Are they confidence “artists” or merely con men? Your answer may depend on your view of cinema’s flim-flammers as either larger-than-life icons of charm and effortless theft, or simply morally suspect, desperate scammers. Certainly the film industry has banked large sums with the former depiction, as the con entertains because of its (usually) non-violent nature. As opposed to a heist film where characters burst into banks, guns blazing, con artists lift money from their marks by persuasion, sleight of hand, by their superior knowledge of human nature, often accompanied with a devilish smile. Oftentimes the con will be played on a “deserving” victim—wealthy, exuding greed, arrogance, and cruelty—but other times it will be between so-called allies, lovers, or siblings, perhaps the more worthy, and therefore more fun adversaries.
In director David O. Russell’s latest film “American Hustle” (our review), an embellished account of the real-life ‘70s ABSCAM scandal out this week, he exposes the desperation of these angling characters with a dose of added farce. To celebrate the film’s release, we thought to run down our favorite films based around the con. While many of the films down the list repeat and riff on one another’s methods, they each do so in slightly different ways, but perhaps the major con of this list is how little the actually mechanics really tend to matter. As Ricky Jay, the esteemed and erudite magician and actor who has provided consulting services on the subject for films including “The Prestige”, “House of Games”, and er, “The Parent Trap” remake, a trick in cinema is only as successful as the insight into character and story that it provides.
“Trouble In Paradise” (1932)
As Christian Bale and Amy Adams are proving in “American Hustle” this week, it’s only natural that con men and con women are drawn to each other, romantically speaking. But that duo don’t have a chance of surpassing Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall in Ernst Lubitsch‘s solid-gold 1932 rom-com classic “Trouble In Paradise” as the definitive on-screen con-coupling. The pair play pickpocket Lily and thief Gaston, who meet in Venice in the process of trying to rip each other off, and fall immediately head over heels. A couple of years on, they team up to scam perfume magnate Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), only for Gaston to develop real feelings for her too. It’s not the most convoluted scheme on this list, but the film makes up for it with the complexities of the heart—it’s one of the most truthful, sizzling, even-handed and downright sexy romantic comedies ever made. Francis isn’t some Bill Pullman-ish obstacle, but a serious threat to Hopkins, and you can see why Marshall is torn between the two: there’s real pain from all three parties in between the sharp repartee and pre-Code sensuality. In places, you wonder how the director could possibly resolve it without breaking hearts on screen and off, but that’s why he had the Lubitsch touch and we don’t: when it wraps up, you’re left thoroughly satisfied on just about every level.
“A Fish Called Wanda” (1988)
When a caper comedy features two members of Monty Python and they are challenged by their fellow castmembers as to who are the funniest things in it, that’s never a bad sign. “A Fish Called Wanda” sees Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline nailing broad comedy, each actor playing part of a diamond heist crew in London doomed to failure by their own stupidity. Wanda (Curtis) conspires with her British boyfriend George to rob a jewelry vault with the help of Otto (Kline), her American lover, and their stuttering communications expert Ken (Michael Palin). The heist goes well, but once George is betrayed by Wanda and Otto and arrested by the police, Ken takes precautions and hides the key to the hidden diamond loot in his prized fish tank. What follows is a nimble mix of slapstick (Palin’s trifecta of botched assassination attempts on a police witness) and verbal wordplay (“The London Underground is not a political movement!”) as Wanda seduces a hapless lawyer (John Cleese) in order to reveal the loot’s true location. Charles Crichton directed the film with the help of an uncredited Cleese, and you can tell—the tone of Crichton’s “The Lavender Hill Mob” lingers here, and the comic timing of Cleese aids every performance, from the pseudo-intellectual stupor of Kline’s Otto to the crippling turn-on of Romantic languages for Wanda.
