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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Grifters’: Mother Love, Jim Thompson-Style

TIMES FILM CRITIC

There’s a lovely bit at the beginning of “The Grifters” (at the AMC Century 14) when each one of its three unflappable con artists--Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening--pauses on the way to the day’s new “grift.” They are at three different locations and as the screen splits into thirds, all three look around for just an instant and not even sunglasses can obscure the alertness on each one’s face; they’re about to fleece that dumb chump, their fellow man, and they can hardly wait to get at it. In that moment, the sense of why they grift is nailed.

Jim Thompson’s “existential pulp” novels, most of them set among emotional badlands, have been fueling movies for years; the very best of the early crop was Bertrand Tavernier’s “Coup de Torchon,” which transposed Thompson’s “Pop. 1280" to French Equatorial Africa. Then this year James Foley’s “After Dark, My Sweet” caught the mood, the desert light, the doomed gallantry of Thompson’s characters exactly and, in the shifting levels of Jason’s Patric’s performance, carried a hauntingly tragic sense.

Now director Stephen Frears and novelist/screenwriter Donald Westlake have tackled Thompson’s icy consideration of mother love in the rackets and turned it diamond-hard and mesmerizing. Although “The Grifters” has been quietly updated, its soul is pure ‘40s and ‘50s and its visuals, in Oliver Stapleton’s cinematography, bend the noir conventions wonderfully to the present. Westlake’s updating is canny too; pruning and changing dated characters, he’s changed the grand con operation of Myra, Bening’s character, to give it a particularly ‘90s’ flavor of greed.

“The Grifters” is a tug-of-war between two not-unalike women, with Cusack’s boyish Roy as the prize. Nifty, dishy Myra, her eyes aglow, a burble in every satiric sentence, has been hanging out with Roy for a few months, wondering if he’s really the salesman he claims to be. His L.A. rooming house with his clowns-on-velvet paintings is certainly crummy enough, yet something doesn’t quite feel right to her--and she’s spent a lifetime letting her gut instinct keep her out of jail.

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Suddenly, back into Roy’s life drops his mother, Lily (Huston), white-blond and gimlet-eyed, seemingly cordial as dry ice. So maybe when she was 14 and Roy was born, she wasn’t exactly Mother of the Year and maybe things went downhill from there. But Roy left at 15, and Lily--steely but needy--wants what she hasn’t given and hasn’t had, affection and a place in Roy’s life.

Also, having spent her life in the rackets, working a racetrack scam coast to coast for her bookie boss, the genially terrifying Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle), Lily is determined that Roy steer clear of the hustle. It’s a little late: Roy, always the defiant loner, has been working the “short con” on careless bartenders and naive sailors to great success these past eight years. When Lily arrives, it’s Roy who’s been careless; she’s there just in time to save his life, but his thanks are curt and grudging.

This opening section, in which no one of the three is exactly wise to the others’ jobs or motives, is almost blithe; it will darken soon enough. Actually, Lily has sized up Myra with one half-squinting glance; it takes Myra binoculars to catch on to the double scam Lily is running.

For the audience, part of the deliciousness is watching these two women, partial to high heels and dresses with the fit of a wet suit, fence with one another. (It’s Myra’s appearances in her birthday suit that are the reason for the film’s R rating, in addition to an unpleasant punishment scene and strong language.) With Lily’s push-pull of appeal for Roy, it’s not surprising that he’s drawn to Myra, a smudged, less steely copy of mom, but it’s a comparison that would outrage both women.

Harry Winston used to define a really major piece of jewelry as one that knocked out any competition within 10 yards. Bening and Cusack are perfection at what they are doing, she twinkly as any rhinestone, he dangerously passive; it’s hardly their fault that Huston is the motor of the piece and so ferociously seductive that one cannot look away from her. She seems unafraid of Lily’s monster qualities: She has fearlessly drawn them into herself, the better to reflect them back. It is a perfect piece of work, mature and composed: stainless steel with just a hairline crack in it.

With Lily as strong and as nervy as she is, the scenes between her and Hingle’s suspicious Bobo, both before and after he has “disciplined” her, become all the more terrifying. Frears did this innocuous banter-with-violence this well once before: a balcony scene in “The Hit.” This time he has an entire movie in which to play with our nerves, and in a masterful display of control, he never lets up.

‘The Grifters’

Anjelica Huston: Lily

John Cusack: Roy

Annette Bening: Myra

Pat Hingle: Bobo

Henry Jones: Desk Clerk

A Cineplex Odeon Films presentation of a Martin Scorsese production, released by Miramax Films. Producers Scorsese, Robert A. Harris & Jim Painten. Executive producer Barbara De Fina. Co-producer Peggy Rajski. Director Stephen Frears. Screenplay by Donald E. Westlake, based on the novel “The Grifters” by Jim Thompson. Camera Oliver Stapleton. Editor Mike Audsley. Costumes Richard Hornung. Music Elmer Bernstein. Production design Dennis Charles Gassner. Art director Leslie McDonald. Set designer Gershon Ginsberg. Set decorator Nancy Haigh. Sound John Sutton. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. MPAA-rated R (female nudity, violence, strong language).


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