The Grifters (film)

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The Grifters
theatrical release poster
Directed byStephen Frears
Screenplay byDonald E. Westlake
Based onThe Grifters
by Jim Thompson
Produced by
CinematographyOliver Stapleton
Edited byMick Audsley
Music byElmer Bernstein
Distributed byMiramax Films
Release dates
  • December 5, 1990 (1990-12-05) (US limited)
  • January 4, 1991 (1991-01-04) (US wide)
Running time
110 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$13.4 million

The Grifters is a 1990 American neo-noir[1] crime thriller film directed by Stephen Frears, produced by Martin Scorsese, and starring John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and Annette Bening.[2] The screenplay was written by Donald E. Westlake, based on Jim Thompson's 1963 novel of the same name. The film won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film and was declared one of the Top 10 films of 1990 by The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.


Lilly Dillon is a veteran con artist. She works for Bobo Justus, a mob bookmaker, making large cash bets at race tracks to lower the odds of longshots. On her way to La Jolla for a race, she stops in Los Angeles to visit her son, Roy, a small-time grifter she has not seen in eight years. She finds him in pain and bleeding internally after one of his victims caught him pulling a petty scam and hit him in the stomach with a bat. When medical assistance finally comes, Lilly confronts the doctor, threatening to have him killed if her son dies.

At the hospital, Lilly meets and takes an instant dislike to Roy's girlfriend, Myra Langtry, who is slightly older than her son. Lilly urges her son to quit the grift, saying he isn't "tough enough." Because she leaves late for La Jolla, she misses a race where the winner was paying 70 to 1. For this mistake, Bobo punches her in the stomach and insinuates he will beat her with oranges wrapped in a towel, causing permanent damage, but at the last minute, he burns her hand with a cigar instead.

Myra, like Roy and Lilly, is also a con artist. When her landlord demands payment of late rent, she uses her sex appeal to lure him into bed in lieu of paying him the money. She makes a similar offer to a jeweler to get what she wants for a bracelet she is trying to pawn.

Upon leaving the hospital, Roy takes Myra to La Jolla for the weekend. On the train, she sees him conning a group of sailors in a rigged dice game. Myra reveals to Roy that she is also a grifter and is looking for a new partner for a long con. She describes her association with a con man named Cole Langley and how they took advantage of wealthy marks in business cons, including a greedy oil investor, Gloucester Hebbing, culminating in a fake FBI raid in which Myra feigned being shot to death to discourage Hebbing from going to the police.

Roy, who insists on working only short-term cons, resists the proposition, fearing she may try to dupe him. Myra, seeing Lilly's power over Roy, accuses him of having an incestuous interest in Lilly. Infuriated, Roy strikes her. Thirsty for revenge, Myra finds out Lilly has been stealing from Bobo over the years and stashing the money in the trunk of her car, and she leaks this information to him. Lilly is warned by a friend and flees. Myra follows her to a remote motel, intending to kill her there and steal the money for herself.

Later, Roy is called by the Phoenix police to come and identify his mother's body, found in a motel room with the face disfigured by a gunshot wound. Though he tells them it is Lilly, he notices the body lacks the cigar burn, something he'd noticed on Lilly earlier. He returns home to find Lilly has broken in to steal his money. Lilly reveals she shot Myra in self-defense at the motel while the latter was trying to strangle her, and arranged the scene to appear as though Myra's body was actually her own and that she'd committed suicide. When Roy refuses to let Lilly take his money, she desperately pleads with him, then attempts to seduce him, even going so far as to claim he is not really her son. Roy is disgusted and rejects her. Lilly angrily swings a briefcase at Roy just as he is taking a drink of water she brought him, shattering the glass and sending shards into his neck, which cause him to bleed to death on the floor. Sobbing over her son's body, Lilly gathers up the money, then disappears into the night, driving Roy's car.



The project originated with Martin Scorsese who subsequently brought in Stephen Frears to direct while he produced.[3] Frears had just finished making Dangerous Liaisons and was looking for another project when Scorsese approached him.[4] The British filmmaker was drawn to Thompson's "tough and very stylistic" writing and described it, "as if pulp fiction meets Greek tragedy".[4] Scorsese looked for a screenwriter, and filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff recommended Donald Westlake.

Frears contacted Westlake who agreed to reread the Thompson novel but, after doing so, turned the project down, citing the story as "too gloomy." Frears then phoned Westlake and convinced him that he saw the story as a positive one if considered as a story of Lilly's drive to survive. Westlake changed his mind and agreed to write the adaptation.[3] Frears was unsuccessful, however, at convincing Westlake to write the script under his pseudonym "Richard Stark," a name he had used to write 20 noir-influenced crime novels from 1962 through 1974. Westlake said that "I got out of that one by explaining Richard Stark wasn't a member of the Writer's Guild. I don't think he's a joiner, actually."[5] (Stark's name appears in the film, though, on a sign reading "Stark, Coe and Fellows"; Westlake explains in the film's commentary track that he has written novels as Richard Stark, Tucker Coe and "some other fellows.")

