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REVIEW: Lilly Dillion is a master con artist. She knows all the angles and has seen it all. That’s why she knows her son Roy, trying himself to make it in the racket, is in over his head, especially after he takes a bat to the gut and ends up in the hospital. It’s there where she meets Roy’s new girlfriend, a woman a few years older who appears to be innocent but is entirely not. Myra is in her prime and uses her sexuality to get exactly what she wants. She’s paying rent with her body.
Meanwhile, Lilly misses a job that costs her mob boss a lot of money. She tries to explain that she was with her son in the hospital but Bobo doesn’t have any sympathy. He burns her hand with a cigar while threatening to beat her with a towel full of oranges. It’s a nasty, frightening moment. Not long after, Roy takes Myra on a train ride where she secretly watches him easily con a few sailors out of some cash and she’s hooked for good. She reveals her history as a grifter and asks him to partner up on a long con. He suspects he’s being roped, and refuses, but she persists and begins to see the powerful influence his mother has.
Produced by Martin Scorsese, directed by Stephen Frears and written by acclaimed novelist Donald Westlake (Parker Series), The Grifters has a unique feel, full of rich dialogue and atmospheric direction. It’s a 1950s con game set in the early 90s and works oh so very well.
The three leads are discovering a lot about each other. Roy and Lilly have a complicated relationship that seems to thrive on hurting, and Myra is showing her manipulative side. Roy has just had a confrontation with Lilly and now Myra is pushing him too far. Roy is clearly small-time. He gets is income off small scams and misdirection. He thinks he is bigger than he is. Myra spent ten years with a real long con man who, after years of stealing money from the rich and naive, ended up in a facility for the criminally insane. She is hungry to get back in the game and sees potential in Roy. This scene is important in that it reveals just how wise Roy might be, and how clearly his mother has shaped him, despite her long absence.
Conmen movies are an interesting genre. They are criminals, but not the kind we want to see lose. We are fascinated by their confidence and love to watch their cleverness fool the foolish, thinking all along we would never fall for it like the taken do. From classics like The Sting to remakes like Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job, it’s fun to see the setup and payoff. The Grifters is about the characters. Westlake’s script is so sharp, it drips with style. Things happen that are not expected and it moves forward like a set of falling dominoes, though we’re never really sure where it is going and just how many pieces are gonna remain standing.
There is an uneasy feeling about this film right from the unset. We’re at a horse track and a slow crane shot reveals a line of cars entering the Downs. We hear Martin Scorsese narrate the only three exposition sentences of the entire film. And Elmer Berstein’s wonderfully claustrophobic and anxious score starts to build. Angelica Houston in a wild sugar white wig pulls up and has the stone face of a woman in absolute command. As she starts a climb up a long stairwell, the screen splits, following her and then Roy as he pulls up to a Bennigan’s and heads for the door. But then it splits again. Myra enters and makes her way to a jewelry store. We now shadow all three as they each approach an entrance. They then stop and turn. It’s a brilliant opening (dreamt up by Westlake) and instantly pulls us in.
Perhaps it’s telling that only Lilly doesn’t smile. It might explain a lot about her history and probably more about her experience. Either way, the shot is remarkable and the sequence, with no dialogue, reveals a lot about the characters we are about to meet. Lilly is big time, that is obvious. She’s got her nose in the racing forms and we know from one look this is not the first time she’s been here. Myra is opposite. She’s playful and we sense right away that her brains are not the tools of her con. She’s all sex appeal and there hasn’t been a man yet that has said no. Roy, on the other hand, is undoubtedly the least capable, though he isn’t aware of his weakness. His standard for success is low but for him the challenge is the reward, and it’s the small victories that satisfy him most. But he is a tool for his women and they are the one who will destroy him.
Of the three, Lilly is the most complex. She is nearly a professional con artist but is still working for a mob boss named Bobo Justus, played by Pat Hingle in the film’s most frightening role. Lilly’s job is to dump big money on the long odd horse to tank those odds and make money for the house. She’s also skimming off the winnings and scrapping up loose tickets for short change and hiding the money in her car’s trunk. When she’s too late at one track because she was taking care of Roy, Bobo calls her in. He is passive aggressive and smiles as he threatens. He never demands but asks and she complies even though she is setting herself up for what could be a horrible outcome.
Myra is the desperate one. She’s holding on to her looks but it’s become the only thing she can rely on. She needs to get back in the game for the long con and score big money. Roy is young, blinded by her ravenous sexuality, and initially oblivious to her nefarious background. She flowers up the deal, regaling him with tales of he past when she and her old partner suckered big money from rich old men with a taste for young tail and easy cash. “I kissed a motherfuckin’ frog and you’re my prince,” she says to Roy. But he proves himself smarter than he appears when he suspects she’s roping him as a mark. He’s not wrong. He was taught well. Years before, he learned from a street con named Mintz who taught him from the start, never take a partner. It cuts your money in half right away and worse, you put an apple on your head give the other guy a shotgun. Forget the long con.
Roy’s persistent rejection leads Myra to suspect Lilly has her fingers in Roy’s future. Jealous and frustrated, she takes to following Roy’s mother and learns of her money-skimming scheme. It becomes a costly thing to witness. Convinced she has the upper hand, and able to swing Roy to her side, she makes a dreadful decision. She follows Lilly, who is now on the run, to a seedy hotel on the outskirts and, dressed in a robe with a bucket of ice, playing the hotel guest who mistakenly enters the wrong room, she makes her move on Lilly. It is shocking for us because as it happens, we are convinced of one thing, but something else occurs. It’s a nice twist, and reveals even further how one woman is prepared and the other is not.
Filmed much like a stage play, the actors are well cast. Sticking with Myra for a moment, Anette Bening was mostly a new face at the time of release but exploded after her smoldering performance, earning a well-deserved Oscar nomination. She spends much of her time in various states of undress, including some full frontal nudity, but is equally erotic and sexually charged when she is fully clothed. She plays Myra with a twist of playfulness stops just short of over-the-top, which is perfect in every way.
The Grifters didn’t do well at the box office. In limited release in a few theaters, it was no match against Edward Scissorhands and disappeared quickly, though critics praised it. Come award season, it got a bit more attention. The years have been kind and it is now considered a classic in the genre and a must see for Angelica Houston fans. Noir-ish to a degree, positively brimming with slippery dialogue, and constantly shifting expectations, it’s a fun and dark journey we gladly take.