Tuesday 18 September 8pm

"It's hard to think of an American film about the criminal life that is less sentimental or more impressive." - David Thompson  

Martin Scorsese was originally set to direct The Grifters. Perhaps we should be grateful that  he didn’t. A few months before The Grifters came out, the film Scorsese made instead was released - Goodfellas!

In the end Scorsese produced the film and asked a Brit, Stephen Frears, to direct it. This was Frears’ first American film. He’d just made Dangerous Liaisons and had also won critical acclaim for My Beautiful Laundrette and his biopic of Joe Orton Prick Up Your Ears.

The Grifters is adapted from a 1963 novel by Jim Thompson. Thompson wrote some of the best pulp crime novels in the 1950s and 60s. Quite a few have been adapted for the screen including The Getaway starring Steve McQueen and Michael Winterbottom’s  The Killer lnside Me, which came out last year and caused a fair share of controversy.

Someone wrote of Thompson that he’d “given Greek tragedy to the underclass”. That’s certainly true of The Grifters where the Fates hover over the shoulders of all three main characters. There’s also something on an Oedipal relationship going on between Anjelica Huston and John Cusack's characters.

The novel was adapted by Donald E Westlake who was a prolific novelist and screenwriter. He wrote under more than a dozen pseudonyms and Frears actually wanted him to be credited under his pen-name Richard Stark. As Stark, Westlake wrote the 1962 novel The Hunter, which John Borman later adapted as the Lee Marvin classic Point Blank.

The film does update the story to the late 80s but one of the film’s great achievements is that it retains a period feel both in terms of look and style. The opening title sequence with a great jazzy score introduces a sun-baked, washed out Los Angeles that could be the setting for a Chandler mystery. The locations certainly don’t all look modern and Frears also uses split screen early on in the film - a technique that was very common in the 60s but rarely seen in the 90s.

The old-school B-movie feel also comes from casting Anjelica Huston as the manipulative mother in the film. Her dad, John Huston, made one of the greatest Hollywood film noirs - The Maltese Falcon. The other woman in the film is played by Annette Bening in  one of her early breakout roles. Frears encouraged her to look at films starring Gloria Grahame like The Big Heat and The Bad & The Beautiful and there’s clearly a 1950s moll feel to her performance.

This was a big film  for John Cusack too. Before The Grifters he was really famous for romantic comedies like Say Anything and The Sure Thing and became known more as serious actor after The Grifters. It’s also worth noting that he reunited with Stephen Frears 10 years later for High Fidelity.

Beyond the stars you might also recognise some great American character actors: Stephen Tobolowsky, J T Walsh and Pat Hingle as a really fearsome mob boss. And finally if any of you are fans of the TV show Entourage, keep an eye out for a very young Jeremy Piven as a young sailor in a scene on a train. 

Watch the original trailer >>

Why did we pick it?

Simple. Our previous film Paper Moon is about a pair of con-artists and this is a great con-artist film too.

AuthorTufnell Park Film Club