The second of two Jim Thompson adaptations to be released in 1990 after James Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet, The Grifters is my favourite film adaptation of any Thompson novel. In part, that’s because it almost plays as an adaptation of three short stories, giving it an ensemble vibe and a restless, cruisey rhythm that works perfectly against the Los Angeles backdrop. Each of these stories is about a “grifter” – a term that is assumed rather than explained but seems to refer to a way of life, rather than a discrete profession, that falls somewhere between being a criminal and being a con artist. In the bravura opening sequence we’re introduced to three such grifters – Roy Dillon (John Cusack), his mother Lilly Dillon (Anjelica Huston) and his lover Myra Langtry (Annette Bening) – each of whom grifts in quite a different way and in quite different environments. Most of the subsequent story revolves around Lilly – who had Roy at the age of fourteen – travelling to Los Angeles to reconnect with her son, where she clashes with Myra and forces Roy to confront some pretty uncomfortable facts about their past and their relationship with one another.
In many ways, Thompson was one of the most existential of hard-boiled writers, specialising in characters trapped between past and present with no real hope of a future. At the same time, he eschewed the kinds of serial detectives that helped alleviate some of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s bleakness. None of Thompson’s characters ever feel as if they can glimpse any existence beyond the horizons of their particular story, if only because most of his stories feel as if they are starting at the end of their character’s trajectories, leaving very little for the reader to do except wait as it all moves forward to its inexorable conclusion. Here, as in After Dark, My Sweet, that creates an intensely moody, monadic atmosphere, in which each character feels inextricably isolated from the others. After all, the first rule of being a grifter is to avoid partners – tentative and fleeting collaborations is the most these characters can muster – and there’s no relationship in the film that’s entirely devoid of grift, whether or not it happens to be undertaken by an official grifter. To some extent, the drama is driven by the prospect of moving from a grift to a “long con” – and genuine partnership – but that never really eventuates, existing more as a fantasy or as a horizon of possibility than as anything the characters can realistically or tangibly grasp.
One of the odd byproducts of that situation is that this is film without any real conversation. For the most part, all dialogue is directed inwards (when not part of a grift), making it feel as if all the characters are perpetually talking to themselves, or overhearing themselves think. As a result, every utterance has a kind of apocalyptic solipsism, as if each character is bearing witness, in oblique and cryptic ways, to the dissolution of their own particular private universe. Continually winded, punched in the stomach and elbowed in the throat, they’re often struggling to say something in the first place, producing an overwhelming sense of passivity and debilitation against which the frenzied energy of grifting just feels like a way of denying the inevitable. For a film that subsists on that kind of anomie, pacing is everything, so it’s great that Frears buoys everything up with a wonderful momentum, not least because pacing is one of the most important parts of grifting itself – the common denominator between each of the three protagonists’ particular and distinct skill sets.
Perhaps that’s why it sometimes feels as if the film is grifting the audience a bit too, immersing us in a modernist melancholy that’s not entirely authentic. From the very beginning, it’s unclear whether we’re situated in the actual past or a historicised version of the present, as Frears opens with a montage sequence of what appears to be mid-century (or older) photographs of Los Angeles only to include images from the contemporary cityscape – most notably the Wells Fargo Building and the recently renovated Bunker Hill – amidst their sepia tones. It’s accompanied by a classicist score by Elmer Bernstein that quotes Bernard Herrmann – and Psycho in particular – only to overlay it with twinkly electronic motifs that climax with the split-screen sequence – it has to be a direct homage to Brian De Palma – that first introduces the grifters in their apparently modernist milieu.
That sense of postmodern quotation – a “noir effect” – continues throughout the narrative and offsets the sombreness with a playful irreverence that is light years from the sombre classicism of After Dark, My Sweet, not least because grift itself contains an element of extravagant showmanship. Time and again, the grifters operate much as if they are staging a film, elaborately controlling every mise-en-scene until the film as a whole takes on a kind of hyper-cinematic quality, a sense that what we’re seeing has already been mediated through previous cinematic representations. As much as the characters may actually experience modernist angst, isolation and self-loathing, they are equally adept at performing those emotions when the grift requires and, as the film proceeds, it becomes more and more difficult to discern between the two, producing a queasy alternation between pathos and play that makes for one of Frears’ most tonally adept and sophisticated features. Neither quite noir nor neo-noir, it’s a revisionist gesture that straddles the two, refusing to either bridge or disavow the historical distance between it and its source material.
That, in turn, gives Roy’s masculinity – and masculinity generally – a similarly queasy and contradictory quality, a kind of clownish gravitas that comes to its head with the film’s final revisionist gesture: fully acknowledging the incestuous history between Roy and Lilly that remains latent in even Thompson’s version (and could never have been acknowledged so explicitly in a film made at the time). Combined with Myra’s more maternal qualities, this positions Roy between two mother-lovers, utterly dismantling the distinction between mothers and femme fatales that drives classical noir and erecting a mere fatale in their place. Performing this mere fatale is one of Huston’s greatest achievements – she radiates cold heat, seething and scathing – and leads to her greatest and final grift, in which she plays on Roy’s attraction after he incorrectly – and incredibly – misrecognises Myra’s cadaver for hers in the local morgue. At this point, Bernstein’s quotation of Psycho comes into full focus, as do all the anxieties around intimacy that drive grifting in the first place.
After all, if the film has seemed to promise any reprieve from grifting, it’s in the realm of family, and in Lilly’s relationship with Roy, which always seems on the verge of turning into something more enduring and meaningful. On the one hand, they’re autonomous grifters, yet on the other hand, they’re mother and son, and the film leads you to hope that the latter might win out, if only in some provisional or fleeting kind of way. It’s a rude shock, then, when the emotional import of Lilly’s care for Roy turns out to be incestuous at heart, since it leaves us with no reprieve from the paranoid logic of grifting. In this family, as in grifting, it turns out that close is always too close, in one of the bleakest and most beautiful endings to a contemporary noir that I recall seeing.