Grift to the Scaffold

Yes — THE GRIFTERS stands up well. I was maybe a little underwhelmed in 1990, though I saw Stephen Frears do a Q&A on it and that was fun. In fact, it’s excellent. Stylistically, Frears was probably at his most assured — the opening split screen should go further, I feel, and the magnificent blocking in the hospital waiting room confrontation isn’t quite as dazzling as the way the characters prowl around each other in DANGEROUS LIAISONS, but it’s still hugely effective, and the three stars are tops.

I was very slightly sceptical of David E.’s assertion that the film presciently captures the state of America now — but I immediately noticed that, while the film opens with a quotation designed to acquaint its audience with the outdated term in the title, that term is now being slung around by both US political parties. Though I think the word GRIFT may soon be replaced by the word GRAFT, which seems really useful in today’s emulumental world.

Frears, as I recall, affected a complete disinterest in John Cusack’s previous career — “I gather he was in some sort of teenage things” — THE SURE THING, for one, is excellent, as I recall — Cusack has got IT, in the best Elinor Glyn sense of the word. Frears talked about auditioning various people for the role of Lilly, and sensing how the film would be good, but entirely different, depending on who he chose. With Sissy Spacek it would have been about class, and white trash aspiration, but with Anjelica Huston it was going to be Greek tragedy. Complete with descent into the Underworld.

He acknowledged that the last but one scene — AH descends in a Fatal Elevator — was a hommage to her recently-departed father and THE MALTESE FALCON. I can’t understand, watching it now, why the film doesn’t end on this sensational pair of shots, instead of frittering out into a routine car on road fade-out.

He talked about the horrifying oranges scene, with Pat Hingle, and how watching Huston’s devastatingly convincing pain was “one of those days when you wonder why you do this job,” because it was so distressing to watch.

Annette Bening is interesting — I think she can seem kind of phony-saccharine, but here she’s phony-sexy and it’s perfect. Fiona did question why she had to be naked so much and was the only one doing it, but I guess she’s the one who uses sex as a weapon so there’s SOME justification.

I can’t, damnit, remember any discussion of screenwriter Donald Westlake.

Cute in-joke in the signage, which references two of Westlake’s many nommes des plumes. He does quite a bit of this winking in his pseudonymous novels.

There was some chat about OA Jim Thompson and how, though he wrote about low-lifes, he was very happy to see big movie stars cast in his stuff.

Delirious from his stomach injury, Cusack hallucinates a see-through mentor — like Obi-Wan? Or maybe the reference is to the tormentingly translucent Julie London in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, whose co-star Henry Jones appears in this movie.

I think maybe I expected more twists, but I was glad it didn’t try to fool us too much. I always thought HOUSE OF GAMES was an awful piece of junk, depending for its success on the audience, and the lead character, never suspecting that the con artist characters might be orchestrating a con. So really THE GRIFTERS is about character, not convoluted tricks of narrative or “big store” schemes.

I also really like the way it’s set in a contemporary 1990 world with chunky computers and everything, but manages to feel much older, 1940s maybe, without this coming across as affectation or anachronism. Very hard to do. Neo-noir is nearly impossible to do, I think, without coming off all arch. Elmer Bernstein’s score is a big part of it, as are the costumes, the dialogue, the performances…

THE GRIFTERS stars Morticia Addams; Martin Q. Blank; Supreme Intelligence; Mousie; Commissioner Gordon; Baxter Wolfe; John Ehrlichman AND Bob Woodward; Mr. Pink (uncredited); and the voice of Vincent Van Gogh.

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11 Responses to “Grift to the Scaffold”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    Were enrollments better I’d love to do a Jim Thompson class only we’d all end up suicidal at the end and that would not help “recruitment” and “retention” . I’ve really enjoyed Frears’s A VERY ENGLISH AFFAIR with teleplay by Russell T. Davies.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Grifters” is the perfect term for describing Donald Trump and his criminal family of international money-launderers

    As I believe I mentioned Annette Benning told me doing this role started her on a Jim Thompson kick, reading everything by him she could get her hands on. While he met her on “Bugsy” and married her very shortly afterwards I think her performance here is why Warren fell.

