Jim Thompson has been dead for 15 years now, and he never got much notice when he was alive, but all of his books are in print again--with covers showing the broads with low necklines, the desperate guys with their cigarettes and three-day beards, and always in the foreground the bottle of booze.
"It's a doomed world, isn't it?" asks John Cusack. "A godless universe. It says so right in the book."
There is something peculiarly American about the stories written by Thompson and the other masters of the dregs of crime, writers like James M. Cain, Fredric Brown, Raymond Chandler and Howard Browne. They write of wounded men on the fringes, living out of hot-sheet hotels and having their hearts broken, again and again, by women with flaming hair and no principles. Maybe it is the loss of innocence that is so American; a European wouldn't fall for dames like these.
Cusack's new movie is named "The Grifters," and it is one of the best films of the year, the story of a young man who thinks he is an expert at playing the confidence game--until he runs into two women who really are experts, who destroy every illusion he ever had that he could count on someone, or love someone. One of the women is his girl friend. The other woman is his mother. It's that kind of world. (Insert movie's opening date and theater here.)
The movie is the first U.S. work by the British director Stephen Frears ("My Beautiful Laundrette," "Prick Up Your Ears"), and perhaps because he was telling an American story for the first time, he gravitated toward Thompson's novel--which is quintessentially American, and may even have given the word grifter to the language.
A grifter is one who grifts, and drifts, and in this story Cusack plays a guy whose grifts are pretty far down on the totem pole. He specializes in giving bartenders a 10 and getting change for a 20. And for that grift he is beaten up so badly one night that he thinks he might die. The lesson is, if they're going to hurt you that much, be sure it's for something worth having.
In the movie, Cusack meets Myra, a good-looking women (Annette Bening) who cannot possibly be as young as she seems. She's been around, working with the best con artists in Texas and Oklahoma. She's beautiful and she seems to love him, and he's weak and in pain, and what man alive could face that combination and not fall in love? And then there is another woman, who comes to visit him in the hospital: His mother (Anjelica Huston), who is in the con game, too. She had him when she was very young, and never related to him as a mother should, because she loved money more. She works for the mob, now, moving around the country to the big tracks, laying down bets to even up the odds.
When the two women meet for the first time, there is an instant dislike, a spitting, clawing hostility they don't bother to conceal. A man might be forgiven for feeling complimented when two women compete for him, but the sinister secret of "The Grifters" is that they aren't competing for his affection, they're fighting for the right to use him. It's all a con.
If the movie had been made 25 or 30 years ago, when Thompson write his book, Hollywood would have required some major changes, particularly in an uncomfortable end scene where Huston toys mercilessly with her son's male feelings. And some of the violence would have been toned down.
"It's pretty harsh," Cusack said one afternoon a while ago, after we'd seen the premiere of the movie at the Toronto Film Festival. "What's interesting about the movie is that everyone comes out stunned by the violence but it's really not that explicitly violent. It's psychologically violent. If you look at a scene like that last scene between my character and his mother, and then you look at the death kills of a `Predator' or `Total Recall,' well, there's massive hyper-violence everywhere. But `The Grifters' has some choice scenes where it really crosses the boundary, not so much with physical violence, as with how the characters know what will really hurt. I think it's really disturbing. The first time I saw it, I was disturbed." The characters hurt each other, I said. There aren't too many innocent bystanders who get wounded in this film.
Cusack smiled. "That's what the guy says: `Anybody can whip a fool--fools were made to be whipped. But to take another pro, somebody who has his eye on you, to take your partner, that's a score'." He was quoting Thompson by heart--Thompson, the obscure pulp writer whose novels appeared in trashy paperbacks from struggling publishers, who wrote for the movies but never made big bucks, the man who is more successful now than when he was alive, whose novels have been made into Peckinpah's "The Getaway" and Tavernier's "Coup de Torchon," and into three current movies: "After Dark, My Sweet," "The Kill-Off," and this one.
To help himself with the special idiom of Thompson, Frears hired a man who had walked some of the same dark streets in his fiction; the screenplay is by Donald Westlake, the celebrated mystery writer. "We were always referring back to Thompson's book as this kind of dark little bible," Cusack said. "It's just a raunchy little paperback, and it just seems so cheap, but it's so loaded. We kept going back to the book, and looking for bits that we liked, descriptive paragraphs to explain a scene."
