Blu-ray Review: The Grifters

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Twenty-three years after its original theatrical release, Stephen Frears’ The Grifters still holds up as a chilling portrait of utterly unscrupulous characters engaged in the seedy underworld of con artists. Finally available on Blu-ray, the hard-boiled, neo-noir thriller is bolstered by the performances of John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and Annette Bening. The latter two were both rewarded with Academy Award nominations. Frears was also nominated for his taut direction. Though somewhat overlooked all these years later, the film remains a classic of its genre.

That said, The Grifters doesn’t offer a twisting, turning look at the inner workings of its con artist characters. This isn’t The Sting or any other movie that focuses on the mechanics of the scams themselves. Roy Dillon (Cusack) has chosen to focus on small-time cons, including flashing a $20 bill but then sneakily offering a $10 bill as payment (the one time we see this fail for him, it nearly costs him his life). Roy’s mother Lilly (Huston) is also a grifter, though she works for a very scary crime boss named Bobo (Pat Hingle). The wildcard is Myra (Bening), who has been dating Roy without knowing that he’s a con man. Myra’s got more than a few tricks up her sleeve, as partially revealed in a long flashback sequence.

Frears and screenwriter Donald E. Westlake reveal details of the various schemes only on a need-to-know basis. They’re more interested in displaying how Roy, Lilly, and Myra have become prisoners of their own unethical practices. Lilly, who was very young when she birthed Roy, instilled in him a desire to lie and cheat in order to make a living. Theirs is a profoundly unhealthy relationship, rife with suggestions of boundary-ignoring, taboo behavior. There is nothing to really like about any of these folks, yet Lilly’s encounter with Bobo manages to illicit sympathy. That is, at least until the film’s bracing final act, during which all such feelings evaporate. Never warm nor comforting, The Grifters is an engrossing tale of moral rot.

At least the new Echo Bridge Blu-ray is budget-priced. Yes, it’s an upgrade over the old DVD but there’s an inordinate amount of debris on the source print. Sharpness varies somewhat, with close-ups being generally impressive and wider shots often appearing a bit soft. Colors seem a bit drab, tending toward slightly washed-out. Overall this is acceptable for what it is, but the movie deserves a better transfer at some point. The 2.0 DTS-HD MA is nothing special, but it’s free of problems and offers a straightforward audio presentation.

Ported over from a previous DVD edition, the supplements are highlighted by a commentary track featuring director Frears, screenwriter Westlake, and cast members Cusack and Huston. There’s also a pair of featurettes. “The Making of The Grifters” is self-explanatory and runs about 16 minutes. “The Jim Thompson Story,” while only eight minutes, is more interesting as it offers some info about the author of the novel that served as the basis for the film.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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