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The Grifters (1990)

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A small-time conman has torn loyalties between his estranged mother and new girlfriend--both of whom are high-stakes grifters with their own angles to play.



(novel), (screenplay)
Nominated for 4 Oscars. Another 9 wins & 14 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Robert Weems ...
Racetrack Announcer
Richard Holden ...
Lou Hancock ...
Noelle Harling ...
Nurse Carol Flynn


Lily works for a bookie, placing bets to change the odds at the track. When her son is hospitalized after an unsuccessful con job and resultant beating, she finds that even an absentee parent has feelings for her child. This causes her own job to go wrong as well. Each of them faces the down side of the grift. Written by John Vogel <jlvogel@comcast.net>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


Seduction. Betrayal. Murder. Who's Conning Who?


Crime | Drama | Thriller


R | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:



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Release Date:

25 January 1991 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Ambiciones prohibidas  »

Filming Locations:


Box Office


$13,446,769 (USA)

Company Credits

Production Co:

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
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Did You Know?


Cher and Geena Davis both turned down the role of Lilly Dillon. See more »


At the end of the movie when Lilly is leaving Roy's apartment with his money, blood is clearly visible on her knees and calves. But moments later when she is going down in the elevator, her legs are clean. See more »


[first lines]
Voice-over: Around the country the bookies pay off winners at track odds. It's dangerous when a long shot comes in. Unless you have somebody at the tracks to lower those odds.
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Performed by Dreamworld
Words & Music by Pete Theodore and Emilie A. Bernstein (as Emily Bernstein)
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Frequently Asked Questions

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User Reviews

Unusually Good
20 August 2002 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

Wanting to test out my testosterone in boot camp I decided to try out for the boxing team and went to the gym with a friend. Neither of us knew anything about boxing. The coach put us both in the ring and said, "Okay, let's see what you can do," or something equally Hemingwayesque. On the first half-hearted swing, Andy dealt me a glancing blow on the upper abdomen with a glove the size and density of a throw pillow. I went down on my knees and grabbed the ropes, thinking I might die from the pain. It had never occurred to me, watching the odd bout on TV, that every time one of those guys got punched -- it hurt! End of boxing career. This is the kind of movie in which, when somebody gets punched in the belly, he goes down and stays down. For several days.

It's a movie for grown ups about grifters -- con people -- who work all sorts of games on one another. It's not "The Sting," which is funny and which is about "the big con," as it's evidently still called, requiring eons of preparation. This film is about people who cheat, artists in their own ways, but not theatrical producers.

John Cusack is handsome in a pale way and delivers a decent performance as a young man who plays "short cons", clipping people out of nickels, dimes, and dollars, although he's been doing it long enough to put away something of a stash.

Annette Bening, his girl friend, is much more into the life, with quite a history. She's very pretty too. She has a gracile figure and minces when she walks. In addition to the sleek clothes she occasionally has on in this film, she wears a big open-lipped smile, speaks in a breathless Marilyn Monroe whisper, and has eyes that sparkle with mischief and deceit. There is murder behind that grin.

Angelica Huston is a puzzle. She's excellent here as a woman who works for Bobo, Pat Hinkle, a pudgy sadist, his best role in a generation. But her appearance is disturbing. It's as if, during childhood, her skeleton couldn't quite make up its mind about how mannish to become, how broad the shoulders should be, how high and boney the pelvic girdle. I don't mean that she is in any way unfeminine because she's not. It's simply that, knowing what her Dad looks like, I see the resemblance as so marked that it's kind of embarrassing to find her attractive.

J. T. Walsh is perfect as the big con artist with that boyishly naive candor that sucks the marks in because it is nothing more than a psychopath's mask.

He has a sympathetic, believable face, though he was stand-offish in person, and it's a shame that he died at such a relatively early age because he's always been a pleasure to watch.

The story has some very dark undertones. It isn't just that Bening is trying to rope Cusak into the grifter's way of life, or that Huston and her son Cusak have been estranged for eight years, or that Huston is skimming off the top while working for Bobo the Dangerous, or that Cusak is trying to minimize his cons. These themes are interesting enough in themselves and would add up to something resembling "House of Games." But it's a lot more Freudian than that. Of all the forms of incest in the nuclear family, mother-son incest is the rarest. And when it happens, or even when the impulse manifests itself, it's a shocker. Huston and Bening, on first meeting, take an immediate dislike to one another and trade open insults. Bening: "I'm Roy's friend." Huston: "I imagine you're a lot of peoples' friend." Bening: "Oh -- NOW I see. Yes, in the light you look easily old enough to be Roy's mother." The hatred is based on a jealousy that only Bening is able to discern. Some outstanding script writing has gone on here.

The lighting and photography are at least up to par, whether out of doors in the sunshine of a race track or indoors, in the dismal dump Roy lives in, the salmon-colored murk of his walls, lamps, and furniture and the clown portraits on black velvet. The score is based on an ironic tinkling oompah tune," although it turns emphatically dramatic when the situation calls for it, and it neatly sidesteps the conventions of the genre.

Watch this if you have the chance. You'll think about it for some time afterward, the way I thought about that blow in the ring.

61 of 79 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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