Archive for The Grifters

Grift to the Scaffold

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2019 by dcairns

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now — but I immediately noticed that, while the film opens with a quotation designed to acquaint its audience with the outdated term in the title, that term is now being slung around by both US political parties.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.

Watch Your Stepfather

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2019 by dcairns

Finally got around to THE STEPFATHER (1987), scripted by my beloved Donald E. Westlake. Although I had to make do with a rather crummy 4:3 DVD with a smeary image which made the film look even cheaper than it was.

That cheapness doesn’t have any negative impact on the visuals, but the synth score is intermittently a bother. Since the whole film aims for a HALLOWEEN look (suburban autumn — it’s an unavoidable connection), a score that was unapologetically electro could work, but this is one of those synth tracks that keeps trying to remind us of PSYCHO. Synth strings = ugh. I’ve been guilty of using them myself, I admit. Never again. All real violin in my last one.

Seems like this was a career high for a lot of those involved, people who by rights should have gone on to even better things: director Joseph Rubin is more than efficient, he conjures all the necessary suspense and moves the camera smartly and gracefully. I haven’t seen his later films, which look kind of… commercial? I should give them a try. Where to start? (And why didn’t he immediately make more films with Westlake? Maybe he tried.)

Oh, I have to admit, the interiors are a little… smoky. Well, it’s the eighties. But it’s PARTICULARLY noticable here that this lighting effect has no naturalistic reason to exist. Deduct points.

Westlake knew he had to do this film when the story was pitched to him and the central serial killer turned out to be doing something that Westlake’s own father did: leaving his job but not telling his family, going in “to work” every day but in reality looking for new employment. With Westlake Sr. the explanation was more innocent: he was laid off during the depression and was too ashamed to tell his wife. The Stepfather is just getting ready to move on to a new town and start a new family, as soon as he’s gotten rid of the old one, which isn’t working out for him…

Jill Schoelen is a great final girl, convincing as a teenager despite being around 24. Westlake writes shamelessly corny teenage stuff that feels REAL and is beautifully played. Then there’s the dependable Shelley Hack, so good in KING OF COMEDY. And Terry O’Quinn is just perfect as the psycho stepdad, taking some very well-crafted creepy stuff right to the edge. A lot of his choices — banality of evil cornpone — are risky, and wouldn’t work with another actor, but are just right for him. And while finding too much sympathy for this character would be plain wrong, you get the clear sense that this is not a happy man. His murders are part of his own disintegrating personality. “Waaiit a minute.. who am I here?” is a chilling moment.

All the actors are good, and the ones who have a B-movie blandness or else a lack of charisma are in fact perfect for their assigned roles. The movie has both an Arbogast AND an O’Halloran, characters who might be expected to show up and sort things out, but are instead taken out of the picture by the wily psycho.

Westlake’s skill at piling problems together to make suspenseful crises is much in evidence, and he knows his genre and can stretch it — on a couple of occasions, predictability is shortcircuited by outbursts of excessive violence, which is a wholly genre-appropriate way to keep things moveing and edgy. The small roles are well written (Westlake loved old movies and could channel their ability to sketch a memorable characterisation in moments) and both logic and good sense get their due. It’s a crying shame he didn’t write more movies that got made, and that so many of the adaptations are guff.

Guess it’s time I rewatched THE GRIFTERS, which allows us to see his response to Jim Thompson. His response to Patricia Highsmith, RIPLEY UNDERGROUND (a weird book with great scenes but ridiculous plotting) got rewritten, but I’m still curious to see it. Then there’s the enjoyable COPS AND ROBBERS (directed by the underrated Aram Avakian) and then there’s HOT STUFF and WHY ME? about which I have my doubts, but what the hell. I recently watched HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO so I can’t really turn my nose up at them in advance.

And LE COMMISSAIRE MENE L’ENQUETE appears to be completely unavailable, with or without subtitles. Stars Dany Carrel. Be still, my beating heart. Well, LE COUPERET is the best film adaptation of Westlake, so one can say that he had some good luck in France (though it’s questionable if MADE IN USA even counts as a Westlake adaptation…)

Guidance from the experts?

Stark Truths

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2014 by dcairns

westlake

I’m nearly finished reading Donald Westlake’s Richard Stark Parker books (that’s the books written by Westlake using the name Stark about a heister named Parker). When I’m done I may celebrate by rewatching POINT BLANK (the best film adaptation) or THE GRIFTERS (scripted by Westlake) or by watching THE STEPFATHER, which I’ve never seen. At present, since I’ve been reading the books in the order I could get them, I have The Seventh and Butcher’s Moon left to go. The last-named was the climax of the first phase of Stark’s work, after which he disappeared for twenty-three years, unbidden, leaving Westlake to subsist on the less lucrative novels published under his own name.

So this was a near-perfect time for The Getaway Car to turn up. This is a collection of Westlake’s non-fiction work — interviews, introduction, essays and letters — collated by my online friend, regular Shadowplayer Levi Stahl, who blogs at I’ve Been Reading Lately. Despite having never met face to face, we’re perhaps chummy enough to make this not so much a review as just an appreciation. I was never comfortable with the consumer guide aspect of criticism anyway, so please just regard this as an enumeration of some of the things in this tome, and make your own decisions.

Westlake had a brilliant criminal mind (after reading some of his stuff, the problem-solving part of his skillset becomes very noticeable in John Boorman’s adaptation, POINT BLANK), and if there’s any disappointment to be had from the collection it’s that he isn’t able to pass the gift on to the rest of us. He writes about writing a bit, but it’s not a book of tips — except you will get some good hints about other crime writers worth checking out. You learn about Westlake’s influences and who he rated, and it’s a surprise to find a passing swipe at PG Wodehouse since Westlake from Plum the notion of characters being referred to by beverage (from Wodehouse’s Mulliner stories —> Westlake’s Dortmunder novels). But there are great appreciations of Hammett and Poe and Willeford and someone I didn’t know called Peter Rabe, and some fascinating insights into Westlake’s screenwriting career. He credits Stephen Frears’ persuading him to adapt Jim Thompson for THE GRIFTERS as triggering the reemergence of hardboiled Stark, for which we can all be grateful.

And we can be grateful for Westlake’s perfect summation of Dortmunder as “a capable and workmanlike professional criminal who lives under a black cloud (me).”

We also learn the complicated and amusing circumstances under which Jean-Luc Godard’s MADE IN USA, an adaptation of Stark’s The Jugger (which he dismisses as his worst book — I liked it fine) wound up with its US rights owned by Westlake. A story which might be salutary and helpful to movie producers, somehow.

My copy of the book is an uncorrected proof. My favourite typo = a reference to something called “Cayenne paper.” The kind of hot, strongly flavoured, spicy paper Westlake/Stark typed on, no doubt.

The typo will be corrected by the time you go here and buy: The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany