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The Grifters Blu-ray Review

The Grifters (1990) movie poster The Grifters

Theatrical Release: December 5, 1990 / Running Time: 110 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Stephen Frears / Writers: Jim Thompson (novel The Grifters); Donald E. Westlake (screenplay)

Cast: John Cusack (Roy Dillon), Anjelica Huston (Lilly Dillon), Annette Bening (Myra Langtry), Pat Hingle (Bobo Justus), J.T. Walsh (Cole Langley/Henry Fellowes), Charles Napier (Gloucester Hebbing), Henry Jones (Mr. Simms), Gailard Sartain (Joe), Stephen Tobolowsky (Jeweler), Eddie Jones (Mintz), Sandy Baron (Doctor), Noelle Harling (Nurse Carol Flynn), Paul Adelstein (Sailor - Young Paul), Jeremy Piven (Sailor - Freshman), Jon Gries (Drunk's Friend), Micole Mercurio (Waitress), Frances Bay (Arizona Motel Clerk), Xander Berkeley (Lt. Pierson)

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In some ways, 1990 felt like a callback to the 1970s cinematically. Directors and actors who took off in the '70s returned to some of their popular works:
Francis Ford Coppola finally making The Godfather Part III, Jack Nicholson directing the Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes, Sylvester Stallone and John G. Avildsen giving Rocky Balboa another go in Rocky V. Even Warren Beatty, absent from all but two films in the 1980s, returned to prominence as writer, director, and star of Dick Tracy.

In other ways, 1990 lived up to its duties as the start of a new decade. Two of the year's biggest hits -- Home Alone and Pretty Woman -- were a reflection of their time and thrust their respective leads, Macaulay Culkin and Julia Roberts, into superstardom. Major new film franchises began in The Hunt for Red October and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Big actors of the day opened new chapters of their career: Kevin Costner demanding to be seen as a serious filmmaker by directing Dances with Wolves, Mel Gibson proving himself more than just an action hero in Hamlet, and Johnny Depp crossing over from television to film in Cry-Baby and Edward Scissorhands.

At this chronological crossroads, The Grifters offered a little of both, looking back in an old genre not recently popular by adapting a 1963 Jim Thompson pulp novel, yet also looking ahead with a cast on the rise.

The film bills itself as "A Martin Scorsese Production of a Stephen Frears Thriller", which is accurate and emphasizes the involvement of Scorsese, picking up his first ever producing credit on a narrative feature film. Scorsese, one of the most revered filmmakers today, enjoyed career ascent in the '70s, then weathered the '80s with commercial projects (The Color of Money, the music video for Michael Jackson's "Bad") and controversy (The Last Temptation of Christ). The film that many today consider the best of 1990 (and many, the entire 1990s) -- Goodfellas -- returned Scorsese to the New York underbelly that he had mined so effectively earlier in his career.

Frears, a 20-year veteran of British television, had transitioned to feature films and enjoyed success on Dangerous Liaisons, the 1988 costume drama nominated for seven Oscars and winning three. Grifters, his follow-up film, was able to attract John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and Annette Bening to play its three interconnected leads.

As on the cover and poster art, the opening sequence's split-screen features the three grifters (Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, and Annette Bening) sporting sunglasses and confidence.

Those leads are established in an initially split-screen, then cross-cut opening sequence that explains how each of the three contributes to the title by leading the life of a seasoned con artist. Twenty-five year-old Roy Dillon (Cusack) of Los Angeles thrives on the short con, showing a $20, then swapping in a $10 to come out ahead buying drinks at a bar. His estranged mother Lilly (Huston), who had him at the young age of 14, dabbles in high-stakes race track gambling for a bookie. Meanwhile, Roy's lover, Myra Langtry (Bening), kept in the dark regarding his game (he claims he's a salesman), has her own history of lucrative deception and uses her body to live rent-free.

Caught by a bartender who thrusts a baseball bat into his side, Roy is suffering from internal bleeding and might have died, if not for the Baltimore-based platinum blonde Lilly strolling back into his life just in time to get him medical treatment. She points out to Roy that she has now given him life twice, implying a debt. But it's Lilly who owes money to her gangster boss Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle, Commissioner Gordon of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher's Batman films). After a skeptical Roy resists partnering with Myra on a long con, the stage is set for a final act of double crosses and misdirects.

The Grifters seems to be contemporary, not that we ever get too clear a sense of time and place. Screenwriter Donald E. Westlake had been writing novels and screenplays (most of them mysteries and crime capers) since the late 1950s. That, along with the aged source text, a sporadic Elmer Bernstein score and a lack of cultural references give the film somewhat of a timeless feel, even as Cusack's near-mullet and Bening's perm date it.

Aside from his brief, uncredited but unmistakable early narration, Scorsese's touch is not greatly felt here, which is unfortunate, since that touch is a lot more reliable and captivating than that of Frears, who's generally been hit and miss, and mostly miss since The Queen earned him his second Oscar nomination. The Grifters is less accomplished at con artistry than each of its three lead characters. When it pulls a fake-out late in the game, we've figured it out before it hammers it home. Its conclusion seems to set up another major twist, but instead it's just a series of overlong shots undercutting the closure we thought we had. There's enough sharp interplay and unpredictability to sustain interest, but this is the kind of movie that would seem to have gone unrecognized at award ceremonies if it wasn't released in December.

Roy Dillon (John Cusack) uses loaded dice to con sailors (including a balding young Jeremy Piven) on a train. Myra Langtry (Annette Bening) uses her body to get out of paying the rent she owes to her landlord (Gailard Sartain).

Already getting into gear in a decade they would dominate accolades-wise, Miramax Films did give The Grifters a limited December release, prior to a January nationwide opening. Not much of a box office performer, the film nonetheless drew a good amount of awards recognition, most notably Oscar nominations in four major categories: Director, Lead Actress (Huston), Supporting Actress (Bening), and Adapted Screenplay.
Cusack's omission, which you could have chalked up to his youth or a typically more competitive field, was one of his first of many, as he remains one of the most accomplished actors never nominated, even if much of his work hasn't fit the Oscar mold. Frears' directing nomination along with Barbet Schroeder's for Reversal of Fortune, somewhat unusual back then for films not competing for Best Picture, came at the expense of Awakenings' Penny Marshall and Ghost's Jerry Zucker, raising some still-applicable concerns of sexism in the male-dominated field.

It's still easy to second guess the Oscars' choices that year, for instance The Godfather Part III's competing for both Director and Picture or Dances with Wolves winning in both of those categories as well as Adapted Screenplay over Goodfellas. Overall, though, it's a pretty satisfying collection of nominees, one that found room for things as diverse as Pretty Woman's Roberts, Al Pacino's Dick Tracy villain, and John Williams' great Home Alone music.

Three and a half months after hitting select store shelves one of several Echo Bridge Home Entertainment titles exclusive to Best Buy, The Grifters' Blu-ray expands to general retail on May 7th.

The Grifters Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Widescreen
2.0 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: May 7, 2013 (Best Buy Exclusive: January 27, 2013)
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25)
Blue Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($6.99 SRP; June 14, 2011) and Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as Miramax DVD (September 24, 2002)
and HBO DVD (June 30, 1998)


Watching this in proximity to another January Best Buy exclusive/May Echo Bridge Blu-ray, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, I am relieved to find that The Grifters doesn't suffer from that disc's ugly murkiness. This one has a level of detail you easily recognize as 1080p. At the same time, however, The Grifters' 1.78:1 transfer has some problems, namely in a lot of wear and tear. Though no spring chicken, the film should not be as full of scratches and specks as it is.
The intrusions aren't constant, but they are consistent (often white showing on the dark visuals) and seemingly could have been easy to correct digitally. But hailing from a studio that specializes in volume and value, it's not surprising that the movie didn't get further sprucing up. All in all, it's watchable and when it's clean, it's pretty impressive, the grain and pale color palette seeming appropriate to the original design. You just wish the element was a lot cleaner than it is.

The 2.0 surround DTS-HD master audio is better. The elements are crisp and capably mixed. They are louder than the typical soundtrack, but volume remains fairly level and satisfactory. Still, one cannot be fully satisfied with the sound side because Echo Bridge continues to resist providing English SDH subtitles, a feature even those with fine hearing wouldn't mind being a standard inclusion, as it is for most studios.

