The Grifters: Collector's Series

John Cusack, Angelica Huston, Annette Bening. Directed by Stephen Frears. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Surround 2.0. 110 minutes. 1990. Miramax 27184. R. $19.99.

A filming of the novel by Jim Thompson, The Grifters is both a modern-day Greek tragedy and a survival story, depending on how you look at it. John Cusack plays Roy, a con artist on the "short grift"—he works the con alone—and posing as a salesman. Unbeknownst to Roy, his girlfriend, Myra (Annette Bening), is also a grifter, looking for the right partner to team up with for the "long grift." Myra is overly ambitious, and will do anything to regain her glory days, when the scams left her rolling in the dough.

When Lily, Roy's mother (whom he calls by name), shows up at his door while passing through "Los Aing-eles," she upsets the balance between Roy and Myra, likely due to the palpable sexual tension between her and her son. Lily's been on the grift her whole life, teaching her son, as writer Donald Westlake says in the feature commentary, "to learn to be self-reliant or die." She works for a sort of con-pimp, from whom she is, of course, stealing. Once Myra discovers this and rats her out, the drama is intensified, so much so that the commentary is riddled with talk of Lily's "descent into hell," as represented by her elevator ride to her son's apartment, dressed in blood red. The film's climax is where the questions come in: Is this the son's story or the mother's? Tragedy or survival story?

The Grifters is fantastically acted. Annette Bening flits about L.A. with a twinkle in her eye that belies a darker temperament, and an intense if coquettish sexuality that she uses at every turn. Angelica Houston is, as the director says, a "force of nature" with a shock of platinum hair. In the feature commentary, director Stephen Frears talks about the casting of John Cusack, who had mostly done films, such as Say Anything, in which he played the quintessential boy next door. From his performance here, however, you'd never have known it, despite the fact that he's the only member of the bizarre triangle who has any semblance of a conscience. Good thing Frears didn't see those early films until much later.

The commentary track—with Houston, Cusack, Frears, and Westlake—is full of insight and reveals some of the wonderful visual strategies, such as the gradual intensification of red as the film progresses, and the blurring of eras through the commingling of outfits and architecture from the 1940s and '80s and cars from the '70s, which accounts for the film's timeless ambiance. Other extras include a rather short documentary about the making of the film, a theatrical trailer, and production notes.

The Grifters looks good in this transfer, especially toward its end, when the colors become more saturated in correlation to the drama. Darker bar scenes look a little soft at the beginning, but fleshtones are natural throughout, and there are no significant artifacts other than an occasional hint of grain.

What caught my attention was the soundtrack. While the Dolby Digital 5.1 is about par for the course—nothing jumped out at me as being particularly remarkable in the way of directional effects, and the dialogue is natural—Elmer Bernstein's orchestral score is not only the perfect accompaniment for the action of the film, it sounds quite fantastic.

This Hobbesian take on the lives of con artists, which are usually portrayed as more clever than seedy, isn't to be missed, and this DVD is the best edition we've seen so far, with more extras than the 1998 version. A definite staple of any respectable video library.