“The Lady Eve” (1941)
The middle child of a knockout five-year run of films for director Preston Sturges, “The Lady Eve” is a film that overcomes its increasingly nonsensical plot with a manic energy that glues it all together. The slapstick elements remain questionable—Sturges occasionally misses a beat, or uses sped-up editing that stifles the gag—but the central romance between Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck is one as delightful and endearing as you’re ever likely to see. The plot follows Charles Pike (Fonda), an ophiologist and uninterested heir to the Pike Ale empire (“The Ale That Won For Yale”), who returns from a voyage up the Amazon by boarding the transatlantic S.S. Southern Queen. Joining him on the trip is a family of cardsharps: “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn) and his daughter Jean (Stanwyck), both of whom sense an opportunity to fleece Pike for all he’s worth. Fonda’s performance—vulnerable, flustered, and clumsy all at once—convinces them of this act’s ease, and indeed it initially is: Harrington plays dumb at cards until he nets $30,000 from Pike in a swift reversal of fortune, while Jean seduces Charles (or “Hoppsy” as she calls him) effortlessly so that he’s literally falling over himself to please her. But somewhere in the mix, Charles and Jean actually reveal themselves as equally capable opponents, similarly undone by a growing love for one another. A film of two distinct halves, “The Lady Eve” hits consistently on a scene-to-scene basis in the first, set aboard the luxury liner: see Jean’s dinner observation of Charles in her face mirror as the ship’s female population strike out with him; her later, long-take seduction of him in her cabin quarters (the crafty highlight of Stanwyck’s role); or the steadfast attempts of Charles’ right hand man (William Demarest) to uncover the conspiracy. An adaptation of the short story “Two Bad Hats” by playwright Monckton Hoffe, the film (written by Sturges) is one of the earliest on-screen depictions of swindlers; Paramount tried to replicate its success in 1956 with “The Birds and the Bees,” a musical remake starring George Gobel, Mitzi Gaynor, and David Niven. However, following Sturges’s critical and commercial hit was a doomed attempt from the get-go. “The Lady Eve” is a rightly beloved work of veiled intentions, as every character seems to follow the layered advice that a conman gives to Fonda late in the film: “Meet me in yon window embrasure, and look as though you know nothing.”
“Nine Queens” (2000)
The art of quick-change also brings the two leads of “Nine Queens” together, as veteran con man Marcos (Ricardo Darin) saves the foolhardy Juan (Gaston Pauls) from his fumbled attempt on two gas station attendants. Similar to “The Sting,” director Fabian Bielinski places a heavy reliance on plot over character with his Argentine film; we mostly follow Marcos and Juan’s ploy to sell a forged stamp collection (the “Nine Queens”) to a sleazy high-roller. The plot hurtles out of control as the forged stamps are stolen, and the duo are forced to find replacement fake stamps to stand in for the real fake ones that they were planning to use. On the surface, these twists are entertaining, but unfortunately the film doesn’t quite have the panache to leave us with these snappy sequences alone. Character moments consist of learning that Marcos is in a feud over an inheritance with his sister, while Juan seeks mainly to remember the name of a Rita Pavone song for the film’s duration. Though not quite a winning formula, the film is greatly helped along by the smooth charms of Darin—a massive star in Argentina, and best known Stateside for his turn in 2009’s Oscar-winning “Secret in Their Eyes”—as a con man without illusions regarding his station in life.
Out of the films on this list, “Boy” is the most concerned with a child’s interior landscape, in this case the young Toshio Omura (Tetsuo Abe). He is a reluctant central player to his family’s dangerous methods of earning money—running into cars’ paths and demanding a large settlement on the spot from the driver. The reason for this turn into crime is political: Toshio’s father is a WWII veteran with a shattered arm; he says can’t land a regular job because of his contributions to Japan. One of director Nagisa Oshima’s most accessible works in a sea of bizarre and envelope-pushing efforts (“In The Realm Of The Senses”, “Violence At Noon”), the film contrasts the Omura family’s grim reality with the sci-fi fantasies of Toshio, which we see through elliptical editing and shifting pastel film stocks as he describes them to his younger brother. Much of the film is based on unfortunate reality: the narrative is based off a true-life 1966 news story that occurred in Tokyo, while Abe was an orphan that Oshima’s filmmaking team found when searching for their lead role. That unfussy translation makes for a simply affecting film, exploring the social and political dynamics of Japan’s post-war outcasts without becoming overbearing.