Director Stephen Frears looks like he could use some sunlight and fresh air in "The Making of 'The Grifters.'" Covers of author Jim Thompson's pulp fiction paperbacks are on display in "The Jim Thompson Story."


The Grifters has been released to five-inch disc a number of times and each edition seems to give it different bonus features. The film's original 1998 DVD from HBO apparently included cast biographies. Disney's 2002 DVD,
given the banner Miramax Collector's Series, lost those but added an audio commentary and three visual bonuses. It's unclear but doubtful that Echo Bridge's 2011 DVD retained those. But this Blu-ray edition does restore the commentary and two of the other three Disney DVD extras (still in standard definition).

An unusual inclusion for a pre-DVD, not-yet-classic film, the 2001-ish audio commentary patches together remarks from director Stephen Frears, John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and screenwriter Donald E. Westlake. While all of them have been recorded separately, their different perspectives complement each other nicely. Westlake recalls turning down the project initially and explains some of the finer points of the plot. Cusack celebrates the casting. Huston adds some screen-specificity. All touch on the ambiguous period setting. As something different from the typical commentary and better, this is worth a listen.

"The Making of The Grifters" (16:24) is a very good good retrospective featurette interviewing the four commentary speakers plus production designer Dennis Gassner. They repeat a number of the same things mentioned in the commentary, albeit in a more digestible form. Editing, well-chosen clips, script excerpts, set photos, and poster artwork prevent this from being a stagnant talking heads piece. Seemingly only due to poor lighting, Frears looks both like he was just woken up from a deep nap and like he's made-up to play a zombie in a horror film here.

"The Jim Thompson Story" (7:59) celebrates the author of the novel on which the film is based, with biographer Robert Polito waxing on his life and autobiographical writing as well as The Grifters adaptation, while Westlake adds his thoughts on the writer's Greek tragedy-esque fiction.

Besides the HBO cast biographies, this Blu-ray loses "The Grifters Scrapbook", a gallery consisting of over 100 production and publicity photos. It's missed, but not many studios would convert a DVD feature like that to Blu-ray, so Echo Bridge doesn't deserve unusual scorn for that.

The menu ever so slightly moves the cover/poster shots around against a blue background while playing an excerpt of Elmer Bernstein's score. Typical for Echo Bridge, the disc does not support bookmarks, but does resume unfinished playback. No inserts or other features spice up the standard blue keepcase.

Platinum blonde Lilly (Anjelica Huston) turns to her son for help. A Phoenix police lieutenant (Xander Berkeley) asks Roy (John Cusack) to identify a dead body.


The Grifters is an esteemed and relatively well-made film that didn't have as much power and dexterity as I hoped. As one of the more highly regarded Miramax films entrusted to Echo Bridge, its Blu-ray release commands attention especially at its current under-$5 sale price. While the disc's picture quality leaves plenty to be desired, this hi-def transfer is still presumably the film's best home video presentation to date. The good audio commentary and two substantial featurettes add value. That very low price makes it easier to overlook the loss of subtitles, a French dub, and an image gallery. While I'm not crazy enough about either the film or the release to recommend this Blu-ray, those who value the film will want to pick this up and those interested should consider it, especially when looking for a cheap disc to elevate an order to a free shipping threshold.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by Stephen Frears: Lay the Favorite • Dirty Pretty Things • The Queen • Chιri
John Cusack: Grosse Pointe Blank • Say Anything... • The Paperboy • Being John Malkovich • The Raven • The Factory
Annette Bening: The Kids Are All Right • Ruby Sparks | Anjelica Huston: The Royal Tenenbaums • The Darjeeling Limited
The Color of Money • Leverage: The 2nd Season • The Usual Suspects • Ocean's Thirteen • Catch Me If You Can • The Killing
No Country for Old Men • Blood Simple. • Kiss Me Deadly • Following • Pet Sematary • The Big Lebowski • The Lady Vanishes
New: Teaching Mrs. Tingle • Badlands • Hollow Man | 1990: Dick Tracy • Arachnophobia • The Godfather Part III

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Reviewed April 8, 2013.

Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1990 Miramax Films and 2013 Echo Bridge Home Entertainment and Miramax.
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