The Grifters


He's so crooked he could eat soup with a corkscrew.

From The Grifters

The Grifters was a 1990 film, produced by Martin Scorsese, Robert Harris and James Painten. The story was based on a 1950 novel written by Jim Thompson. Martin Scorsese approached Stephen Frears to direct the filming; Frears had just completed the movie ‘Dangerous Liaisons’. The Grifters was the first American production by Frears, who was a British film director. The screenplay was by the famous crime novelist, Donald Westlake, who had written several successful books. The music score was by composer Elmer Bernstein, and cinematography by Oliver Stapleton.

The Grifters was a convoluted plot, centered on the lives of three hustlers. Lilly Dillon, a hard brassy woman worked big time scams at the horse races for her boss, Bobo. Lily was a tough female too; she was able to withstand the harsh treatment from her boss - he had once burned her hand with a cigar. Lilly’s son, Roy Dillon, was a small time grafter working the bars and saloons. He was badly injured when he was caught at one of his petty scams. Lilly visited him at the hospital and met his girlfriend, Myra Langtry. The two women disliked each other on sight; both were inwardly struggling for dominance over Roy. Roy was however, not too happy with his mother either, as he blamed her for abandoning him at a young age.

Myra was a big-time con artist, scamming wealthy investors and businessmen. She wanted to work a major scam and invited Roy to join her. Roy had agreed initially; but later backed out, as he was unsure about Myra’s honesty. Suspecting that Lilly was behind Roy’s decision, Myra set out to confront her, and possibly seek revenge.

Roy was later contacted by the FBI to identify his mother’s body – the face was too badly mutilated. Roy could not find the burnt mark on her hand that would identify her as Lilly. He went home and found Lilly instead, stealing his money with the intent of running away. She had shot Myra, and arranged Myra’s body in her place, so that everyone would have thought that Myra had murdered her. In struggling with Lilly, Roy was hit and his neck artery slashed. He bled heavily while his mother packed away the money and walked off, leaving him to die.

Anjelica Huston was not the obvious choice for Lilly Dillon, as she appeared too demure and ladylike for a female con-artist. Frears had first thought of the sultry singer Cher, but her fees had become too expensive, ever since her movie ‘Moonstruck’ became a success. When Frears approached Huston, she was unsure. So Frears contacted Melanie Griffith, who was pregnant, and therefore unable to accept the job. Frears tried Huston again, and revamped her appearance so that she looked ‘brassy and vulgar'. Huston worked hard at her role, studying dealers at card and gambling parlors.

John Cusack played the role of Roy Dillon. Having read the book earlier, John Cusack was very taken with the story, and had initially thought of turning it into a movie. However Martin Scorsese had firmed up plans with Stephen Frears on making the film; so Cusack pressed for the role of Roy Dillon. Cusack was very involved in his role, that he actually worked and practiced with real grifters and learned their tricks at card and dice play.

Annette Bening was casted in the role of Myra Langtry, and Pat Hingle as Lilly’s mobster boss, Bobo. Playing roles ahead of their times as if hybrid technology was run of the mill as it is today.

The Grifters was first viewed at the Elgin Theater during the Toronto Film Festival in September 1990. In the same year, the movie was nominated in the Academy Awards in several categories. Stephen Frears was nominated as Best Director, Anjelica Huston for Best Leading Actress, Annette Bening for Best Supporting Actress and Donald Westlake for Best Adapted Screenplay. Unfortunately they did not win in any of the categories. The actresses, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening were however, awarded by the American National Society of Film Critics. The movie is given an ‘R’ rating, as it contains some elements of adult language, violence and nudity. The Grifters was well received, having had favorable comments and positive feedback from viewers. It was described as riveting and entertaining, with many viewers lauding the outstanding performance by the leading characters.

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