Once a week on Monday, Uncle Bardie shares a movie with his Readers he gives a big two thumbs up. It will simply be a short excerpt or a trailer. Uncle Bardie might even throw in a reflection on the movie. If so, it will make an appearance below the video. So pop some popcorn and give yourself a treat. This week’s movie is “The Grifters” (1990):
Alfred Hitchcock was one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. His name is up there with the legends. Directors such as Billy Wilder, David Lean, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, John Huston. Many consider him not just one of the greatest but the greatest director of all time. His influence on everything concerning filmmaking from lighting to music pervades all genres of film today. Just the MacGuffin technique alone continues to shape storytelling plots.
Few directors have mastered the Hitchcockian technique to create movies that could be considered equal to the best of the master’s. Billy Wilder’s “Witness for the Prosecution”, J. Lee Thompson’s “Cape Fear”, the Coen Brothers’ “Blood Simple”, Lawrence Kasdan’s “Body Heat”, Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter”, Stephen Frear’s “The Grifters”, Paul Verhoefen’s “Basic Instinct”.
The one thing all these movies lack, and why Hitchcock is so unique, is his sense of humor. What other director would have his characters trip over a dead body, then ignore it as the master does with “The Trouble With Harry”? Not many because it would be too risky.
Of all these movies, only one, Stephen Frears’ “The Grifters” (1990), falls just a smidgen short. “The Grifters” is based upon the Jim Thompson pulp novel and given the Donald E. Westlake treatment. John Cusack is all grown-up in this movie. He’s a grifter. A grift is a petty swindle. He does his daily bread by grifting from one small-time con to another. Only petty stuff. Nothing that would set him up for life. John is conservative. The Long Con scares the crackers out of him. He’ll stick with the Short Con, thank you very much. He may be a lot of things, but he ain’t greedy.
An example: A twenty-year-old John walks into a bar and whips out a twenty. The bartender sees the twenty when John orders a beer. The bartender grabs John a beer. John slips the twenty inside his palm and slips a ten in its place. The bartender doesn’t notice and hands John eighteen dollars in change. John moves on to the next sucker. Doing this and other tatts, he can easily make several hundred on a good day. Occasionally he hits the wrong bartender. This bartender takes out his baseball bat and punches John in the stomach. Hard. It puts him in bed with a lot of pain.
Anjelica Huston—yes, that Anjelica Huston, daughter of the world-famous director, John Huston—is his mother. Since she was a teenage mother, Anjelica is more John’s contemporary than a mom. One thing is for sure. John doesn’t celebrate Mother’s Day. He has not seen Mom in eight years, and hopes he won’t have to see her for double that many to come.
Mom has a job. She works for the Syndicate. She moves from race track to race track. Her job, to place bets to lower the odds on a long shot. On the side, she grifts too, skimming away a few bucks from each day’s take. A hundred here. A hundred there. Never going for the gusto. It’s expected by her boss. He wouldn’t trust an honest crook.
Mom and Sonny works by their wits. Annette Bening, The Girlfriend in this Triangle, uses her body to manipulate her prey whether he be a jeweler or a landlord. (This was Bening’s break-out.) She and Sonny have hooked up. She sees a Long Con in him.
As you can see, we’re in Alfred Hitchcock and Elmo Leonard territory.
As if they weren’t already, things get interesting when Mom shows up out of the clear blues and discovers Sonny in agony from the punch in the tummy. She calls a crooked doctor she knows. He rushes her to the hospital. Girlfriend enters his room, wiggling her little tushy. Mom can spot a vampire when she sees one.
She leaves Sonny in Sexy’s capable care and hurries to the races. Unfortunately she misses a race and the race has a 70-to-1 odds winner. She is now up shit creek without a paddle. Bobo is not going to be happy.