MOVIE SHELF: COMPARING FILMS TO THEIR LITERARY COUNTERPARTS

christopher funderburg

STEPHEN FREARS' THE GRIFTERS

based on the novel THE GRIFTERS by JIM THOMPSON

Welcome to Movie Shelf, a series that compares the films on our dvd shelves to the novels on our bookcases. We at the 'smoke have always been fascinated by screenplay adaptation: what a script writer takes from the original source material, what he changes, how the two different works vary from each other and what the existence of the movie itself says about the book and vice versa. All this and more will be examined in this ongoing line of articles.

 

In American Independent cinema as the 80's turned into the 90's, there was a Jim Thompson mini-boom with adaptations of The Kill-Off, After Dark My Sweet and The Grifters being turned out within a year of each other. The Stephen Frears-directed Grifters inarguably garnered the most attention, representing one of fledgling distributor Miramax's first big hits and pulling down Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Director and Best Writing. Just glancing at the opening credits, you can see what a murderer's row was lined up for the production: the white-hot Frears at the height of his success coming off of the Oscar-winning Best Picture nominee Dangerous Liaisons with Martin Scorsese and his partner Barbara De Fina acting as producers, novelist Donald Westlake of the Richard Stark/Parker series fame handling the screenplay and Elmer Bernstein coming in to do the score. Even less familiar names like producer Robert A. Harris were surprisingly heavy-hitters: Harris is the nation's preeminent film restorationist and a peerless cinema historian.* The film also boasts three bonafide movie stars at the top of their game in John Cusack (making the transition from quirky teen heart-throb to legit actor), Angelica Houston and Annette Bening, all giving what it wouldn't crazy to argue are their finest performances. Everything was in place for excellence, even the presence of the era's three greatest character actors in memorable roles: Pat Hingle, J.T. Walsh and Charles Napier.

Of all the Thompson adaptations ever produced, The Grifters is certainly the one most obviously poised for greatness - I'm not sure that even the Sam Peckinpah-directed, Steve McQueen-starring, Walter Hill-scripted, Quincy Jones-scored The Getaway looks better on paper. Certainly, the millstone that is Ali McGraw (the film's major flaw that indeed prevents it from attaining status as either one of Peckinpah or Thompson's best) is just as readily apparent on that sheet of paper. Crime thrillers were becoming more and more in vogue around the time of The Grifters' production, films like John Dahl's Kill Me Again, George Armitage's Miami Blues and Abel Ferrera's Cat Chaser were, along with the Thompson adaptations, all part of a certain artistic mindset eager to tap the genre and that sensed perhaps unconsciously that re-visitations of American's hard-boiled history were both commercially attractive and artistically fecund - it's no coincidence that Martin Scorsese and Robert Harris, hardcore cinephiles with unmatched knowledge of the medium's history and real enthusiasm for genre cinema, were two of the driving forces of the production. If all of the hard-boiled thrillers of the time weren't deconstructionist (although to be sure, many of them like The Kill-Off were) they were all imbued with a certain connection to the past, if not outright nostalgia.

Thompson's books in particular represent a somewhat tantalizing option in this context: their essential nature explains why several productions would almost concurrently seize upon a man whose novels hadn't been adapted in the U.S. for decades and have never been strewn with laurels nor served as the basis for any undisputed American masterpieces.** Notably, Thompson had an impressive cinematic pedigree, having worked on the scripts for Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory and The Killing, the two films that turned Stanley Kubrick from stanley kubrick into STANLEY KUBRICK, Mercurial Super-Genius. Thompson's novels are among the most gripping and propulsive of his era - he's one of the key artists in the transition of the crime genre from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet's "investigator goes around town talking to people and occasionally gets beaten up" exposition-heavy style to the more grimy, realistic turns that defined the best writing in the genre in the 60's and 70's. Thompson's a natural when it comes to plotting and structure; even at their most tossed-off, his books still "play," as they say. Thompson's variable output makes a decent argument against profligacy - some of his books don't even seem to have been read twice by Thompson before going to the printer, let alone polished through several drafts - but even when he's off his game, his books are never boring or static. "Ponderous" just isn't in his repertoire.

