Second and final part of our analysis of neo-noir classic The Grifters (1990, directed by Stephen Frears). Since the film’s costume designer Richard Hornung died in 1995, we asked his assistant costume designer on the project, Mark Bridges, for his own recollections (PART 1 HERE).
We pick up the story as Lily (Angelica Huston) is confronted by her gangster employer Bobo (Pat Hingle). In fact we had a peek at Lily’s next outfit when she admits her son Roy (John Cusack) to hospital during the first act. It is a clean white scoop neck shift dress accessorised with tortoiseshell sunglasses and, seemingly without explanation, later a brown belt. White is an empty colour and on Lily it also implies loneliness and vulnerability, the latter of which she exudes during her conformation with Bobo. Proving that a dress is never just a dress on film, Mark Bridges explains the origins of this garment:
‘We were fitting the dress that was to be used for the scene where Bobo threatens to beat Lily with a towel full of oranges. The fabric we had dyed was a dull jade green and the style of the dress was a bit complicated. It was apparent this dress might turn out to be a dud. Angelica agreed, and thought the colour and cut might be too “triste” -that it announced what was going to happen rather than Bobo’s violence being a surprise. Angelica said she had an Agnes B dress at home that was very simple and might be the perfect inspiration piece. The other assistant costume designer Kimberly Adams rushed over to Angelica’s house and picked the dress up from her house keeper and we had it back to Western Costume within the hour. We remade the dress in cream gabardine and it works beautifully- making Bobo’s threats a surprise, looking great, and suggesting an earlier era. My big lesson on that one was don’t give too much away with the costume.’
While driving, Bobo asks if Lily “has a long coat to wear over that dress”. In the original novel upon which the film is based the long coat is required because Bobo intends to beat Lily until she soils herself, although this threat is only implied on screen. The coat Lily eventually slips on, we assume because of its baggy fit, belongs to Bobo; further hints at The Grifters’ timeless noir quality, as it happens to be a beige raincoat.
Following an almost dreamlike scene when Lily compliments Bobo on his suit, an attempt to imply ‘normal’ between them after such an outburst of brutality, we see a more gown-up Roy, perhaps wiser, at home counting his savings from the grift. He pops a raincoat over his loose taupe shirt and black slacks and meets Myra for their train journey. Time seems to stand still on the train; it certainly could any period during the latter half of the 20th century. The people, passengers in plain suits, sailors in uniform, belong to nowhere in particular. Roy’s raincoat feels like less of an anachronism as a result, plus it helps on the grift. When costume becomes part of the plot it takes on greater meaning because to remove it is to remove an element of the story. Roy can’t work in just a t-shirt.
Myra is in full Myra mode on the train. Sometimes a prostitute but not today, she is certainly dressed like one. A leopard print biker jacket (very late eighties Jean Paul Gaultier), red wayfarer sunglasses and gold wiggle dress with crossover bodice, it sends out signals to a fellow passenger, though she shuts him down with a smile. Largely due to tight angles and dark lighting the next scene in a restaurant has a real pulp feel to it. Myra has twigged Roy is on the grift so attempts to sucker him into her ‘long con’. She is chic for once, still that same low sweetheart neckline, but all in black as if wearing her class credentials. Roy is comparable in black suit and stripe shirt. They are in evening attire, approaching respectable for the time it takes to eat a meal, but those dark colours reveal more than mood.
An amusing flashback sequence reveals that Myra is a convincing chameleon. There are several costume changes at this point; her first outfit, a 1980s Chanel style suit with boxy jacket and gilt buttons, reveals the tone of her character within a character. She is bait for a Texas oil baron in tacky western suit and bolo tie. It provides insight as to what Myra deems as sophisticated with a hint of sexy. It works too as the long con is successful, several times over. Roy is still unsure so Myra teases him with her body. As always Myra is most confident naked.
A brief moment of violence brings Lily back into the story for the first time since Bobo. She is still in white, though no longer submissive. Reflecting this more blatantly is her next ensemble, a black twill two-piece skirt suit. Lily cocks a gun with a silencer, obviously hinting at premeditation rather than self-defence. Black is tough and cool, but it is also impenetrable and mysterious. We cannot read Lily anymore, not past the fact that we know something bad is going to happen. Roy arrives unexpectedly while Lily is arming up. He sports high-waist 1930s style pleated trousers and a white shirt, prowling the room and pausing like Humphrey Bogart with his head down and shoulders forward. Some Giorgio Armani influence here? Bridges describes the designer’s contribution to The Grifters (his name is glimpsed during the end credits):
‘Armani is on the film because of his long-time friendship with producer Martin Scorsese and executive producer Barbara De Fina (Mrs. Scorsese at the time). We were given some great discount at the Armani boutique on Rodeo Drive and were able to take out things and try clothes for fittings, then returning the items that didn’t work. It was right before Armani pioneered the idea of designers dressing stars for the red carpet so perhaps it was part of his great plan to take Hollywood by storm, but we benefitted greatly from that relationship.’
Arguably the most significant costume in the film is glimpsed during the next scene when Myra spies on Lily, a subtly leopard print headscarf, first in brown and then later red. The scarf is functional as a disguise but more importantly it becomes part of the narrative. This headscarf is central to The Grifters’ twist. Myra and Lily are soon to become irretrievably linked. Which leads us to Myra’s dress; the one that saves Lily and if the penultimate shot’s metaphor is to believed, subsequently damns her to Hell. Bridges confirms this suggestion:
‘The shot of Lily descending “into hell “ as you say was, as I recall, Stephen Frears’ homage to John Huston’s elevator shot in the black and white noir masterpiece “The Maltese Falcon”. I could be wrong but I think that’s what it was, and Richard’s colour choice worked beautifully for that shot.’
