John Cusack’s Black Suit in The Grifters
John Cusack as Roy Dillon, swaggering con man with mommy issues
Phoenix and Los Angeles, Summer 1990
Film: The Grifters
Release Date: December 5, 1990
Director: Stephen Frears
Costume Designer: Richard Hornung
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
At seventeen going on eighteen, Roy Dillon had left home. He took nothing with him but the clothes he wore—clothes he had bought and paid for himself. He took no money but the little in the pockets of his clothes, and that too he had earned.
He wanted nothing from Lilly. She had given him nothing when he needed it, when he was too small to get for himself, and he wasn’t letting her into the game at this late date.
He had no contact with her during the first six months he was away. Then, at Christmas time, he sent her a card, and on Mother’s Day he sent her another. Both were of the gooey sentimental type, dripping with sickly sweetness, but the latter was a real dilly. Hearts and flowers and fat little angels swarmed over it in an insanely hilarious montage. The engraved message was dedicated to Dear Old Mom, and it gushed tearfully of goodnight kisses and platters and pitchers of oven-fresh cookies and milk when a little boy came in from play.
You would have thought that Dear Old Mom (God bless her silvering hair) had been the proprietor of a combination dairy-bakery, serving no customer but her own little tyke (on his brand-new bike).
He was laughing so hard when he sent it that he almost botched up the address. But afterward, he had some sobering second thoughts. Perhaps the joke was on him, yes? Perhaps by gibing at her he was revealing a deep and lasting hurt, admitting that she was tougher than he. And that, naturally, wouldn’t do. He’d taken everything she had to hand out, and it hadn’t made a dent in him. He damned well mustn’t ever let it think it had.
— Jim Thompson, The Grifters, Chapter 5
Reading this passage from one of my favorite pulp novelists inspired today’s Mother’s Day post, by way of Jim Thompson’s acid pen translated onto the screen.
Nominated for four Academy Awards, Stephen Frears’ slick 1990 neo-noir The Grifters joins Psycho (1960) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) in a cinematic fraternity of twisted depictions of mother-son relationships, represented by short-con operator Roy Dillon (John Cusack) and his estranged mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston), a fellow swindler who has long been in service to sadistic bookie Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle) and eventually requires resources from her son to make her clean getaway:
I gave you your life twice. I’m asking you to give me mine once.
Roy and Lilly’s reunion is complicated by Roy’s hustler girlfriend Myra Langtry (Annette Bening), who schemes to remove the domineering matriarch as an obstacle to partnering with Roy.
Martin Scorsese grew interested in producing the story through the ’80s, signing on Stephen Frears to direct. As Jim Thompson had died in 1977, Scorsese and Frears approached Thompson’s crime fiction contemporary Donald E. Westlake—who also published under the name “Richard Stark”—to adapt Thompson’s 1963 novel for the screen. Though Westlake initially believed the devious, incestuous, story of filicide and sexual assault to be “too gloomy” (gee, I wonder why!), Frears remained steadfast in realizing his vision for a story he described as “pulp fiction meets Greek tragedy” and Westlake’s involvement was eventually secured.
John Cusack had been eagerly pursuing bringing the project to the screen after reading the novel in 1985 and flung himself into the role of Roy Dillon, practicing with actual grifters to the extent that he grew so proficient at Roy’s dice tricks and $20 switches that he actually pulled the latter on a bartender he knew, according to Joan Goodman’s contemporary reporting for The Guardian.
Though updated for a contemporary setting, The Grifters generally follows Thompson’s novel, aside from mostly dropping one of its darkest sub-plots involving Roy’s seduction—and hasty abandonment—of his Austrian-born nurse Carol, a Holocaust survivor who had been sexually experimented on by the Nazis during her preadolescent years imprisoned at Dachau. (For those who haven’t read Jim Thompson… yes, he can be a very dark writer.)
As in the novel, the third act of The Grifters begins with Roy receiving a call with the alarming news that his mother has committed suicide at an Arizona motel. He flies out to Phoenix to claim the corpse, which lacks the burn from Bobo’s cigar where he expected to see it on her right hand… revealing to Roy—and Roy only—that the complicated psychosexual web between him, Lilly, and Myra has only grown increasingly complex.
What’d He Wear?
The context is appropriately funereal for a black suit, as Roy Dillon has been summoned to Phoenix to identify his mother’s corpse. The cut follows the baggy silhouette that was popular through the late 1980s into the ’90s, similar to the dark gray pinstripe business suit he had worn at the start of the film.
The single-breasted suit jacket has notch lapels with then-fashionably low gorges, rolling to a similarly low two-button stance. The shoulders are heavily padded and roped at the sleeve-heads, the sleeves themselves finished with three buttons at each cuff. All of these details, including the ventless back, are hallmarks of menswear trends circa 1990 when The Grifters was produced and released.
The jacket has patch pockets over the hips, a sportier alternative to more formal set-in pockets that would feature jetting or flaps. Roy stores his sunglasses in his welted breast pocket.
Roy’s matching suit trousers rise to just below John Cusack’s natural waist, a refreshingly proportional alternative to the lower-rise trousers that have become popular in the decades since. The trousers have long reverse-facing pleats, side pockets, and bottoms finished with turn-ups (cuffs). He holds up the trousers with a black leather belt that closes through a silver-toned square single-prong buckle.