Talking to Cusack, I wondered why he seemed to fit so naturally into this world of failed 1950s grifters, whose very cons seem touchingly old-fashioned in these modern times when the really capable con men all go into the financial world, where the rewards are larger. "These stories are kind of about America, I think," he said. "I love film noir. They're classic films. They're about twisted, complicated people, who are fascinating to watch, and fascinating to play. There's a certain kind of detachment that comes with a survival instinct. Roy, the guy I play in `The Grifters,' is a guy who had a very bleak life. His mother had him at 13, and then when she was 17 or 18 and he was 4 or 5, they were trapped in a small Texas town somewhere, and she was ready to do anything to get out.
"They had a horrible life together, and she was very cruel to him. So he's got all of this anger pent up, that he will not address, and also all of this lust for his mother, so I think the only time Roy's really happy is when he's grifting. That's the closest he'll come to peace, is when he's taking back, getting back. The rest of the time, it's maintaining a facade. He's got a job, a house, a relationship with his neighbors, a relationship with his mother and his lover, and none of them mean anything. They're all hollow."
One strange aspect of the movie is that the male lead, the Cusack character, is essentially the passive victim of the women. He's not macho. The women of film noir can occasionally be as evil as the men--remember the games that Jane Greer played with Robert Mitchum in "Out of the Past," or Barbara Stanwyck's manipulation of Fred Macmurray in "Double Indemnity," or Kathleen Turner destroying William Hurt in "Body Heat"--but in recent years that kind of predatory woman has gone out of style in the movies. In "The Grifters," they're back. These women are deadly and unprincipled, and Cusack's young man is out of his depth with them.
"The toughest person on the bill is clearly Lily, Anjelica's character," Cusack said. "The only person who could bring Lily down would be Roy, and the only person who could bring Roy down would be Lily, and neither of them buy into Myra."
Cusack, saying these things in the long afternoon of a hotel bar, seems to undergo a transition himself. He is one of the best actors of his generation, and yet in a way one of the most surprising. He began his career playing a series of vulnerable teenagers, and yet in person he's physically imposing and much taller than you would think--two or three inches over six feet. Perhaps because he has played uncertain kids in some of his best roles, such as "The Sure Thing" and "Say Anything," it's easier to think of him as smaller, younger and more defenseless than he is. Even in "The Grifters," he doesn't seem that tall, perhaps because he plays many scenes opposite the tall Anjelica Huston. But here, in person, he is not only taller but more serious, more thoughtful, than you might expect, and in his face you can see an echo of the greatest of all film noir actors, Robert Mitchum.
He got into acting more or less by accident. He is a member of a large, gifted family (sister Joan and brother Bill are actors, sister Ann is a singer, and only sister Susie has so far stayed free of show business).
"Our parents more or less just kind of wanted us to pursue our passions," Cusack said. "Whatever they would have been, they would have helped light the fire. They are very liberal, artistic people but they didn't force us into acting. They let us find our own ways."
How did you actually get started?
"I grew up in Evanston, and lived in Chicago for a long time, in Old Town and Wrigleyville. I did three films when I was in high school. The first was "Class," with Rob Lowe. I had a supporting role in that. For nine weeks, instead of going to my junior year in high school, I went to a movie set with Jacqueline Bisset. Not bad. I was loving life, just loving it. The second movie was John Hughes' "Sixteen Candles," with Molly Ringwald, and then I did this little film called "Grandview USA," and then I was cast by Ron Reiner for "The Sure Thing" so--three supporting roles, and then I got a lead role, and I've been doing leads ever since."
He has never, however, turned into a Hollywood celebrity, or had anything to do, however remotely, with Brat Pack types. His favorite kind of evening is spent in Chicago, after a Cubs game, having a few beers with friends and relatives at a hangout like O'Rourke's at Halstead and North, where he has been seen to tend bar himself from time to time:
"Yeah, it's a great place. It's always a place were I can go, and not have to talk about my films. I can go hang out, and nobody really gives a damn if I'm an actor."
You don't go for the movie star thing?
"It seems really hollow to me. It feels very pretentious. It's nothing you can really get anything from. You bust your ass to do a good job on a film, and you want people whose opinions you respect to like what you do, but you can't get anything out of playing the star game. I don't walk around talking about my life, and spouting my philosophy to people I don't know. I mean, if I get to know them, I'll talk for hours. I guess I like a lower key scene."
But look. You're still in your early 20s and you're a movie star and it gives you a certain amount of power and recognition, and isn't it only human to enjoy that once in a while?
"Yeah, it is." He grinned, and lost about 10 years. "Like if I walk in really happy, and at the top of my game, and strut a little bit, a lot of times the star thing starts to happen, but if you walk in and are unassuming, the same people might not recognize you. You can just sort of shut yourself off if you want."