The Grifters (film)

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The Grifters
theatrical release poster
Directed by Stephen Frears
Produced by
Written by Donald E. Westlake
Based on The Grifters
by Jim Thompson
Music by Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography Oliver Stapleton
Edited by Mick Audsley
Distributed by Miramax Films
Release date
  • December 5, 1990 (1990-12-05) (US limited)
  • January 4, 1991 (1991-01-04) (US wide)
Running time
110 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $13,446,769

The Grifters is a 1990 American neo-noir crime drama film directed by Stephen Frears, produced by Martin Scorsese, and starring John Cusack, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening.[1] The screenplay was written by Donald E. Westlake, based on Jim Thompson's novel of the same name.


Lilly Dillon is a veteran con artist. She works for a Baltimore bookmaker, Bobo Justus, making large cash bets at race tracks to lower the odds of longshots paying huge sums. On her way to La Jolla for the horse races, she stops in Los Angeles to visit her son Roy, a small-time grifter whom she has not seen in eight years. She finds him in pain and bleeding internally after one of his victims catches him pulling a petty scam and hits him in the stomach with a baseball bat. When medical assistance arrives, Lilly confronts the doctor, threatening to use her mob connections 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 also a con artist. When her landlord demands payment of late rent, Myra uses her wiles to persuade him to have sex in lieu of receiving the rent money. She makes a similar offer to a jeweller when he discovers the jewelry she is trying to pawn contains fake diamonds. Lilly urges Roy to quit the grift, saying he literally does not have the stomach for it. Because she leaves late for La Jolla, Lilly misses a race where a longshot horse wins, paying off at 70-to-1 odds. Bobo burns her hand with a cigar as punishment for missing the race and asks Lilly if she is embezzling his money, which she denies.

Upon leaving the hospital, Roy takes Myra to La Jolla for the weekend. On the train, she notices 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. In a flashback, she describes her long, profitable association with a con man named Cole, and the scams they pulled to defraud wealthy marks of thousands of dollars. When Roy asks Myra what happened to her partnership with Cole, she hedges that he "retired" before admitting that Cole is incarcerated in a prison for the criminally insane.

Roy, who insists on working only short-term cons, resists Myra's proposition, fearing she may try to con him. Myra, seeing Lilly's power over Roy, accuses him of having an incestuous affair with his mother. Infuriated, Roy strikes Myra and ends their relationship. Blaming Lilly for sabotaging her relationship with Roy, Myra exacts her revenge: she uses her mob contacts to inform Bobo that Lilly has been stealing thousands of dollars from him and stashing the loot in the trunk of her car. Lilly is warned by a friend and flees before Bobo's henchmen can apprehend her.

Myra follows Lilly with the intention of killing her and taking the money stashed in her car. Shortly after Lilly checks into a motel on the outskirts of Phoenix, Myra surreptitiously checks into the same motel. Later, Roy is summoned by a Phoenix police officer to identify his mother's body after it is found in the motel room with its face disfigured by a gunshot wound. While identifying the body, Roy silently notes that there is no cigar burn on the corpse's hand, so it cannot be his mother.

Roy returns home and finds Lilly stealing all of his money so she can continue to elude Bobo. In another flashback, Lilly reveals that she shot Myra in self-defense at the motel and arranged the scene to appear as though Myra's body was actually hers. Roy refuses to let Lilly depart with his money. Lilly pleads with him, then attempts to seduce him, even going so far as to tempt Roy by claiming he is not really her son. Although Roy allows Lilly to kiss him, he ultimately rejects her and resists her pleas for his cash. Angered, Lilly swings a briefcase at his face, unintentionally breaking a drinking glass and slashing an artery in his neck. Lilly gasps and sobs while she packs up the money as her son bleeds to death on the floor. She rides an elevator to the basement parking garage, takes Roy's car and drives off into the night.



The project originated with Martin Scorsese who subsequently brought in Stephen Frears to direct while he produced.[2] Frears had just finished making Dangerous Liaisons and was looking for another project when Scorsese approached him.[3] The British filmmaker was drawn to Thompson's "tough and very stylistic" writing and described it, "as if pulp fiction meets Greek tragedy".[3] 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.[2] 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. (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.[4] 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."[4] 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.[5]

For the role of Lilly, Frears originally considered Cher but she became too expensive after the success of Moonstruck.[6] 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.[7] A few months later, Frears contacted Huston again to see if she was still interested.[7] He was reluctant to cast her because she looked like "a lady" and decided to cheapen her look with a bleached blond wig and "vulgar clothes."[3] Huston read the script again and felt more passionate about the part and was cast in the role. To research her part, she studied women dealers at card parlors in L.A. County.[7]

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.[7] 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.[7]


The Grifters had its world premiere on September 14, 1990 at the Toronto Festival of Festivals at the Elgin Theater.[3][8] The film had a brief Academy Award-qualifying run in New York City and Los Angeles before opening wide in January.[9]

The film received positive reviews from critics, as it holds a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 39 reviews.

Box office[edit]

The movie was successful in its limited run.[10]


Accolade Category Recipients and nominees Results
20/20 awards Best Picture The Grifters Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Donald E. Westlake Nominated
Best Lead Actress Anjelica Huston Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Annette Bening Won
Academy Awards Best Director Stephen Frears Nominated
Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Donald E. Westlake Nominated
Best Lead Actress Anjelica Huston Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Annette Bening Nominated
Boston Society of Film Critics awards Best Lead Actress Anjelica Huston Won
British Academy Film Awards Best Supporting Actress Annette Bening Nominated
Casting Society of America awards Best Casting for Feature Film, Drama Juliet Taylor Nominated
Chicago Film Critics Association awards Best Lead Actress Anjelica Huston Nominated
Dallas–Fort Worth Film Critics Association awards Best Picture The Grifters Nominated
Best Director Stephen Frears Nominated
Best Lead Actress Anjelica Huston Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Annette Bening Nominated
Edgar 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 Robert A. Harris
Jim Painter
Martin Scorsese
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 Lead Actress Anjelica Huston Won
National Board of Review awards Top Ten Films The Grifters Won
National Society of Film Critics awards Best Film The Grifters Nominated
Best Director Stephen Frears Nominated
Best Screenplay Donald E. Westlake Nominated
Best Lead Actress Anjelica Huston Won
Best Supporting Actress Annette Bening Won
New York Film Critics Circle awards Best Film The Grifters Nominated
Best Lead Actress Anjelica Huston Nominated
Writers Guild of America Award Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Donald E. Westlake Nominated


  1. ^ "The Grifters". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved March 28, 2016. 
  2. ^ a b Bygrave, Mike (July 16, 1990). "A Shot at Point Blank". The Guardian. 
  3. ^ a b c d Kelly, Deirdre (September 15, 1990). "An English Director on Challenge of Making his First Yankee Flick". Globe and Mail. 
  4. ^ a b Van Gelder, Lawrence (August 31, 1990). "At the Movies". New York Times. 
  5. ^ Goodman, Joan (January 31, 1991). "Getting the Drift of the Grift". The Guardian. 
  6. ^ Johnston, Sheila (January 31, 1991). "The Innocent Abroad". The Independent. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Sharkey, Betsy (December 2, 1990). "Anjelica Huston Seeks the Soul of a Con Artist". New York Times. 
  8. ^ Harris, Christopher (August 29, 1990). "Frears to Attend Premiere". Globe and Mail. 
  9. ^ Green, Tom (December 11, 1990). "Haute Huston". USA Today. 
  10. ^ "'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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