So, while the gripping stories and cinematic pedigree make Thompson attractive to prospective filmmakers, there's also something ripe about his regressive, frequently misanthropic (if not simply misogynistic) attitudes; he's a talented stylist who also represents something of the worst of his era. Now, Thompson fans and scholars have endlessly debated whether his books are about misogyny, racism and brutality or are simply misogynistic, racist and brutal and I don't intend to resolve that debate. Actually, I guess I do: I think the reason that debate lingers over any discussion of Thompson is that he talks a little bit out of both sides of his mouth on the issue - that is, Thompson clearly intends the racial elements of Pop. 1280 as a commentary on the ugly nature of segregated small towns and white authority's exploitation of helpless black citizens, but he also revels in the violence and racial discord. That is, he intends for his audience to get a charge out of his description of some poor black sap being torn in half by a shotgun blast or feel disgust at the mixed-race bastard of The Kill-Off and I'm not sure Thompson clearly separates the base reactions he intends to illicit from his audiences from the the complex ideas he has about touchy subjects. He's plainly interested in men's hatred of their own sexual desires and the control women have over them, but he also provokes his audience to feel that hatred as much as possible. His rancid depictions of supporting female characters and the sickening violence to which they are subjected in his most universally well-regarded works like The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280 and The Getaway don't lend much support to the case that he's simply trying to be unblinking about ugly realities. Too often, his work slips into total grotesquery, and I think that actually made his work more attractive to filmmakers behind the 1989/1990 Thompson revival.

Thompson's books are frequently raw and haywire in a way where the psychologically implicit suddenly becomes ragingly explicit - reading his work, the trick he plays over and over is a hidden, dark, monstrous id revealing itself shockingly. To more contemporary audiences, the trick has a bit of a "dark side of American history that's seldom discussed bubbling forth to the surface" feel and I can imagine that kind of thing enticing filmmakers looking backwards at the past. Thompson's work walks a funny line between being of its era and exposing it for what it was, of being guilty of its sins and purposefully exposing them to the cold light of day. He specialized in small-town settings and tight-knit communities that we've heard described as "idyllic" for decades but into these All-American landscapes Thompson smuggles racial animosity, incest and Nazi sex experiments like horrible time-bombs that eventually go off in a spectacular, queasy fashion. It helps his case substantially that his novels are built on a foundation of realism, on describing the day-to-day grind of low level operators, men working the short con, corrupt small-town sheriffs, sleazy resort owners and even ailing, bored hitmen. His work shares that with Westlake's: an affinity for the minutiae of "the job," a depiction of crime as just another line of work. Thompson's work in general spends a lot of time detailing the mechanics of scams and the twisted logic of crimes of passion, but The Grifters in particular devotes itself to long passages discussing shop-worn con artist tactics like the tat, the oranges and the twenties. You get a very believable sense of a petty criminal underworld, a world of thieves who live on the verge of beggardom, a world burdened with the ever-present threat of grievous violence and drained of sex as anything other than another con game. Interestingly, Lilly Dillon (played in the film by Angelica Houston) works as a cut-off man for a gambling syndicate and while Thompson goes through with an explanation of her very specific, strange job, the first time I can recall having heard of such a position was in Westlake's novel The Outfit, where a load of independent thieves coordinate to hit various mafia fronts at the same time.

But as right as Westlake might seem to adapt Thompson, there's such a wide divide between their dispositions that it ends up having some big ramifications for the film. The Grifters is a weird movie - and I love its weirdness, its weirdness is one of its virtue in my opinion - but after reading Thompson's novel I am less convinced the weirdness is intentional and more convinced it is the after-effect of turning it into a film, specifically the departures from the source in Westlake's script. The mechanics of the scores depicted by Westlake have always tended towards the clever and, as a result, bordered on implausibility. He comes up with some very believable answers for how Parker and his crew could knock over an entire mining town in The Score, but the basic idea of robbing an entire town (or a military base in The Green Eagle Score or an island casino in The Handle) verges on outlandish impossibility. In Thompson's world, the crimes are almost always mundane and unimpressive; by contrast in The Getaway, his hero robs a single bank with minimal trickery and barely gets away with it. The most out-of-bounds he gets is with stuff like the insane climax of Savage Night, which otherwise deglamorizes the life of a contract killer. Westlake's quintessential heartless tough guy Parker nonetheless has a loving relationship with a long-term girlfriend while if you're a woman in a Thompson book, your story with most likely end with a comparison of your skull to a collapsed pumpkin. Westlake frequently wrote books about coolly calculating, heartless and amoral men, but they were never nasty. Thompson's specialty was nasty.

