Although Jim Thompson was known as “Dimestore Dostoevsky,” a more accurate alliterative handle might have been “Dimestore de Sade.” His stories may not be the most violent, but the currents of sadism running through make them as disturbing as anything I’d care to read. These days, The Killer Inside Me (1952) may be his most highly regarded book. It’s a first person narrative of a Texas lawman trying to keep his innate lust for mayhem in check. I decided to save it for later (maybe never), and instead picked up The Grifters (1963), Thompson’s best-known work thanks to the 1990 movie adaptation.
The first thing I noticed was a device Thompson employs in both novels. It involves characters’ quoting clichés. Basically squares, marks, and rubes use clichés. Whereas people in the life, the conmen, crooks, and deviants know better. They believe they’ve got privileged, inside knowledge and only resort to clichés as pretense or parody. Hmmm. We’ll come back to this.
The Grifters provides an almost perfect laboratory environment for studying the idea of the “character arc.” It’s pretty simple. Screenwriting is even more formulaic than genre fiction. Characters are supposed to “develop” during the course of the story. They either learn something that makes them more complete or human. This makes them more complex and interesting. Or they can fail to learn, and this leads to inevitable tragedy.
In the case of The Grifters, British director Stephen Frears had trouble convincing Donald Westlake to take the screenwriting job. Westlake felt the story was too gloomy and didn’t want to spend time thinking about such grim characters. Roy is a 25-year-old conman. Lilly, his mother, is only 14 years older than he is, and she works for the mob. Throughout the story, they are at each other’s throats, always trying to guilt-trip and con each other.
Westlake says he decided to take the job when Frears told him, “It’s Lilly’s story, not Roy’s. It’s a story about someone who is going to survive, no matter what. And a story of survival is a little more upbeat.”
To accomplish the magic required of him, Westlake made small shifts of emphasis throughout. But there are two major changes that dramatically alter the characters’ flavor. First, about midway through the book, Roy is in the hospital, recovering from a near-fatal injury. Lilly hires a superficially-mousy, yet sexy-when-she-takes-off-her-uniform nurse named Carol. Roy talks himself into thinking he’s in love with her so he can seduce her, and then immediately grows distant when he notices the concentration camp tattoo on her forearm. Obviously he’s a cad and Lilly seizes the moral high-ground where she berates him thoroughly.
Westlake sloughs off this baggage in the movie. Roy and Carol never make it to bed. Instead, Roy tells Carol to her face that Lilly only wants to provide him with someone to fuck, so he’ll lose interest in super-floozy red-hot con woman Myra, played by Annette Bening.
Westlake altered the structure so Lilly wouldn’t peak too soon, and Roy would have a higher height to fall from.
The second big change comes just before the climax. In the book, Roy has made a decision to leave the world of grifting and take an honest job as a sales manager. That makes his fate a tragic one at the end, and harder to admire Lilly simply for surviving.
While I probably enjoyed the movie more than the book—did I say Annette Bening was hot?—I think Westlake’s rewrite softens the impact of the most important line in both versions.
Lilly’s on the run from the mob and she breaks into Roy’s apartment to steal his life savings. She keeps saying she needs the money. Roy points out that she doesn’t need it. She’s less than 40 years old, is attractive, has skills…why, she could get a job.
In the book, this resonates because Roy himself has just made that very decision: There’s life outside of the con and working for a living doesn’t mean you’re a mark. But in the movie, Roy is hedging. It’s just another con and, since Lilly conned last, she conned best.