In 1990 Stephen Frears’s film adaptation of Jim Thompson’s pulp novel The Grifters opened to glowing critical reviews, received four Academy Award nominations and was named best picture of the year by, among others, the Los Angeles Times. A tough, colorful portrait of a trio of con artists, The Grifters placed its own indelible stamp on film noir. Acted at the highest level, incisively scripted (by Donald Westlake) and directed with visual panache, the movie cemented Frears’s growing reputation as a daring, innovative filmmaker. And yet a mere thirteen years after its original release, The Grifters is rarely considered in critical discussions – or those unavoidable top ten lists – of classic American film noirs, even though it surely earned its place in that pantheon.

First coined by French film critics in 1946, the term film noir brings to mind a tableau of black-and-white images: a killer lurking in the shadows; a gloved hand clutching a revolver; a pale body lying on a living-room floor. We think of Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Barbara Stanwyck’s icy femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944) and John Garfield’s hapless drifter in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Indeed for many, the whole notion of film noir seems to belong strictly to the past. A staple of Hollywood studios in the ’40s and ’50s, film noirs reached the peak of their popularity in the postwar years, and today many film scholars are dismissive of any attempts to modernize the form.

And yet in the last two decades we have seen a number of superior pictures that filter the classic formulations of the genre – the male dupe, the double-cross, the femme fatale – through the lens of a modern sensibility. The Coen Brothers’ startling feature debut Blood Simple (1984) sketched, in bold cinematic language, a traditional story of betrayal. John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1994) offered one of the genre’s most unforgettable villains in Linda Fiorentino as the femme fatale to end all femme fatales. Christopher Nolan’s ingenious Memento (2000) upended conventional narrative structure by telling its story in reverse. David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s unfairly neglected The Deep End (2001) successfully revamped Max Ophuls’s 1949 noir The Reckless Moment by empowering the heroine (Tilda Swinton) and adding a homosexual twist. And while Jim Thompson’s feverish novels have been adapted to the screen numerous times – The Getaway (1972), The Killer Inside Me (1976) and After Dark, My Sweet (1990), to name a few – only The Grifters fully captures the existential angst that lies at the dark heart of his narratives.

In its dazzling initial passage The Grifters employs a voiceover (by producer Martin Scorsese) then segues to a split-screen to introduce its three main characters, a showy technique that under the helm of a less capable director might have seemed disingenuous. Roy Dillon (John Cusack) is a small-time huckster eking out a living hustling sailors and bartenders while spending evenings with his girlfriend Myra Langtry (Annette Bening), a sexually voracious swindler with a taste for corporate scams. Lilly Dillon (Angelica Huston) is a middle-aged con artist whose specialty is altering the odds at various racetracks for her kingpin boss (Pat Hingle). She is also Cusack’s mother even though, as the movie opens, she hasn’t bothered to contact him for eight years.

When Huston drops into Cusack’s apartment for a surprise visit, she discovers him mortally ill, bleeding internally from a confrontation in a bar. With the help of a Mob doctor she rushes Roy to a hospital, where he recovers from his wounds. In the hospital Lilly meets Myra, and she is not unduly impressed. ("You wanna lie down with dogs," she tells Roy, "go ahead".) For reasons best sorted out by a creative psychoanalyst, Lilly considers Myra her rival – sexually and otherwise – and soon the two women are engaged in an intense psychological battle for Roy’s affections, a war of wills that eventually triggers the series of tragic events on which the narrative turns.

The Grifters is a smart, gritty, and above all, entertaining thriller. Westlake’s delightful script – a complex if skewed examination of three interwoven lives – mines a rich vein of human pathology. Lilly and Roy’s relationship is an emotional time bomb. We learn that Lilly gave birth to Roy when she was only fourteen. We also learn that Roy has been on his own for a very long time. ("I guess you’ve been getting my Christmas cards," Cusack says, his voice dripping with venom.) Even after she takes him to the hospital – in effect saving his life – their relationship remains strained. There’s an emotional distance in both characters, a refusal to recognize even a trace of compassion or warmth. And just to complicate matters, there is also an unsettling hint of sexual attraction between mother and son. Indeed each of the film’s main characters, as well as most of the supporting ones, seems a case study in psychological dysfunction, and Westlake’s script revels in such tried and true maladies as nymphomania, jealousy, rage, betrayal and incest. If Freud had been a crime writer, this is the story he might have chosen to tell.

