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Catherine Savard
Catherine Savard

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The Grifters (1990) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

Steve Martin and Michael Cain are fun and frothy in this comic look at the con game (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels).  The Huston/Cusack/Bening trio in The Grifters tells us something quite different about the seamier side of the life of a con artist. It's not all fun and games.

Who's Conning Who?

Saturday Night at the Movies on TVO drifted into Mother’s Day at about midnight . Mother’s Day was a very traditional affair at our house on Sunday: lunch at a restaurant, grandma visiting, homemade cards, childish hands clutching little bunches of spring flowers, special presents for Mom – in short, all the obligatory stuff that warms a mother’s heart. My little seven year old boy came over to me several times in the day and spontaneously gave me a hug. He looked up at me with those trusting, innocent eyes and said things like, “I love you mommy” and “You look pretty in those clothes mommy.” Precious treasures, memories like that. And the thing is that they really are just a part of my everyday “normal” life. Gushy and maudlin, well maybe – but that’s my life.

the grifters trio135071.jpgThere’s a slight disconnect there between my “real” life and the film I was watching on TVO on Saturday night just minutes before we slipped into Mother’s Day. “The Grifters”, directed by Stephen Frears, was announced as a gritty version of the life of a con artist. Man, that was so gritty I can still feel the sand in my mouth! Grimy might be another apt adjective. Why am I not surprised with Martin Scorsese listed in the credits as a producer? Scorsese’s name on the picture however, gave me an indication that, while it would not be pretty, it would probably be a good film.

I think back to the penultimate scene where Lilly has come to Roy ’s apartment to take his money and Grifters%20Lillie%20and%20Roy%20jpeg.jpegmake a run for it. Lilly’s relationship with her son, Roy, is complicated and conflicted, to say the least. At one point, in order to calm herself down and buy more time, Lilly walks into the kitchen to get herself some ice water. She hands the water to Roy and says, “Go ahead. You can’t tell whether it’s poisoned or not, can you?” Roy doesn’t know whether the water is poisoned or not, but he does know that he can’t trust his mother. It’s a kind of an “anti-Mother’s Day” testimonial; everything that a mother and Mother’s Day are not supposed to be.

After having watched the rest of the movie, nothing about the behaviour of the mother and son duo during this scene was surprising - shocking maybe, but surprising, no. The only surprise was the gruesome accident with the broken glass. This came as a surprise to Lilly herself. Lilly weeps over the body of her son with genuine tears of shock and remorse. It is not that Lilly is not human. She is just fully given over to corruption. She scoops up the bloodied bills that lay scattered on the floor and stuffs them into the briefcase.

Grifters%20Anjelica%20Huston%20.jpegMother instinct is overcome quickly enough by survival instinct. In the final scene, Lilly’s face is pictured as hardened and emotionless against the darkness of the night cityscape as she carefully turns the car into the roadway so that she can drive off to the next grift.

Wow! Now that’s sleaze in its full, unabridged form.

Roy , Myra and Lilly are all trapped in a destructive lifestyle from which there is no apparent escape other than through the unsavoury exit door of death. Roy maintains that he can walk away from the lifestyle anytime he wants. He claims that he is going to play it straight. While Myra attempts to lure Roy into the long con and Lilly and her lifestyle propel him into the short con, Roy attempts to assert his independence from both of them. Before we find out whether Roy really will carry through on his intentions, death catches up with him. Somehow, given what we know about Roy and about the lifestyle of the con artist, we have doubts as to whether he actually would succeed in getting out in time from under the weight of his chosen profession. Roy sounds a bit too much like an addict to me.

Under the thin veneer of “cool” self-control and reckless abandon to the pursuit of pleasure, there lurk other emotions that are more troubling to observe. All three of the grifters in this film seem to accidentally betray deep self-loathing, vicious anger, and, at times a sense of despair. One thinks of Grifters%20mischievous%20Myra%20jpeg.jpegMyra ’s strangely out of place giggles as she “pays the rent” and Lilly’s stark terror in facing Bobo with his grocery bag of oranges. The grift and all of the concentration that it requires actually appears to take their mind off of these inner problems, at least for a while. The worst thing about it is that there is no refuge either from the inner angst or the outward consequences of the lifestyle. At one point Lilly says to Roy, “I thought maybe we could be straight with each other for once,” but nothing could be further from the truth. The one inviolable law of the world of the con is that you can’t trust anyone. Ever.

The first film of the evening, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” also shows us the same message about the con artist but from a completely different angle. As much as “The Grifters” is dark and deadly in its tone, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” remains effervescent and fun. Frank Oz directs this tale of the highly amusing antics of two cons playing their tricks on the unsuspecting clientele of the French Riviera.

Two more likeable cons than Lawrence Jamieson, played by Michael Cain, and Freddy Benson as brought to us by dirty rotten scoundrels billboard134652.jpgSteve Martin would be hard to find. Not that I generally like Steve Martin movies. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed this romp through the Riviera courtesy of Messieurs Martin and Cain, I fail to be persuaded that I like Steve Martin as an actor. Yes, Martin does that physical sort of humour stuff pretty well, but it really isn’t my style. I think that the inimitable Michael Cain as supported by the obviously versatile Ms. Glenne Headly carried the day for me. They made Steve Martin just barely bearable.

The swindlers get swindled in the end, nobody really gets hurt, and the marks all deserved to lose all that lovely money anyways. What great fun to watch the plot unfold and see the plotters undone!

It was a nicely paired set of movies, although perhaps I would have done well to go to bed early while things stayed on the “frothy” side as I think Johanne Schneller put it. It might have left me in a more positive frame of mind for Mother’s Day.

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Posted on Monday, August 21,

2006 at 10:48AM by Registered CommenterCatherine Savard | CommentsPost a Comment