“Paper Moon” (1973)
The promise of 200 bucks kicks off Peter Bogdanovich’s period drama “Paper Moon.” Sitting in a small town diner is the young girl requesting it, Addie (Tatum O’Neal)—young, utterly convincing, and just as cunning as con man Mose (Ryan O’Neal) across the table, yelling at her to be quiet and eat her Coney Island. This makeshift family duo (in reality father/daughter) fuels the Depression-era narrative, and Bogdanovich wisely uses the con plays, like change-raising, to add depth to their story rather than distract from it. Mose’s routine is made clear from the beginning, as he travels across Kansas and Missouri selling marked-up bibles to grieving husbands and wives of the recently deceased. It is Addie, left alone after her mother passes, who wants to wander, explore, and essentially escape her stifling fate at her waiting grandmother’s. She sees Mose, one of the many men whom her mother dated, and sees opportunity (and also her potential father). Based on the novel “Addie Pray” by Joe David Brown and written by Alvin Sargent, the film’s use of its Great Depression setting also adds a tone of both exhilaration and melancholy, reinforced by Lazlo Kovacs’ stunning black-and-white cinematography. Bogdanovich proved he could turn his deft directorial eye toward the small town South in “The Last Picture Show,” but on this he layers a John Ford classicism into the mix that feels exactly right. Tatum O’Neal portrays the type of role—Oscar-winning and record-breaking—that could easily falter under the decades of hype and hyperbole thrown at it, and yet it never does. Embodying an elevated yet sympathetic portrayal of a girl who’s at once lost yet incredibly assured, she centers the film, and the deep-focus photography keeps our eye on her anyway. Also notable for a hilarious and wretched performance from Madeline Kahn as the “exotic dancer” Trixie Delight.
“The Sting” (1973)
George Roy Hill’s 1973 caper will eternally gain flack not only for beating “The Exorcist” to the Best Picture Oscar in 1974, but also for its unashamedly fluffy approach, which in turn slots the film in quality below Hill’s other Paul Newman/Robert Redford collaboration “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Still, “The Sting” succeeds as pure entertainment, and establishes a long con process that reads as somewhat predictable only because so many Hollywood films have aped it since. The plot sees Illinois grifter Johnny Hooker (Redford) teaming up with Henry Gondorff (Newman) in Depression-era Chicago to avenge their murdered friend Luther and bring down crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). This means Newman impersonating a brash bookie to raise Doyle’s ire and win his cash over a train game of poker—the finest scene in the film—and then employing a gang to perform The Big Store con: transforming an abandoned warehouse into a working betting hall from which to stage the swindle.For its majority, the divisions of good and bad guys are ultra-concrete. Inspired by the cons enacted by brothers Fred and Charley Gondorff, Newman and Redford collaborate as well as ever, while Shaw brings a complex steeliness to Doyle (as well as a limp, which the actor picked up accidentally after tearing his right knee ligaments four days before production began). Scott Joplin’s iconic (and anachronistic) ragtime tunes also carry the film’s rhythms, while the clean structure and constant title cards guide the viewer through the film with an amiable hand.
“Il Bidone” (“The Swindle”; 1955)
If Federico Fellini is broadly best remembered for the poetic realism that became synonymous with his name and the fanciful section of the latter half of his career post “8 ½,” then the neorealist road to that aesthetic period is sorely underrated (at least by non-hardcore cinephiles). Arguably the most emotional, moral and socio-political film on this list, most con men movies center on the mechanics of the con, often a cool kind of tutorial on the con and the grifters and what drives them to grift. Fellini’s film instead examines the moral and emotional consequences of their actions, the repercussions on their loved ones and how it all ends in tragedy. Centering on a trio of swindlers (including Richard Basehart and Franco Fabrizi) and focusing on their aging leader Augusto (Academy Award-winning American actor Broderick Crawford who was dubbed for the film; Humphrey Bogart was Fellini’s first choice), times are tough for everyone in Fellini’s milieu. Struggling to survive in a country steeped in poverty, these men do what they do with little moral compunction. And it’s pretty dirty and rotten, as the men pose as priests and cheat the indigent out of their much-needed money. As their scams brush alongside severe consequences (they’re fraudulence is almost exposed), their mercenary veneer begins to melt. Picasso is humiliated in front of his wife (Fellini regular and eventual wife Giulietta Masina) and when Augusto reconnects with his estranged daughter, he too experiences a transformative change of heart, signified by the self-loathing he feels while fronting as a priest as a pitiful crippled girl kisses his hands, begging him to pray for her. It’s a heartbreaking scene on multiple levels, making for one of the most emotionally moving and crushing sequences the con man genre has ever seen. Not released in the U.S. until after nine years after its debut in Italy, “Il Bidone” is one of Fellini’s deeply undervalued early classics.