  3. David Wingrove Says:

    I think THE GRIFTERS is a vastly better movie than DANGEROUS LIAISONS – where John Malkovich and Glenn Close are such leering pantomime gargoyles that I simply can’t believe their victims are dumb enough to trust them. I mean, surely even Keanu Reeves isn’t THAT dumb?

    It’s also a while since I last saw it and I had totally forgotten it was set in the present day. It has the aura of a period piece even though its costumes and decor are contemporary. I assume that is what Frears was aiming for. If so, it’s a phenomenal achievement!

    I agree with Tony that A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL is exceptional. It may be a TV series, but it’s still a better movie than most movies! Oh, and CHERI with Michelle Pfeiffer is one of my favourite films made since the year 2000.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    About a hundred years ago O. Henry did a collection of stories titled “The Gentle Grafter”, narrated by a polite confidence man. So grift may have begun as graft, eventually dividing into two words with different meanings (graft is straight-up abuse of office for financial gain, often sans the finesse association with grift).

    A favorite story had the narrator visiting a rich old farmer, as media savvy as one could be in 1917, who was not only wise to all the cons but a condescending critic of same. A fellow con man took the opposite approach: Sporting a loud suit, he showed up on the farmer’s porch with the old shell game. The farmer eagerly lost a pile of cash, seduced by nostalgia.

  5. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Frears first caught my attention with “Bloody Kids”(198) — a TV movie that had the punch and stature of a theatrical feature. After that came the one-two punch of his Hanif Kureshi movies “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “Sammie and Rosie Get Lad.” He got Big Studio cred from “Dangerous Liasons” but his best work has been smaller-scaled like “The Grifters,” “Cherie” and “Florence Foster Jenkins.” The last mention has La Streep camping it to the max as Hugh looks on semi-horrified. Best of all its go Simon Helberg of “The Big Bang Theory” as the magnificently named “Cosme McMoon” — pianist to “Madame Florence” who can barely believe the show is actually going to go on. It ends with him being seduced by a Flossie fan and giving up music for body-building.

  6. A Very English Affair was alternately brilliant and frustrating for me. Davies can’t resist cramming his research into the dialogue, making people say things they’d never say so we can learn what he wants us to learn. But the story is fascinating and he unfolds it with great skill. The performances are terrific.

    With Frears, I’m a big fan of Gumshoe. “A proper film. A family film,” he joked as he signed my still of Albert Finney.

    Dangerous Liaisons goes all in on the Sadeian evil and innocence thing. Maybe Frears was wrong when he said he had to use closeups so we could see the characters lying. I like it and also Forman’s Valmont, which scarcely feels like the same source, because he was concerned to make the monstrous characters as appealing as possible.

  7. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    For me VALMONT ranks head and shoulders above DANGEROUS LIAISONS. The villains in that film – played brilliantly by Annette Bening and Colin Firth – are so entirely charming that you understand perfectly well why their victims fall for them. It also has a visual luxuriance and sophistication that the Frears film lacks.

    Mind you, DANGEROUS LIAISONS is still a whole lot better than the Euro TV remake from 2003. That one is updated to the Swinging 60s and stars Catherine Deneuve and Rupert Everett, Nastassja Kinksi and Danielle Darrieux – but it still contrives to be dull. It was directed by Josee Dayan, whose work for French TV over the years has ensured the viewing public a good night’s sleep. Rupert refers to it in his memoirs as ‘Dangerous Lesbians.’ Ooh-la-la!

  8. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Davies is indeed too “smart” for his own good — which is why he’s bes suited to writing sci-fi.

    Vadim’s modern dress adaptation of “Les Liasons Dangereuses” is really quite good. Birdbath deep but the cast is delicious. Don’t forget “Cruel Intentions” a recent version set among the east coast preppie set. It’s quite an unintentional hoot.

  9. David Wingrove Says:

    But my dear, have you seen the remake?!

  10. The ability to make a movie set in the present day and have it subtly feel like an older period piece was also a John Huston trademark, as seen in Wise Blood.

  11. Prizzi’s Honor might fall into that category too. It feels period, but the cars are mostly modern, I think, except for the wacky one that shows up in a key role at the end.

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