Like John Boorman’s underrated Point Blank (1967), The Grifters effectively renders the sleek, chilly surfaces of Los Angeles – the gleaming cars, the pomp and pageantry of a racetrack, a mobster’s palatial estate. Then scene by scene it carefully exposes the dark undersides of those surfaces. Although the movie is often brutal, Frears’s direction, like Boorman’s, remains cool and objective, allowing the viewer room to breathe. In one of the picture’s memorable sequences, for instance, Hingle discovers that Lilly has been skimming his profits. In response, he threatens to beat her with a bag of oranges, a ruse, we are told, used in insurance scams: if done properly, the bruises show but the internal organs remain undamaged. The scene is perfectly paced and acted, and the sense of dread is overbearing. And yet the image that stays in the mind is not the actual infliction of pain but a shot of the oranges tumbling across the floor.

Despite its modern setting – and its contemporary film technique – The Grifters contains many elements of traditional film noir. In classic noir style the narrative pivots on the theme of betrayal. And not surprisingly, in a movie that likes to tweak our expectations, we are presented not one betrayal but a series of them. Huston betrays Hingle. Bening betrays Huston. And in the shock ending – one of the most potent and disturbing sequences in all noir – Cusack suffers the greatest betrayal of all.

Although Roy is hardly an innocent, he nonetheless embodies the male victim preyed upon by wily females. (Leave it to Thompson to craft his story with not one but two femme fatales.) In a role streamlined to his skills, Cusack’s boyish charm and keen sense of irony delineate his character. When Roy, now recovered from his injuries, says "Thanks, Mom", the sarcasm in his voice is palpable. Unfortunately Roy is no match for Lilly. As a grifter, Cusack is curiously timid, and when his mother strolls back into his life he is clearly out of his league.

As the duelling shrews, Bening and Huston fit the classic mold of femme fatales. They charm the innocent and dupe the naïve. They use sexuality to achieve their objectives. And when they’re threatened, they aren’t afraid to strike back. In one disarming scene Huston viciously elbows the throat of a drunken stranger attempting to flirt with her. Time and again Bening offers herself to the next willing partner in the name of the latest scam. And when Lilly instructs the Mob doctor to save her son or she will have him killed, it is not an idle boast.

There is, in fact, nothing idle about Lilly – she is constantly plotting her next move – and in a film notable for the quality of its acting, Huston’s full-blooded portrayal stands out. Her Lilly is tough, cold and calculating. She is also vulnerable, frightened and alone. At the end of the film she even allows us a brief glimpse of genuine grief. It’s a star turn by a great actress working at the top of her game.

And yet even as The Grifters pays homage to its illustrious predecessors, Frears never lets us forget that this is a contemporary film. In one extended sequence Bening describes a corporate scam involving computer manipulation and stock market fraud. The movie’s bold color scheme – as well as Elmer Bernstein’s rousing score – signals the modern era. And while traditional film noirs were, by their very nature, dark, urban and brooding, The Grifters offers – in the midst of its dire proceedings – surprising moments of gallows humor. Cusack’s deadpan conversations with Lilly are darkly comic. When Bening fondly describes her first husband (J.T. Walsh) as "so crooked he could eat soup with a corkscrew", her eyes twinkle with delight. And while making love to her overweight landlord (in order to avoid paying rent) Bening recalls the menu item she ordered that day for lunch: "Royal hothouse tomato," she giggles, "under a generous slice of ripe cheese". Even in its darkest moments the movie seems to be winking at us, and perhaps it is the film’s refusal to take itself too seriously that turned certain critics off.

Still, Frears has never based his films on popular expectations. An Englishman by birth, Frears is one of the few contemporary filmmakers who seems as comfortable making movies in his native country as in Hollywood. He is also one of the least predictable directors, roving from genre to genre, his prolific filmography including everything from broad comedy (The Snapper) to gothic horror (Mary Reilly) to American westerns (The Hi-Lo Country). But as this year’s Dirty Pretty Things once again attests, stylish crime dramas remain especially close to his heart. And if The Grifters is to be considered one of the highlights of Frears’s career, it should also serve as a reminder that film noir is alive and well and just as essential now as it was half a century ago.