Roy wears black leather oxford shoes with black socks, consistent with the black suit. While some may be able to pull it off, any other footwear would be risky and far too flashy for a smart grifter like Roy who tries to stay under the radar.
Dressing for a purpose rather than flash or fashionability, Roy’s white shirt and dark, understated tie appropriately coordinate with the sobriety of his funereal black suit.
At least two shirts were used during the scene, mostly evident by looking closely at the collar and the breast pocket which switches from a distinctive set-in pocket to a more conventional patch-style pocket when Roy is in the morgue. Both shirts have a point collar, though the stiffer “morgue shirt” collar is edge-stitched while the shirt seen in most of the other scenes has a collar stitched several millimeters from the edge. Both shirts button up a front placket and have squared barrel cuffs that close through one of two buttons for an adjustable fit.
Roy’s narrow dark gray tie features a black geometric pattern. Held in place by a straight, gold-toned tie bar appropriately clipped at mid-torso, the tie is knotted in a small and tight four-in-hand.
Roy wears large tortoise-framed sunglasses with narrow, tapered arms. Though I’ve never seen a positive confirmation on who made Roy’s screen-worn sunglasses, modern shoppers hoping to channel his look could do so with the square-shaped Ray-Ban Elliott (RB2197) with polished Havana acetate frames.
Jim Thompson’s novel The Grifters describes Roy as wearing a “fancy wristwatch” during his early years as a con artist, brought to life on Cusack’s wrist with a sporty two-toned Seiko 7A34-7019 quartz-powered chronograph.
As clearly seen among some of Roy’s other props in a 2021 Prop Store listing, at least two of these stainless steel watches were used in the movie, each with a fixed gold-finished bezel (etched “CHRONOGRAPH” in block text across the top) and gold-toned center links around the center of the three-piece bracelet. The beige dial boasts a trio of sub-registers at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock positions, and the semi-rounded gold shape at 12 o’clock includes a circular black date window. The other hours (1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, and 11 o’clock) are all marked by a single gold bar rather than any numeric indices. The watch has a neat, symmetrical appearance due to gold-toned pushers at 2 and 4 o’clock, and—on the other side—a matching pusher at 10 o’clock and a crown at 8 o’clock.
What to Imbibe
The cinematic Roy Dillon drinks mostly beer—specifically Miller brands like Miller Genuine Draft and Miller High Life—while his literary counterpart enjoys a little more variety, memorably sharing some Ballantine’s ale with a San Diego dive bar proprietor and killing time on a train with some bonded bourbon and water.
While anyone can crack a beer and enjoy it, Thompson’s novel includes a far more creative gateway to intoxication as Roy’s girlfriend Mrs. Langtry—Moira in the book, rather than Myra as on screen—specifies the cocktail to accompany her lunch:
“Something with a little more character, I believe. A sidecar, say, with bourbon instead of brandy. And Allen, no triple sec, please.”
“Emphatically!” The writer wrote on his pad. “We always use Cointreau in a sidecar. Now, would you like the rim of the glass sugared or plain?”
“Plain. About an ounce and a half of bourbon to an ounce of Cointreau, and a twist of lime peel instead of lemon.”
“Right away, Mrs. Langtry.”
“Yes, Mrs. Langtry?”
“I want that served in a champagne glass. A thoroughly chilled glass, please.”
Moira’s detailed order for a Bourbon Sidecar could be compared to James Bond’s comprehensive request in the book and film Casino Royale that would eventually be immortalized as the Vesper martini.
Likely evolved from the Brandy Crusta cocktail, the original Sidecar recipe originated during the post-World War I years in Europe, where the Ritz Hotel in Paris claims origin and where it became associated with the “movable feast” of Ernest Hemingway and his fellow expats in Jazz Age Paris. “Legend has it that the cocktail was created for a regular who always rode in on a motorcycle with a sidecar,” writes Alfred Tong in The Gentleman’s Guide to Cocktails.
More than a hundred years after the first recipes appeared in print, the IBA-specified directions call for cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice shaken over ice and strained into a cocktail glass—often with a sugared rim. Typical garnishment ranges between lemons and oranges, though fans of The Grifters may consider (or want to avoid) the latter, given how Bobo Justus uses them to dole out punishment.
How to Get the Look
Black suits are traditionally worn for mourning, which is the unfortunate purpose for Roy Dillon to pull this then-fashionably baggy two-piece from his closet, worn with the conventional white shirt and understated dark tie apropos the funereal context.
- Black suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, patch hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Single reverse-pleated trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White cotton shirt with point collar, front placket, set-in breast pocket, and squared barrel cuffs
- Dark gray tie with a black geometric pattern
- Gold straight tie bar
- Black leather belt with silver-toned square single-prong buckle
- Black leather oxford shoes
- Black socks
- Tortoise square-framed sunglasses with tapered arms
- Seiko 7A34-7019 quartz-powered stainless steel chronograph with gold-toned fixed bezel, beige dial with 3 sub-registers, and mixed-metal
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie and Jim Thompson’s source novel.
Not many laughs in this room, huh?