Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Grifters on screen: Naked noir

The 1990 movie adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel The Grifters has much going for it: strong performances all around, a script by Donald Westlake, bit parts for character actors who look as thuggish and dangerous or thick and greedy and vulnerable and stupid as the characters are supposed to be, nicely staged cons, and the joy of seeing Annette Bening naked (she just seems to be having so much fun, rare for any performer.)
Mostly, though, the book, despite dropping one of Thompson's dark little subplots, offers a simple two-point definition of noir:
  • The characters who die are neither deserving villains nor innocent victims.
  • No one who's let alive is any better off at the beginning than at the end.
That's noir.

The movie's Wikipedia article reports some overheated, self-important tosh about the film, some of it possibly true. One advantage books have over movies is that their creators don't usually call them projects or report breathlessly that they cried during the creation of certain scenes or say anything as silly about symbolism as Wikipedia reports Martin Scorcese as saying. (Scorcese was the movie's producer.)
*
I enjoyed the movie especially because the novel, which I did not finish, was not among the highlights of my recent burst of Thompson reading (click the link, scroll down). Perhaps this is a case where a movie is better than the novel on which it is based.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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32 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

I remember seeing The Grifters when it first came out and liking it a lot. Several of Thompson's books were made into movies at around that time in some kind of mini revival of interest in him. I know I saw at least one more, but even looking at the Wikipedia article on him, I can't quite remember which it was. I'm guessing it could have been the Alec Baldwin remake of The Getaway.

July 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember liking the movie a few years ago, before the resurgence of my interest in Thompson. The Steve McQueen/Ali MacGraw was weird enough for my taste, and different enough from the book that I'm mildly curious how the newer movie dealt with some of the bits of Thompson's novel that any movie, much less one dominated by a powerful star able to get what wanted, might have had trouble accommodating.

July 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Here’s a list of movies based on Thompson’s novels. How accurate or comprehensive it is, I don’t know.

July 20, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Judging by the chronology it would almost have to have been The Kill Off or After Dark My Sweet because the main thing was that they came out very near each other in time. The plot summaries aren't ringing any particular bells, though.

July 20, 2013  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

'The Kill Off' had a fraction of the budget of the 'After Dark My Sweet' adaptation, seana, and no recognisable actors, but its better than the latter film by some distance: both as a film, and as a Thompson adaptation.

'After Dark My Sweet' was hampered by two wretched lead performances, but the director and scriptwriter must share some of the blame

July 20, 2013  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I've never seen it, as it came out before my interest in Thompson, and I've never gotten around to it. I'm always reluctant to see film adaptations of books I like, because they so often disappoint. I try very hard to judge them separately, but my brain does not cooperate.

July 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I would guess that any movie based on a Thompson novel would have a difficult time matching Thompson's grimness especially if the cast includes a big star. That's why I'm most attracted to The Kill Off among the movies mentioned here.

July 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, you might like The Grifters because it's a good production, with a strong cast, and because it's not entirely unfaithful to Thompson's view of the world. The filmmakers knew what they were doing when they hired Westlake.

But you may have liked the novel better than I did, so I understand your reluctance.

July 20, 2013  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

"any movie based on a Thompson novel would have a difficult time matching Thompson's grimness especially if the cast includes a big star."

Stacy Keach was a good actor for 'The Killer Inside Me', but he certainly needed a better director, if not scriptwriter, also.
'The Grifters' benefits greatly from superb ensemble playing - including three of my favourite character actors.

Not even Bruce Dern could save 'After Dark, My Sweet': his presence was maybe even too much of a distraction.

July 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're right about the superb ensemble acting. I noticed the strong performances in The Grifters in lead parts, supporting roles, and bit parts. Who are those three favorite character actors?

July 21, 2013  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

I really liked the film of the Grifters. Was properly, truly noir. But then, I liked both versions of The Getaway, the latter having better shootouts, the former having Sally Struthers as the vet's dissolute wife. A brilliant turn by the actress.

And just to tie it in, randomly enough, to Steve McQueen and the idea of bad novels making good movies: I'm reading Mute Witness by Robert Pike at the moment. 1€ at Chapters in Dublin, and it's poorly written pulp but the source novel for the brilliant Bullit. (I've yet to get to the car chase in the novel and may not, as it's close to being chucked unfinished in the Vincent de Paul pile, but I can't, somehow, imagine it coming close to the chase in the movie. The book is set in New York, incidentally; the film wisely set in San Fran.)

July 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've only seen the first Getaway, which I did not dislike. I just found it weird. Then I read the novel and, while, the ending was doubtless tidied up so McQueen and his soon to be wife could ride off into the sunset, it makes an odd sort of sense--if one had read the book first.

