“You smell good, Myra – like a bitch in a hothouse!” “My son’s going to be all right. If not I’ll have you killed.” “You want to stick to that story or you want to keep your teeth?” For a hard-boiled crime novelist who spent most of his lifetime toiling in the wilderness and went to his grave in 1977 without one of his 30-odd thrillers in print in his native US, Jim Thompson could sure write some choice dialogue. Not for nothing does John Cusack call the script for The Grifters, Stephen Frears’ stylishly retro adap of one of the author’s most representative works, “a diamond-hard, sparse bullet train moving towards an inevitable conclusion.” Cusack plays Roy, the small-time con-artist caught between his mother (Anjelica Huston) and girlfriend (Annette Bening), each as bloodlessly shifty as himself. If screenwriter Donald E Westlake deserves praise for anything, it’s for letting Thompson’s bleak world view reach the screen with its coldly amoral nihilism intact.
Too amoral for the Academy, who favoured Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves that year and plumped for Kathy Bates’ mountain of menace in Misery over Huston’s pinpoint predator. Still, there are no tears from Frears in the cast-and-crew commentary that is this Special Edition’s most ear-nabbing extra, his blokish good humour and genial self-deprecation providing a neat counterpoint to Cusack’s po-faced intellectualising and Huston’s wistful nostalgia. Westlake is good value too, his theory that Thompson wrote “Greek tragedy for the underclass” doing much to clarify the incestuous Oedipal subtext that remains the film’s most queasily fascinating element. No slouch of a crime writer himself, he also chips in with some smart turns of phrase, memorably likening his protagonists at one point to “three ferrets in a box”.
A competent Making Of and a brief featurette on Thompson help plug the gaps, while the movie itself is a classy treat from its ingenious, era-straddling production design to Elmer Bernstein’s brilliantly jaunty score. Two niggles, though. Where are the deleted flashbacks Westlake refers to, starring Martin Landau’s daughter Juliet as the youthful Huston? And where the hell is Annette Bening, who got her first Oscar nomination as seductive sexpot Myra and who – given her follow-up role in Bugsy and subsequent marriage to its star – perhaps prospered most of all from her time on the grift? It might also have been illuminating to hear from producer Martin Scorsese, the brains behind the project, whose participation here is sadly limited to a couple of lines of expository voiceover.