That said, The Grifters is far from one of his nastiest efforts. It follows a con man named Roy Dillon, who has devoted his life to working the short con and figuring out the best ways to insulate his actions from negative consequences. He even has a straight job as a successful door-to-door salesman so he doesn't have to turn tail once the police get wind of him and start to turn the heat up. He's a legitimate businessman, not a hustler, and he's got dozens and dozens of contacts and character witnesses to attest to that fact. The plot kicks off when a dim-witted store clerk decides Roy is hustling him and beats our hero in the stomach with a baseball bat. Dillon responds "you killed me, you rotten bastard!" and proceeds to succumb to his internal injuries over the course of a couple days. A surprise visit from his estranged mother comes right as Roy verges on death and she kicks everything into high gear, calling on her mob contacts at Jutus Amusement Corps. to get him top notch medical attention, immediately. In terms of Roy, the plot remains fairly low-stakes from there on out: after he narrowly survives the assault, his story covers a long period of convalescence in which his mother attempts to set him up with a Jewish nurse followed by him genuinely considering taking a management position at his sales company and getting out of the grift altogether. In the novel, Roy's story can be boiled down to that of a young man who isn't made for the grift, not because he's soft but because he's too smart, too talented, too decent - he receives a college scholarship, excels at his straight job, builds a normal life (as a cover, but still) and so impresses the efficiency expert brought in to chop heads that he's not only off the block, but being offered an office and a pay raise.

On a deeper level, Roy's story is that of a boy who can't escape his mother - the irony of his last minute reprieve from death is that it comes courtesy of a woman he'd rather die than be indebted to. He's drawn into her world of con games almost subconsciously, a psychic victim of the tumultuous, ugly environment in which he was raised. He brims with self-awareness and even bitterness at times: he resists the relationship with the gentle, good-hearted nurse simply because his mother engineered it, in spite of his feelings for the woman. More than that, the book emphasizes repeatedly his mother's willingness to sexualize their relationship and his consequent attraction to Moira Langtry (played by Annette Bening in the film and inexplicably renamed Myra), explicitly tied to her extreme physical resemblance to his mother. I'd say that the largest change to story from book to film is de-emphasizing Roy as the main character: in the novel, he's decisively the main character, with Lilly playing an important supporting role. The nurse Carol Roberg, who has only a few brief appearances in the film (and is also weirdly renamed), has a role at least as significant and maybe even moreso than Moira. The book could easily be titled Roy Dillon and His Women, whereas the film gives equal weight to Roy, Lilly and Myra/Moira - the signature triptych of the trio looking cool in their sunglasses in the opening sequence isn't a coincidence, but a major choice about how to reorganize the material. I'm not sure losing the thrilling sequence of Roy staying up late at work to brilliantly reformat spread-sheets is a tragedy from a dramatic perspective, but it does signal that the filmmakers are not interested in the essence of the book. The Grifters movie isn't the story of a mixed-up kid trying to go straight in spite of how badly his mother screwed him up.

Proof of apparent disinterest in the essence of the book goes double for another major change, a generalized change in approach I simply can't figure but nonetheless has to lay at the feet of Westlake: the scams in the film are as phony as a three dollar bill with Jeff Foxworthy's picture on it. They're really overly complicated and entirely miss the point of Roy as a character in the original novel: in the book, the tat (a rapidly escalating dice game scam - Roy runs it on a group of sailors in both versions) isn't pulled with any magnetic board shoved up a shirt sleeve to manipulate spoofed dice, but with nothing more than an empty cup where the grifter has practiced long enough that he can slide the dice around to the results he desires. This is what I'm thinking of when I say that Westlake's tendency towards cleverness and over-complication clashes with Thompson's no-nonsense mundaneness. In Westlake's telling, the gag requires hidden devices, special props and none of the grind implicit in acquiring a silly little skill like manipulating dice rolled in a cup. The magician Teller (of Penn & Teller fame) has said that many magic tricks are the results of going through the endless drudgery of mastering a simple useless skill far beyond what anyone would ever imagine you might; the tat works more or less the same way in Thompson's book. For Thompson, Roy's commitment to the short con represents a philosophical choice: less risk, no chance of serious jail time or obsessive reprisals. In working the short con, if suspicions arise, it's easy to claim everything was an honest mistake or a simple misunderstanding - that's a tough position to take when you have a magnetic board jammed up your sleeve. The dramatic tension of the novel is the naturally sensible Roy's irresistible attraction to the grift when no matter how you manage it there is risk, there is the threat of incarceration or physical violence, it is a dangerous game played by those with a death wish. He should be a good man but he can't escape his mother and the psychological demons she summons in him: bitterness, criminality, incest.