Meanwhile, John Cusack had read Jim Thompson's novel in 1985 and was so impressed by it that he wanted to turn the book into a film himself.[6] When Cusack found out that Scorsese and Frears were planning an adaptation, he actively pursued a role in the project. Cusack has said that he saw the character of Roy Dillon as "a wonderfully twisted role to dive into."[6] To research his role, he studied with real grifters and learned card and dice tricks as well as sleight-of-hand tricks like the $20 switch that his character does in the film. He even successfully pulled off this trick at a bar on a bartender he knew well.[7]

For the role of Lilly, Frears originally considered Cher but she became too expensive after the success of Moonstruck.[8] Sissy Spacek also read the part of Lilly Dillon.

Frears first contacted Anjelica Huston about playing Lilly in 1989 while she was filming Crimes and Misdemeanors, but after reading the script, she was unsure.[9] Although she was "transfixed" by the story and the character, a scene in the script where Lilly is beaten so violently by Bobo Justus with a sack of oranges that she defecates alarmed her with its explicitness.[10] A few months later, Frears contacted Huston again to see if she was still interested.[9] Still wavering, Huston's talent agent Sue Mengers told her bluntly "Anjelica, if Stephen Frears tells you he wants you to shit in the corner, then that's what you must do."[10] The next day Huston auditioned for the role in front of Frears at the Chateau Marmont. Frears' initial reluctance to cast Huston because she looked too much like "a lady", was resolved with the decision to cheapen her look with a bleached blond wig and "vulgar clothes."[4] To research her part, she studied women dealers at card parlors in Los Angeles County, California.[9]

The shoot was emotionally challenging for Huston. After completing the final scene between Lilly and Roy, she was so drained from the experience that she ran from the set and the studio. It took her hours to recover.[9] After shooting the scene where Bobo Justus tortures Lilly for betraying him, Huston was so affected by the rough quality of the scene (which did not make the final cut of the film) that she spent that night throwing up.[9]


The Grifters had its world premiere on September 14, 1990 at the Toronto Festival of Festivals at the Elgin Theater.[4][11] The film had a brief Academy Award-qualifying run in New York City and Los Angeles before opening wide in January.[12]

The film received positive reviews from critics. It holds a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 43 reviews.

Box office[edit]

The movie was successful in its limited run.[13]


Award Category Nominee(s) Result
20/20 Awards Best Picture Nominated
Best Actress Anjelica Huston Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Annette Bening Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Donald E. Westlake Nominated
Academy Awards Best Director Stephen Frears Nominated
Best Actress Anjelica Huston Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Annette Bening Nominated
Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium Donald E. Westlake Nominated
Artios Awards Outstanding Achievement in Feature Film Casting – Drama Juliet Taylor Nominated
Boston Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actress Anjelica Huston Won
British Academy Film Awards Best Actress in a Supporting Role Annette Bening Nominated
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Anjelica Huston Nominated
Dallas–Fort Worth Film Critics Association Awards Best Picture Nominated
Best Director Stephen Frears Nominated
Best Actress Anjelica Huston Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Annette Bening Nominated
Edgar Allan Poe Awards Best Motion Picture Donald E. Westlake Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Lead Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Anjelica Huston Nominated
Independent Spirit Awards Best Feature Won
Best Female Lead Anjelica Huston Won
London Film Critics' Circle Awards Newcomer of the Year Annette Bening Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Anjelica Huston Won
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films 10th Place
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Film 2nd Place
Best Director Stephen Frears 2nd Place
Best Actress Anjelica Huston Won
Best Supporting Actress Annette Bening Won
Best Screenplay Donald E. Westlake 3rd Place
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Film Runner-up
Best Actress Anjelica Huston Runner-up
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium Donald E. Westlake Nominated


  1. ^ Silver, Alain; Ward, Elizabeth; eds. (1992). Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (3rd ed.). Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press. ISBN 0-87951-479-5
  2. ^ "The Grifters". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved March 28, 2016.
  3. ^ a b Bygrave, Mike (July 16, 1990). "A Shot at Point Blank". The Guardian.
  4. ^ a b c d Kelly, Deirdre (September 15, 1990). "An English Director on Challenge of Making his First Yankee Flick". The Globe and Mail.
  5. ^ Richard Stark (1 March 1999). "Richard Stark: Introduced by Donald E. Westlake". Payback. Grand Central Publishing. pp. vii–x. ISBN 978-0-446-67464-5.
  6. ^ a b Van Gelder, Lawrence (August 31, 1990). "At the Movies". The New York Times.
  7. ^ Goodman, Joan (January 31, 1991). "Getting the Drift of the Grift". The Guardian.
  8. ^ Johnston, Sheila (January 31, 1991). "The Innocent Abroad". The Independent.
  9. ^ a b c d e Sharkey, Betsy (December 2, 1990). "Anjelica Huston Seeks the Soul of a Con Artist". The New York Times.
  10. ^ a b Anjelica Huston (2014). Watch Me. Scribner. p. 216.
  11. ^ Harris, Christopher (August 29, 1990). "Frears to Attend Premiere". The Globe and Mail.
  12. ^ Green, Tom (December 11, 1990). "Haute Huston". USA Today.
  13. ^ "'Home Alone' Fends Off Yet Another 'Intruder' : Box Office: Vietnam War film opens to mediocre business as comedy remains on top for 10th week. After four weeks of release, 'Godfather Part III' drops to 12th". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2012-06-03.

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