Movie Article

Heat in the Shadows

The films of Stephen Frears -- See what we think of the director's latest films released on video

The films of Stephen Frears

The Griffters was doomed to die at the multiplex. In today's market, a film about three loathsome people who destroy each other is strictly art-house stuff, even if the source material — in this instance a paperback original by Jim Thompson — was intended as a fast bus-stop read for average Joes. Curiously, Thompsons' hard-boiled novels were mostly ignored by filmmakers and literary critics during his creative peak in the '50s, even though this was a fertile period for a film noir, the stylishly trashy genre of thrillers in which average Joes get sucked into the excesses of the night. In the years after World War II, film noir expressed the disenchantment and restlessness of a generation picking up the pieces of a society after 15 years of Depression and war. What current filmmakers really seek in Thompson, however, is not only the same sensibility, but a means to recreate the pleasures of a bygone movie genre. The Grifters is as much a bow to a certain kind of B movie as it is a portrait of small-time cons caught on a treadmill of deceit.

One of the key pleasures of video is that it does for movies what libraries do for books — sets them out on a shelf where they’re available and puts them in context. For The Grifters, an important context to consider is the shelf of work by Stephen Frears, the acclaimed English director whose latest film is the first try at an American subject. The difficulties of moving from one culture to another are manifold. Frears didn't have to learn a new language, as classic directors Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder did, but he had to develop an eye and ear for new cultural terrain. By choosing film noir, as well as a plot with an ambiguous sense of time and place, Frears finessed the responsibilities of realism. The Grifters is America as absorbed in movie theaters, not in the streets.

This is not what you'd expect from a director who made his reputation with two of the most street-savy movies to come out of Thatcher's England. My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, his collaborations with writer Hanif Kureishi, demonstrate a canny understanding of the interstices between sex and politics, money and power, the ambitious underclass and the fearful ruling class. The characters represent disparate backgrounds and appetites, but they are viewed with tolerance, if not affection. Frears and Kureishi depict homosexuality and miscegenation as empowering facts of sexual reality. But they don't fall into the trap of suggesting that sexual freedom can successfully subvert racism and repression. The success of Omar and Johnny's laundrette will, at best, move them up a notch in the economic order.

In Prick Up Your Ears, Frears tells the story of the gifted comic playwright Joe Orton, who was brutally murdered by his competitive but untalented lover, Ken Halliwell. In the very slick Dangerous Liasons, his first big-budget film, Frears further explores the exploitative, murderous potential of unchecked sexuality. Both of these films, especially when considered together, also reenact the issues of class and power. Each is a cat-and-mouse drama in which the central character successfully exercises will, only to be destroyed by it.

The Grifters is even more unsettling because it takes place in a world in which there is no longer any innocence left to defile. Roy (John Cusack) is a nerdy-looking punk who shortchanges bartenders; his girlfriend, Myra (Annette Bening), is a garish beauty who uses her body to pay the rent and other bills; his mother, Lily (Anjelica Huston), is a soulless peroxide blond who runs errands for a mobster. Lily neglected Roy when he was growing up, but now she finds in herself a maternal impulse that might as easily lead him to her bed as to the grave.

The film moves quickly, with wicked resolve, and the acting, as in all Frears' films, is fine. But unlike his English movies, most of the characters are unrealized, never fully human.

One performance, however, is reason alone to rent The Grifters — and it's not the one you think. Annette Bening creates one of the most magnetic femmes fatales since the glory days of Barbara Stanwyck. A grifter is someone you can con you into believing a façade, and in a movie like this, the grifters should be able to con not only the marks on-screen but the audience as well. Huston is so hard and Cussack so introverted that you never get to see beyond the surface lineaments of their characters.

Bening, however, goes deeper. Under the surface sexuality, which is radiant, she emits a strangely goofy girlishness that lets you in on the last vestige of her insecurity. Frears, working from a script by Donald E. Westlake that softens the blows of Jim Thompson's novel, spotlights her in a couple of outlandish seduction scenes with her debtors. The joke is that she doesn't always succeed — she's a looser and doesn't know it. But when she's onscreen, the film discovers its own heartbeat.

The Grifters: B+
My Beautiful Laundrette: A-
Sammy and Rosie Get Laid: B
Prick Up Your Ears: A-
Dangerous Liaisons: B+

Originally posted May 31, 1991 Published in issue #68 May 31, 1991 Order article reprints