Maybe the best contrast between the artistic/moral intentions of the novel and the film come in the initial scenes where Roy gets creamed. In the novel, we open with Roy stumbling out onto the street, sickly green and clutching his stomach. The book quickly doubles back to explain the twenties, a simple scam where the grifter confuses a sales clerk over change for a twenty dollar bill. It's pure obfuscation and, again, there's no way to get caught - it can all be played off as an honest mistake. Roy only gets clobbered because his mark is too dumb, that's Thompson's joke: only an idiot is smart enough to beat the con, or at least volatile enough to immediately act on their dimly conceived suspicions and beat you with a baseball bat. In the novel, the clerk immediately regrets his action and begins to wallow in a very typical Thompson depiction of self-pity (that's one of his strengths, actually: depicting awful people feeling sorry for themselves.) In the film, Roy plays a stupid "dimes for quarters" game that he deserves to get beaten up for and would never succeed in real life and then goes on to work a version of the twenties where he presents the clerk (in this case, two different bartenders) with a $20 bill, asking for change and then slipping the $20 into his palm to switch it for a $10 bill. Again, this version of the twenties presents an opportunity for Roy to get caught if someone spots the palmed twenty, which is exactly what happens. And the mark is a stern bartender who jumps on Roy with a "seen it all" steeliness that makes Roy seem borderline incompetent (and undermines the later, famous line of dialog that begins by talking about anyone being able to con a civilian.)

Again, I don't want to seem hard on the movie and I like these scenes, they just make Roy seem more like a bit of a schmoe, a small-timer who deserves to be a small-timer as opposed to the savant whose intelligence and competency is exactly what makes him an uncomfortable fit for a life spent working the small angles. Late in the film, when Roy talks about wanting to get out, it seems like more hot air from a guy who nearly got himself killed over $16. It feels a bit deluded and puts his mother more on equal footing - they are both being a bit dishonest and both need the stash over which they are fighting. There's a thicker fog of desperation. In the book, the scene plays as his pathetic selfish mother once again dragging him into a world of vice, criminality and despair, but I think the change ties in nicely to making Lilly and Myra co-stars and not supporting players. Angelica Huston just kills the role as Lilly, her lilting, soft cadences belying an emotional vulnerability that's only fleetingly present in the novel. The novel's Lilly is ultimately a manipulator who prizes self-preservation above all - her attempts to exploit Roy sexually are expedient, a means to getting what she wants. Huston plays Lilly as a damaged woman who seems to regret her failures as a mother, a woman who has stumblingly figured out how to navigate the harsh realities of her life rather than the novel's Lilly who makes reality all that much harsher everywhere she goes. Lilly is another in a long line of Thompson's dangerous, morally repulsive women, but Huston gives the character a humanity and grace that Thompson obviously didn't intend for her to have. In the book she's a villain, in the movie she's one of the tragic heroes.

For this reason and a few others, it's tempting to say that Huston misses the mark in a weird way, but she's so unassailably excellent that saying something like that would be crazy. And stupid. Instead, I'll lay some groundwork here and say that her off-the-mark qualities reflect the film's general off-the-mark qualities that I alluded to earlier and which I actually think end up working in its favor. Lilly is supposed to be gorgeously beautiful; a smart woman for sure, but a also sex-bomb, a hostess who rose through the ranks to the middling position of cut-off man based on her looks and her savvy exploitation of those looks. When she coos to Roy "what if I told you I'm not really your mother," it's an extension of that sexual efficacy, but Huston twists the lines to make them the ultimate expression of failed motherhood, a desire to reconnect with her estranged son by any means necessary. Huston isn't a sexbomb*** and I think that allows her to generate a bit more depth with the character - she doesn't have to play Lilly as a woman reduced to her sexual dimension. On the other hand, she doesn't look like Annette Bening, who is here presented in full-on sexbomb mode, and the plot hinges on their physical resemblance. It just barely doesn't work, the synapses just barely don't connect and it veers the story just slightly off from Thompson's intentions. I think the late-film body switch still plays (and Frears certainly dresses Bening and Huston up in enough extravagant headscarves to make it plausible), but the idea that the Myra character is a version of Roy's mother that he can fuck gets lost in all but the most theoretical sense in the film - a few throwaway lines and matching earrings can't bring it together. Again, I don't thinks it's bad, but there's an idea there that just barely doesn't click. Although, when you hear some of the names thrown around of other actresses considered for the role like Cher, Sissy Spacek and Lily Tomlin (!) you figure it could have been a hell of a lot worse.

