At the start of The Grifters, small-time scam artist Roy Dillon (John Cusack) walks into a bar, intending to make some easy money by switching a $20 bill for a $10 spot when ordering a bottle of beer; however, the bartender has seen this trick before, and punishes Roy by punching him in the gut with a baseball bat, causing a near-fatal injury that results in hospitalisation. In most American movies, a swift trip to the emergency room, and the recuperation that follows, would prompt the central protagonist to reconsider his personal and professional values, but The Grifters is an adaptation of a 1963 novel by Jim Thompson, arguably the most nihilistic of the second generation of noir writers, and Roy is a typical Thompson anti-hero, hurriedly checking out of the hospital to get back to his routine. However, the presence in his life of two strong-willed women causes complications; his mother Lilly (Anjelica Houston) works for a powerful bookmaker, placing last-minute bets at the track to lower the odds on long shots while skimming off the top for her retirement plan; his girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening) is a former long-con operator, reduced to paying her rent with sexual favours. Both women fiercely compete for Roy’s loyalty; Lilly offers him the most motherly advice she can muster after a life on the grift, warning her son that ‘you don’t stand still, you go up or down’, while Myra becomes infuriated with his lack of interest in her ideas for relieving big-time tycoons of their immense wealth via stock market fraud. Roy tries to sever ties with both women, a sensible decision that makes him a strangely sympathetic individual amid the author’s rogues’ gallery of morally bankrupt bottom feeders.
As befits someone who is keen to conceal his past but has no specific plans for the future, Roy’s life is a carefully constructed facade; he resides in a low-rent hotel room with ‘cornball clown pictures’ on the wall, engaging in friendly banter with the manager of the establishment and meaningless sex with Myra, while maintaining a legitimate job as a matchbox salesman. His scams are ‘small-time stuff’ and he insists that he can walk away from the life whenever he wants; within the context of the criminal underworld, Roy is something of a working stiff, a competent ‘mechanic’ with a stable life and some superficial human relationships. The character of Roy Dillon is perhaps Thompson’s most semi-autobiographical creation; the summer before he wrote The Grifters, the author was hospitalised with a severe stomach condition and nearly died from bleeding ulcers, and Thompson even used the name ‘Dillon’ as a pseudonym when he joined the communist party. The resentful relationship between Roy and Lilly suggests that their inability to trust others stems from an unpleasant childhood, and was possibly inspired by Thompson’s upbringing; his father was a sheriff, but was forced to leave amid rumours of embezzlement; the Thompson family relocated and he worked as a bellhop in Texas hotels, where he witnessed the petty crime, alcohol abuse and confidence games that would feature in his ‘fiction’, often supplementing his meagre wages by procuring heroin and marijuana for the unsavoury guests.
While Roy is smart enough to take advantage of easy marks such as a group of soldiers on a train, he is not sufficiently ruthless to entirely evade the predatory advances of Lilly or Myra, and Cusack engages in a series of hard-boiled exchanges with his co-stars that are appropriately at odds with the puppy dog features of an actor who had just graduated from such teen movies as The Sure Thing (1985) and Say Anything (1989). Lilly is only 14 years older than her son, and the Oedipal tension between them is palpable, while Myra is also older and more experienced, but her perky ‘good-time girl’ persona belies an extensive working knowledge of the ‘long con’ and a contacts book that includes Lilly’s employer Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle), a suave mobster who dishes out personal concern and professional cruelty in equal measure. For all his insistence on independence, Roy is trapped by the duelling personalities of Lilly and Myra, and this is emphasised in an early sequence that segues into split screen to introduce the three characters, thereby setting up a twisted love triangle that will inevitably end in tragedy.
Screenwriter Donald E Westlake found the source novel ‘too gloomy’ and initially declined the assignment, only for director Stephen Frears to convince him to reconsider by suggesting that they emphasise the survival instincts of Lilly, and pare down Thompson’s already sparse prose by excising a sub-plot concerning Roy’s affair with Carol, the nurse who aids his recovery. Frears also took liberties with the period trappings of the source material, acknowledging both the noir era of Thompson’s fiction and the author’s very modern approach to character and genre; the 1940s dresses, 1950s architecture, 1970s automobiles, 1980s suits serve to create an ambiguous time frame, although one that remains grounded in reality, unlike Michael Oblowitz’s later adaptation of This World, Then the Fireworks (1997), which aimed for pastiche but regrettably lurched into parody. Thompson admitted to being as influenced by the movies as he was by the previous generation of crime writers, and Frears includes numerous nods to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), from the ‘mother complex’ of the male protagonist to the Arizona motel sequence, while the closing elevator descent into ‘hell’ recalls the more overtly satanic noir of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987).
The Grifters was released around the same time as two other Thompson adaptations, Maggie Greenwald’s The Kill Off (1989) and James Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet (1990). However, the marketing muscle of Miramax and the much publicised presence of Martin Scorsese as executive producer and narrator ensured that The Grifters received greater critical attention and achieved modest box office success, also earning four Oscar nominations. Oliver Stapleton’s sun-drenched cinematography, the star casting, and the suggestion that Roy may be redeemable, probably lent this particular Thompson adaptation a degree of mainstream accessibility, but Frears utilises his attractive actors to envision the author’s characters at their most unpleasant and untrustworthy; ‘I was hoping we could play it straight with one another,’ Lilly says to Roy in their penultimate encounter. ‘I guess not,’ replies Roy, although his wavering loyalty from Myra to Lilly suggests that he is looking for an honest relationship. In this respect, he lacks the ruthlessness that Thompson’s world view demands of even those who are ‘strictly short-con’, and Roy’s fate is sealed by such sentimental indecision. In terms of its treatment of Thompson’s man-in-the-middle, The Grifters is a splendidly cynical adaptation of a stone-cold literary classic.