The Grifters  (1990) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Tuna's comments in white:

The Grifters (1990) was made using B film noir as a starting point. The film is a made from the novel of the same name by Jim Thompson, which is set in the 50's. Donald E. Westlake's script is more ambiguous about the era.

John Cusack is a short term small-time grifter (con artist). His mother, Angelica Huston, does layoff betting for a huge bookie at tracks around the country. Cusack is seeing Annette Bening, who is also a grifter, but is more of a long term big picture con artist, used to working on big scams as part of a team. We are introduced to all three characters simultaneously at the start of the film, because, although the plot line seems to be about the Cusack character, it is really about the women.

Cusack tries to con a bartender out of $10.00. The bartender catches him at it, and shoves a baseball bat into his stomach, causing internal injuries. Huston is in California to place bets at Del Mar, stops to see her son, and realizes that he is seriously injured. Using her connections, she gets him into a hospital. It is there that she meets, and instantly hates Bening. In fact, that cat fighting is so good, you feel like they are battling the entire film. Huston fails to place an important bet while she is taking care of her son, and is in big trouble with the bookie.

I will leave the plot there, in case some of you have not seen it.


Annette Bening shows everything, including a full frontal. The nudity is very dark, but very nice

Scoop's notes in yellow:

The Grifters is a fine piece of atmospheric filmmaking, with a top-notch cast, but actually not that much of a story. You'd think in a movie about con men, they'd have everybody conning everyone else constantly, but the movie instead concentrated on the characters and the effect of their insane profession on their ability to lead a "normal" life. In a way, everyone does double-cross everyone else, although not with gimmicky capers, but just because that's the attendant professional hazard of the life they have chosen. They have to trick, lie, and steal to survive. Like sharks, they normally eat other game, but they'll eat each other if it is necessary to survive.

Annette Bening isn't too hard on the eyes. Her face was absolutely gorgeous - her smile is just scintillating. In her own way, she has the best smile in film history - just as great a smile as Cameron Diaz's, for example -  Bening's smile is more knowing than Cam's, more seductive, more amused with herself. She did nude scenes here, but she actually looks better with her clothes on, because her legs are great, and clothing hides the flaws in some of her other bits. Maybe because of all that, they kept the nude scenes dark, but she's so pretty and so seductive that you'll never really see any flaws. Before I studied this movie, I wondered why this particular woman was able to bring that ol' lecher Warren Beatty into matrimony, but now I can understand the power of her appeal.

Huston, on the other hand, looked too old for the role. In reality Huston and Cusack were just about the exact age of the characters in the script (Huston was 39, like her character, and Cusack was 24 compared to 25 for the character). The dialogue assures us repeatedly that Huston was not supposed to look old enough to be Cusack's mother, but the problem is that she was not a young looking 39, and she looked plenty old enough to be his mom, so the dialogue sounded loony in context. (Until the last minute, the director was also considering Sissy Spacek or Cher for the role, and Melanie Griffith was actually hired at one point.)

The film does have some flaws. For one, some of the scams and plot details don't make sense.

  • At one point, John Cusack is fleecing some sailors into a game with loaded dice. He gets them interested by pretending to find one of the dice on the floor. That much is sensible, but where did he get the second die from? He already told the sailors that the first one wasn't his, so would they be likely to believe that he happened to find a match, or even less likely, happened to have a matching one in his possession?
  • Why in the world would Anjelica Huston be stuffing the secret stash of money into her car in public at the track, in full view of the clubhouse? She wouldn't. That was a cheesy plot device to allow Annette Bening to see the cash.
  • I'll be damned if I can figure out what finally happened to the money in the car.
  • More important, why did Huston leave all the money in the car after her faked death. Since nobody knew how much was in there, nobody would have known if she left a fourth behind and took the rest. It just made no sense that she abandoned 100% of the money. With the majority of that stash, she would have had no need for Cusack's stash.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen anamorphic 1.85:1.

  • Feature Commentary track with director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Donald Westlake, actors John Cusack & Angelica Huston

  • The Making of The Grifters

  • The Jim Thompson Story

  • The Grifters scrapbook

Those things aren't really important, however. It isn't a sting movie or a caper flick. It's a character study, and a portrayal of how the fight for survival affects people in the criminal life. In those respects, it is a fascinating and entertaining movie.

The Grifters was nominated for four Oscars (including best director), but is rarely discussed among the great films of the 90's.

The Critics Vote

  • Roger Ebert 4/4.

  • The film was nominated for four Oscars: best director, best adapted screenplay, and the two main actresses.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. Voting results: IMDb voters score it a near-classic 7.2/10


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, B. (Both reviewers). Tuna says, speaking for both, "This is a very good noir - so good, in fact, that many who do not usually enjoy the genre like this one."

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