Structurally, the film reorganizes the plot pretty significantly. I mentioned that it all but loses the Roy Dillon: Master Salesman subplot.**** It also loses a few big scenes here and there, the most notable of which is probably a late scene where he runs a dumb punchboard scam at a bar on the spur of the moment and nearly gets pinched. In the book, it's the first time we see him actively screw up (he's just unlucky to get caught doing the twenties) and an indication that maybe his heart isn't in it since he treats the scam like a lark: it's no longer a life or death commitment, just a parlor game. The film also moves a bunch of scenes around, mainly to establish Lilly and Myra as Roy's equals in terms of the story - it moves scenes earlier to give all three relatively equal screentime in the early going. For example, Myra's "fake diamonds" scene comes in the opening montage jumping between the three protagonists, but turns up fairly late in the book as part of a subplot explaining her backstory. In general, many scenes in involving Roy have been excised, but nearly every scene with Lilly or Myra/Moira is retained and a big chunk of backstory for Myra has been added. The overall effect is to beef up the women's roles and make it less of the Roy Dillon Show. Although placed at the beginning, I'm not sure what Myra's failed seduction of a jeweler (played by another classic character actor, Stephen Tobolowsky) is intended to convey. In the book, the fake diamonds are one final insult from her erratic, depraved former partner Cole "The Farmer" Langtry - a gift of worthless glass in top-notch platinum settings designed to fool even a connoisseur like Moira. She throws herself at the jeweler, whom she has known for a while, for the same reasons Roy goes through with reorganizing the spreadsheets for his new boss: she's seized by a sudden impulse to legitimacy. The phony diamonds cause an epiphany about the phoniness of her life. In the film, it just plays "this lady is willing to use sex to...convince a jeweler to give her a better price on fugazi stones?" And what am I supposed to think about a woman who is introduced getting turned down by Stephen Tobolowsky at his most phlegmatic?

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* I've met the curmudgeonly Harris on several occasions and his academic-sounding background totally belies the fact that he is a natural hard-as-nails type and one of the few people I have met in my capacities as a film programmer who I feel probably identifies with Thompson's work on a personal level. He restored The Alamo and he's the kind of guy you can picture hanging out with the Duke and John Ford, drinking whisky and getting into fights at card games. Not to get off track, but the archive in his office is of course a treasure trove, but what I found most delightful is that in addition to feature length films, he also has specific sequences pulled out and stored on their own - reels labelled things like "Odessa Steps" and "Wild Bunch finale."

** The greatest Thompson adaptations, Bernard Tavernier's take on Pop. 1280, Coup de Torchon, had itself belonged to a hard-boiled mini-boom in French Cinema in the early 80's alongside films like Alain Corneau's Serie Noir (based on another Thompson novel, A Hell of a Woman) and Jean-Jacques Bieniex's truly ridiculous stylized take on David Goodis, Moon in the Gutter. Gerard Depardieu is awesome in that movie, though, so I forgive its "perfume commercial set in the ghetto and filmed by Dario Argento" aesthetic. Incidentally, my hunt for Moon is what derailed me from screening the excellent Tourneur/Lewton adaptation of Goodis' Nightfall in my upcoming series of pulp fiction on the big screen at the JBFC. I didn't want any one author to dominate the series, so I decided to not do any more than two films by the same writer and went looking for Moon in the Gutter (which I hadn't seen) because it felt like the right flavor for the soup (whereas the series already skewed naturally to the era and style of Nightfall and didn't need more noir-ish classic Hollywood stuff.) I couldn't locate a 35mm print (and when I did see the film...oof) but in the interim I forgot about Nightfall, so the only Goodis we're doing is the de rigeur Shoot the Piano Player.

*** I hate discussing the attractiveness of actresses, but I do it nonstop on this website. I think casting Huston in a role written as a sexpot matters, though. But geez, man, I'm not trying to insult anybody or reduce them only to their physical dimension. She was 39 when they filmed and she has aged naturally with no surgery, so she looks her age. When Roy remarks "how are you going to get by when you're pushing 50," I un-selfconsciously thought, how much further does she have to go to be pushing 50? I get into it later in the article, but a lot of the times when the dialog is imported directly from the book as those lines are, it becomes problematic. The dialog emphasizes Huston's sex-bomb qualities and her use of her looks to get ahead in life - but that's not Huston, she's not Jessica Alba or something, she didn't rely on her looks to get ahead in life. She relied on nepotism to get ahead in life. She's perfectly cast in Nicolas Roeg's The Witches is what I'm saying.

**** We do see he has a trunk full of cordless drills, but it just comes across like he's stolen a bunch of cordless drills for some reason. In the film, he seems like that kind of a dipshit - "hey, an unguarded truck of full of cordless drills! score! Now...what the hell am I going to do with all these drills?" Plus, it immediately follows a somewhat pointless scene where he comes under the scrutiny of a police officer, so the moment feels like "wow, that guy almost got caught with a trunk full of stolen drills!" Again, there are some throwaway lines about Roy being a salesman, but they don't really drive home the idea that him being a salesman matters (or even is necessarily true) - they just feel like (and I assumed are intended to be) background junk.

 

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