Myra’s red dress is short and gathered in the waist with high scoop neckline and asymmetric exposed back. It is late eighties Galliano in style, relying on clever cutting and body distortion to draw the eye. The colour is most telling; Myra is deadly at this point, wearing vicious blood red that gives her confidence to confront Roy and stab him with her words. Despite what Myra implies, The Grifters never confirms the full extent of Roy and Lily’s depravity. Were they ever lovers, or is this just something that Roy secretly craves and Lily knows it? There were two versions of this red dress:
‘I have to say I don’t recall the motives for the colour movement in Lily’s palette, (probably somewhat influenced by what Myra would be wearing and playing them against each other), but the deep red colour of the dress both women share is striking and helps the audience understand people’s confusion about which woman is which while wearing that dress. Same dress must be the same woman, right? There were two versions of that dress, one in each of the women’s sizes. The design was copied from some late 80‘s design by someone like Alaia or Romeo Gigli, I think possibly from a dress from Angelica’s wardrobe as well. Richard and I dyed the yarn for those dresses in our dye room on Hollywood Blvd and then sent the skeins to New York to be knitted by a knitwear designer named Maria Ficalora who had her own knitting machines. The pieces were knitted and returned to us and put together by Tsetsi Ganev at Western Costume. A couple of years ago I ended up in possession of Lily’s version of that dress and I will cherish it always as a souvenir from my first Hollywood movie making experience.’
As Myra storms out of Roy’s building our point of view changes to his landlord Simms who notices Myra leave and clocks the red dress and headscarf. Roy then phones Lily and arranges a rendezvous at her apartment. Superficially this is to talk but judging by the amount of discarded clothes Lily has around her bedroom she was dressing for more. When Roy does arrive, however, Lily has fled after being warned that Bobo is wise to her race track scam. Myra tails Lily to a motel where she checks in to lay low for the night. When Myra follows inside the clerk mistakes her for Lily, externally because they are both wearing a headscarf and have similar hair and clothes, but inwardly Myra is morphing into Lily. “No, I’m me” she responds before gazing in a mirror at the undeniable truth.
Compounding insult with irony, Myra’s final outfit is a disguise. She dons the “grifters dodge” of night robe, heels and ice bucket, sneaking into Lily’s room to murder her. A gun goes off and we jump back to Roy. After identifying Lily’s fake body at a morgue he returns home to find actual Lily stealing his savings. Evidently Lily shot Myra in the face, put on her clothes – the red dress and scarf – and left the motel. Because both women look so alike, and because Roy identified the body (he knew it was Myra because Lily had a cigar burn on her hand from Bobo), Lily was able to assume Myra’s identity. Even with the difference in age, Benning and Huston sport similar figures, so the dress, to all intents and purposes, fits the same.
Whether Lily intends to kill Roy when she strikes him with the glass is open to debate, as is just how far she would have taken her seduction. Mother and son kiss, but for Lily this could just be self preservation. She would do anything to survive even if that means seducing and ultimately murdering her own flesh and blood (she does insinuate during their exchange that she is not Roy’s blood mother, though this seems intentionally unconvincing). Lily collects Roy’s blood stained cash and runs, descending to her personal Hell inside the elevator. The red dress worn by Myra and Lily is symbolic of The Grifters. Along with black it was used heavily on posters and promotional material. Blood red and black tells us all we need to know about such a grim noir: it could only ever end in violence. Costume is one of the main reasons this film does not feel dated. It is a timeless tale set in a timeless world. The Grifters shall endure as long as its genre.
Finally, Mark Bridges remembers his time working with Richard Hunung and what he learned about the craft of costume design:
‘You know, it’s been 18 years since I worked with Richard, in the summer of 1995 as his assistant costume designer on Oliver Stone’s Nixon, yet so much of my working experiences with him are still with me everyday, in most every way, that I proceed with when designing and delivering a film. I learned how to pull a show together in a very specific way, mindful of colour palette, point of view and always looking for the most specific and unusual clothes to use. I learned how not to be “behind the 8 ball” during production and see possible trouble long before it smacks you in the schedule. I learned so much about dyeing fabrics, colour theories and combinations and textile work (Richard had been a dyer and fabric artist for many years in New York City). I learned from him the joy of designing period menswear and the importance of using just the right necktie to speak volumes about the character. I also learned the fun that was to be had in the details while designing for women and the joy of using jewellery to speak volumes. Basically, I learned the art and artistry of designing costumes, because his eye saw the whole thing like a painting, with layering, and colour and hidden messages. I’m so proud to have worked with him because through him I feel I inherited the legacy of the costume design of Oliver Messel and Cecil Beaton, because one of Richard’s dear friends and mentors was Desmond Heely whose work was an extension of those designers’ work. Now hopefully I will carry on, in my own 21st century way, their ideals of costume design.
‘Let me leave you with a couple of Richard’s “quotes to work by” that I invoke many times during the process of designing a film:
“If you liked it once, you’ll love it again”, referring to maybe using the same design device in more than one film.
My all time favourite is one that comforts me again and again in this business:
“(as a designer) If you are happy with 75% of what goes on screen you’re doing pretty well”, referring to the fact that after the director, the producer, the actor, the production designer, the director of photography and the sound man are satisfied, then the costume designer gets to do what makes us happy‘.
With thanks to Mark Bridges.
Read part one of The Grifters: Be Careful What You Wear HERE.
© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.