I did not know the novel on which Bullitt was based had been set in New York. What would moviemakers have done without San Francisco's hills? (Here's an old post about Billitt: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2010/01/bullitt-sounds-of-60s.html )

July 21, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I'm not sure about the casting of this film. Everyone seems a little too clean and neat. No one has bad teeth or skin which is a pre-requisite for a Thompson character. It's just too glossy and slick.

I think Gross Pointe Blank is a better noir-ish vehicle for Cusack.

July 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe that's of a piece with the movie's shift of the setting to contemporary Los Angeles. I wonder if responsibility for too clean a look ought not to be laid at the director's feet rather than the cast. Of course, John Cusack might always look like a teenager no matter how his scenes were lighted.

Do you think Cusack detracts from The Ice Harvest? (I have not seen Grosse Pointe Blank.)

July 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I put up a post some time ago about casting and setting problems in movies based on Westlale’s Dortmunder novels:

Dortmunder is a downmarket type of guy. He slouches. His girlfriend May helps herself to bags of groceries from her job, and Dortmunder's gang always have to scramble for places to sit when they meet in his apartment. Yet the Dortmunder character in the movie Why Me?, for some reason called Gus Cardinale, lives in a clean, sunny apartment that appears full of gorgeous, blond-wood furniture. Why?

Downmarket may not be a big seller.

July 21, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I think GPB is his best film. Obviously excepting The Thin Red Line but he only had a tiny part in that.

July 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if John Cusack has ever worked with David Mamet. He would have been a natural for those movies (maybe plays, too, for all I know) where Mamet would make all the actors speak in that flat, uninflected monotone. Or maybe be would have seemed too natural doing that for Mamet's purposes.

July 22, 2013  
Blogger Dana King said...

I've seen THE GRIFTERS a couple of times, and liked it even more the second time. What I like most about this post is your definition of noir. I like a good noir story, and write a fair amount of it, based on that definition. Neo-noir I can generally live without, as it too often revels in its depravity, gross for the sake of grossness. The masters (Thompson, Cain, et al) never did that.

I like Cusask in THE ICE HARVEST. *Recently re-watched that one, too.) Charlie Arglist is a not wholly bad guy who is in over his head. I thought Cusack was perfect, even after having read the book. (Which, of course, is still better.)

July 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I read a reference to the adaptation of The Grifters as "neo-noir." I didn't know what the term meant or how it applied to The Grifters. (And the definition I just skimmed in another article is one of the weaker that's read for any genre or sub-genre. So your depravity is as good a characteristic as any. Noir is certainly defined by an existential situation, not by violence, depravity, fog, or moody saxophone music.)

July 22, 2013  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

Yep, I think the The Grifters is a better film than book though I do like the book. The Kill Off has a great opening sequence of telephone wires criss crossing and the sound of small town gossip. A fantastic film and I love the book. Whatever happened to Maggie Greenwald - director of The Kill Off? She should be working in TV.

July 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I ought to look for The Kill Off on Netflix or wherever fine films are watched these days.

Interesting that the movie apparently had a low budget. Maybe that's more congenial to books based on Thompson novels. In the meantime, I'll look for the book.

July 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, this is from the Wikipedia Kill-Off article:

"The Kill-Off was a part of the so-called Jim Thompson revival in the late 1980s. At that time, the film was one of three Jim Thompson novel adaptations to be made into a film within one year. The others were The Grifters and After Dark, My Sweet."

July 26, 2013  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

I think it was a truly 'indie' film in the day before Fox Searchlight.

I mentioned it this thing I did about small towns a bit back. http://pauldbrazill.wordpress.com/2012/09/25/small-town-creed/

July 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I wonder if the writers who wrote those horrifying small-town stories tended to be from small towns themselves.

July 26, 2013  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

Oh, I'm sure!

July 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, I don't know. Such stories could grow from the luid imaginations of horrified city dwellers.

July 26, 2013  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

Well, this seems pretty accurate to me. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAZlFF5IXwY

July 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Many thanks. That was excellent. It raises the question of what the English equivalent is of Southern Gothic horror in America. The tied-up road guys could have been two big shots from the the Northeastern United States captures and tortured by a bunch of hillbillies in the Ozarks.

July 26, 2013  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

Have you seen the League Of Gentleman series, Pete?

I didn't click with it at first but grew to love it. very scary and very funny.

July 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This was the first I'd heard of the League of Gentlemen. But I'll surely look for more.

July 26, 2013  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

The surrealist and misanthropic aspects don't work for everyone but if it clicks, it clicks.

July 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jim Thompson could get pretty horror-gothic, as in Savage Night or The Getaway. That plus comedy is a novel combination.

July 26, 2013  

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