Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Grifters (1963)

It's true I have misgivings about a few of Jim Thompson's most highly regarded novels, such as The Killer Inside Me and After Dark, My Sweet. Nothing major, just a little underwhelmed for one reason or another. For all its strengths, I think I might have to put The Grifters in that category too. It's obviously significant in terms of the rehabilitation of Thompson's reputation that came after his death, providing the source for a 1990 neo-noir movie with John Cusack, Angelica Huston, and Annette Bening, directed by Stephen Frears, produced by Martin Scorsese. And Thompson obviously went to a good deal of effort to research the con artist and his many tricks. But it only seems to provide distracting shape and underpinning to his more typical impulses (incest, alcoholism, gambling, etc.). The explanations of the tricks inevitably bear a certain pedantic tone, and though the tricky tricks remain interesting it's not exactly why we read Jim Thompson novels. (If it's con games you're after, see linguist David Maurer's 1940 The Big Con.) Yes, the Thompson elements are classic: a seamy Freudian tale of the relationship between con man Roy Dillon and his mother Lilly, who was 13 when she had him, further complicated by Roy having a girlfriend, Moira. There's a hot nurse named Carol too, a concentration camp survivor. As always, it is more or less about the rot that creeps into human relationships, a sickness unto death, with a thousand and one identical faces. Lilly is a monster and all the women here seem to have that potential. But it also feels just slightly artificial, as if Thompson has donned a girdle. It often feels programmed: a few tidy details on the intricacies of "short" and "long" cons here, some all-in-a-day torture with a cigarette there, and lots of lascivious blurp all over the place. The writing does feel more fresh and urgent than in many of his '50s novels, which saves it. Between the research and the writing, The Grifters is pretty good Thompson, even as it attempts to slot into some commercial format of popular taste. I won't argue with anyone who calls it essential. It's good enough, and you don't want to miss it if you're reading him.

In case it's not at the library.

No comments:

Post a Comment