot of her lithe body framed as the weapon it is. As much as I found the mid-90s date-rape defense of “women using sex as a weapon” ludicrous, a vamp like Myra is what the phrase was made for. Cut of the same cloth as Linda Fiorentino’s iconic portrayal in The Last Seduction, and Kathleen Turner’s career-building character in Body Heat, Bening plays it as her own; instead of a husky-voiced femme fatale, she’s a giggling, slinking minx and slides through every scene know exactly what she wants and how to get it.
Lilly gets taken to task for mucking her job up that day to save Roy; her big boss Bobo Justus, played with oily menace to perfection by Pat Hingle, shows up to wonder where the bet money went, since it surely wasn’t put on bets that day. We see Lilly nervously digging through trash cans at the track for other people’s receipts, knowing this day will come. When Bobo shows up in his Cadillac, we get one of the most memorable scenes of the film- where we see the short con roots that both he and Lilly came out of, and how someone like Bobo Justus keeps his grifters in line. Unfortunately the scene is not embeddable on youtube, but you can watch it by clicking here.
Marty Scorsese narrates the opening to the picture, and while Frears is quite talented in his own right- Dangerous Liaisons, Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, The Queen– he’s not the auteur that Scorsese is. The movie is set in present day 1990, but still has the old-timey feel of a ’40s noir, in their manner of dress and how they handle themselves; it gives the film a distinctive look, but also makes it feel like a pastiche, and less realistic. The excellent dialogue and script by Donald Westlake is enough to recall the sharp repartee of classic noir, and the cinematography alongside it. Frears makes sure to update Myra’s scam for the information age, but in a way that shields it from anachronisms. Even today, not all the life-ruining cons come from a Nigerian email address; usually buried in the back of the newspaper, you still read of people being swindled of their nest eggs by the lure of a “sure thing,” and the bunco squad at the local precinct is just as busy as ever.
The end of the novel and the end of the book are at odds. As Myra and Lilly try to take each other down, Roy is making the one smart decision in his life- to leave the life. But it’s too late. Myra wants the cash Lilly’s been skimming, and when she strikes, Roy is caught in the crossfire when Mom hits back. In the movie, there is deep guilt, and Lilly has to deal with what she did to survive. In the book, it is an act of pure vengeance, a ruthless predator dispatching her weak offspring. The movie is more powerful, but lacks the complete amorality that infused Jim Thompson’s novel. Like the original ending to Double Indemnity, I guess the audience couldn’t take it. Bunch of sentimental marks. As it stands, The Grifters is still one of the best and darkest movies about confidence men, and any fan of film noir should add it to their list of must-sees.