Posted by: gdevi | July 5, 2012

Movie Review: The Grifters (1990)

I am a fan of film noir and I have been religiously re-watching some of the noir movies this week getting my daughter to watch them with me. I like film noir primarily because of their iconic images; there are few film genres that manufacture images so precisely and with so much emotion the way noir directors do. I also like film noir because this is the only genre that really understands the boundless self-interest that defines capitalism metaphorically and metonymically. Family, love, work, faith, friendship–these are words you would never utter in the noir register. The noir world is populated with women and men who are frauds, whose defining feature is self-interest. All transactions, all bonds are centered on protecting oneself at any cost.  The extreme over-the-topness of this trait for all the noir characters makes this genre ultimately belong to an existential paradigm: what is the worth of a human being who destroys the world for self-interest?  The noir genre unflinchingly shows you the answer: zero.  As Shakespeare said in Macbeth,” I dare do all that may become a man/ who dares do more is none.”  The noir characters are nobody in that existential sense.  This is why the noir characters are never punished for their crimes. This is why there is virtually no police in the true noir. The noir characters do things no human being should do, and in return they have to live until they die. The best of the noir genre–in both literature and film–has much in common with Greek tragedies and Shakespeare.  The best of these–The Big Sleep, Kiss Me Deadly, China Town, Reservoir Dogs, The Grifters— are great movies both conceptually and cinematically.

There are many iconic scenes in The Grifters. Number one is the scene where Roy Dillon (John Cusack) gets punched in the stomach by a bartender when he tries to pull a con on him. Only the noir will show you this incredibly violent scene with such patience and granularity; the point of this scene is not to make you feel any sympathy for Roy Dillon, because you don’t–he is a crook–but to show you the bartender is a crook as well, a more beefed-up crook with better eye sight and better reflexes. In fact, there are no clean characters in noirs.  They might have their weak moments–like Roy taking one in the gut–but they will attack when things are in their favor. Take for instance, the racketeer Bobo Justus for whom Lily (Angelica Houston), Roy’s mother works. Lily gets punched in the gut exactly the way her son does; Bobo cracks her in the stomach when he discovers Lily had shafted him in a racing deal. This scene must be synoptically viewed with Lily’s attack on other multiple characters later. Both the mother and the son are violent frauds and crooks working for bigger and more violent frauds and crooks.

Or take the character of Moira Langtry (Annette Bening), Roy Dillon’s girlfriend, a grifter herself, who plays Lady Macbeth to Roy’s tentative Macbeth, the “roper” who tries to steer him from small-time cons to big-time cons. Promiscuous from head to toe, Langtry will drop her clothes and have sex with anyone; that is how she lives and pays her bills. In an iconic scene, when Roy and Moira go away on holiday to La Jolla–they are following Lily actually, but neither one of them admits it to themselves or to each other—Moira books herself a separate room. Roy is understandably disappointed, but then he receives a phone call from Moira, asking him to open the door and wait for a surprise. When Roy opens the door, Moira steps out of her own room stark naked and walks through the hallway pretending to play a catch-me-if-you-can game. Sexuality in noir films is always dark, perverse and repressed, usually sublimated homophobia or incest, with the especial hallmark equation between violence, masculinity and sexuality. As with all things in American pop culture, Quentin Tarantino gave the best explication of the role and purpose of sexuality in noir films in his incredible “True-Blue-Madonna-Like a Virgin” dialog in Reservoir Dogs.  Why, “Like a Virgin”? Because only great violence and pain can connect True Blue’s sordid present with her pre-sordid past.  Only Roy Dillon needs to chase Moira to bed her; in fact, she does not really need to be chased at all.

It was very interesting and a testament to the film’s true noir ethos that the very first time we see Lily and Roy together, mother and son, my daughter asked me once, asked me twice, and asked me again, “Mama, who is she? Is she his mother? Is she really his mother?” Usually when a scene showcases a mother and son, despite any angularities of the interaction, nobody actually doubts the kinship. But in a noir, mothers are not mothers and fathers are not fathers, not really. In Lily’s final and decisive assault upon Roy’s life we see the essence of the noir self-interest. It is to Jim Thompson’s credit, the pulp fiction author of the novel The Grifters that he created perhaps the only complete female counterpoint to John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown.

A very, very good movie, even when seen a second time. Now, off to read the latest Elmore Leonard novel, my favorite hard-boiled fiction.


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