Crime Stories Take on a New Twist

Cautionary tales `The Krays' and `The Grifters' explore disturbing mother-son relationships. FILM REVIEW

THE crime-movie boom continues to pick up momentum. ``The Godfather Part III'' is expected at Christmastime, despite earlier rumors that it might be delayed until 1991, and a couple of smaller-scale epics are arriving to fill the gap between that event and the recent premieres of ``Miller's Crossing'' and ``GoodFellas.'' The newest twist to be found in the genre - a result of coincidence, it seems, rather than design - is an unexpected focus on relations between sons and mothers. Since the stories of these films center on crime and other nasty behavior, the family relationships tend to be strange and unsettling, demonstrating that ``all in the family'' isn't necessarily a happy phrase or a desirable condition. ``The Grifters'' and ``The Krays'' both operate as cautionary fables, however, rather than merely titillating tales.

``The Grifters'' is having a limited run in December to qualify for 1990 awards and will open widely in the new year. Some moviegoers are awaiting it with special interest, because it's directed by Stephen Frears, the British filmmaker whose work includes the powerful ``My Beautiful Laundrette'' and the overrated ``Dangerous Liaisons,'' and because it's based on a novel by Jim Thompson, the ``dimestore Dostoevsky'' whose 1950s crime-and-passion books have found renewed popularity in recent months.

``The Grifters'' stands with the most vivid Thompson novels I've read, partly because of the odd couple at the center of the story: Roy, a small-time confidence man, and Lily, a small-time confidence woman who happens to be Roy's mother. In the movie they're played by John Cusack, graduating from the teenage films that established his career, and Anjelica Huston, a gifted actress who doesn't get as many first-rate parts as she should. Annette Bening stars as Roy's girlfriend, whose very existence makes Lily as jealous as can be.

Mr. Frears is a sharp-eyed filmmaker with a keen visual sense, but he doesn't always know how to instill a consistent pace and energy into his work. ``The Grifters'' is always absorbing and sometimes extraordinarily hard-hitting, with an incisive sense of dark psychological drama. It also gives Ms. Huston her best opportunity for memorable acting since ``The Dead,'' and she makes the most of the situation, helped by a solid supporting cast. Yet the film doesn't acquire the obsessive, stop-at-nothing propulsion that marks the Thompson novel and Frear's own best work in bygone years. It's a picture marked by competence, not the boiling-over intensity that Frears and Thompson fans have anticipated.

``The Krays,'' a British film that has already found great success in England, is named after real-life twin brothers named Ronald and Reginald Kray, born in a working-class London neighborhood in 1934. They became professional boxers in their teens, then joined the armed forces, where they promptly ran afoul of the authorities. This started a long series of run-ins with the police and occasionally the psychiatric wards. During the '60s they became London's most notorious criminals. But true to the clich'e, these boys' best friend was their mother, who brooded protectively over them, closing her eyes to the awful things they did when she wasn't around. ``If they was involved in any trouble,'' she told an interviewer, ``I didn't want to know. It only upset me ... If you have to choose between your boys and the police, what choice is that, especially if they're all you've got?''

What young Ronald and Reginald got from this kind of maternal care was a few years of bloody criminal success, then a long stretch behind bars, where both brothers still are today. The movie chronicles their life together from the day they were born until their final arrest. Along the way it shows Reginald's weird and tragic marriage to a young woman he eventually drove to suicide; and it portrays in awful detail the violent acts that both brothers gleefully performed.

``The Krays'' gets much of its power from solid acting by an unusual cast. Ronald and Reginald are played by Gary and Martin Kemp, members of the Spandau Ballet rock group. Their mother is played by the excellent British actress Billie Whitelaw, who brings a fine mixture of toughness and sensitivity to a difficult part. The supporting cast is excellent and sometimes quite scary.

``The Krays'' was directed by Peter Medak, whose uneven career stretches from forgettable pictures like ``The Men's Club'' and ``Zorro, the Gay Blade'' to ``The Ruling Class,'' an ambitious satire. ``The Krays'' is far and away his most important movie, seething with potent images and performances. It paints a unique portrait of London during the '60s, a supposedly swinging time and place that's usually shown in more superficial terms; and it explores mother-son relations in a way few movies this side of ``The Grifters'' have tried. It's a violent and disturbing story, but one that won't soon be forgotten.

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