“House of Games” (1987)
Before he went all batshit and right-wing on us, David Mamet was, as the trailer for “House of Games” states, “the most exciting writer in America.” Hot off acclaimed scripts for “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “The Verdict,” along with a Pulitzer Prize for stage play “Glengarry Glen Ross,” Mamet made his directorial debut with the fiendishly convoluted con thriller “House of Games,” and it remains one of his very best films. Mamet’s then-spouse Lindsay Crouse plays Margaret, a successful psychiatrist who is the latest target of hustler Mike (Joe Mantegna), who has attempted to lure her into giving him $6,000 in an elaborate scam involving a poker game. She sees through the ruse, but fascinated by the world, asks Mike to indoctrinate her in the con world, falling for him in the process. Or is that what she’s meant to think?… Mamet’s plotting is positively devious here, using misdirection to make you think that you’ve dug up all the film’s secrets, only to reveal more hidden, though fortunately just enough that you don’t walk away feeling like you’ve been ripped off either. But even more pleasurable, as you might imagine, is the language: the writer’s distinctive, crackerjack dialogue places the film in its own little world—it’s closer to something like Damon Runyon than other crime films of its era. Some actors fare better than others when it comes to his “just say the fucking words” approach to directing performance—Mamet rep company members like Mantegna, Mike Nussbaum and Ricky Jay thrive but Lindsay Crouse often comes across as a bit flat. Nevertheless, this is a top-tier con film, one of the defining, and most imitated, works of the genre.
“Night and the City” (1950)
From the first glimpse of Richard Widmark’s weaselly character Harry Fabian, panting and sweaty from running for his life, we know “Night and the City” to be a different sort of studio con man picture—one soaked in the fatalism of film noir and left to let us watch its slow descent into self-destruction on the London city streets. Stuck as a nightclub tout for its testy owner Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), Harry is constantly on the hunt for his way to higher ground; as his neighbor tells Harry’s girlfriend (played by Gene Tierney), Fabian is “an artist without an art.” That frustration leads to an ill-fated enterprise with Nosseross’ wife (Googie Withers): a boxing promotions business competing directly against the biggest racketeer boss in town, Kristo (Herbert Lom).It is a startling effort to see from a studio (20th Century Fox in this case), and director Jules Dassin takes the opportunity to give it his all. Fearing he would be replaced as director—Jacques Tourneur was originally thought to helm—Dassin took David O. Selznick’s advice to shoot the most expensive scenes first. Why? His termination would cost the studio too much. Dassin followed that advice by capturing an inky underworld vision of London, filmed in the recovering ruins of wartime bombings; he also pushed the technical limitations of night location shooting to portray the unforgiving alleyways and docks of Harry’s existence. Dassin’s Hollywood blacklisting after production took the film’s editing out of his hands, as with the music, which Franz Waxman took over from Benjamin Frankel. Nonetheless, it still stands as both a quintessential film noir and unconventionally grim con man entry.
“The Grifters” (1990)
Coming off the back of the terrific “Dangerous Liaisons” which, in its twisty psychosexual mindgames could almost qualify for a spot on this list too, Stephen Frears made what is to our mind just as a good a film with his adaptation of Jim Thompson’s “The Grifters.” Thompson’s one of our favorite pulp authors and he’s been adapted many times for screen, but we’d argue never better than here where the seedy anti-glamor of his nasty little story of cons and counter-cons, spiced with murder and a criminally enjoyable incest subplot, is done tremendous justice by a game cast, darkly splashy photography and plinky-ploink Elmer Bernstein score. Angelica Huston is perfection as predatory hustler Lilly whose survival instinct is so basic and so powerful that it trumps even her maternal impulses toward her sullen, deeply fucked-up son Roy. And Annette Bening is a tremendous Myra, the cheap long-con ‘hook’ specialist longing for the good old days: the actresses even manage to carry off the tricky plot twist of looking a little like each other when in fact they really don’t. But the film’s real ace for us is John Cusack, who was, we’ll admit, cast at exactly the zenith of his effect on our libido, but his Roy is a tremendously conflicted character quite aside from how he looks; it’s a performance that actually gives us a sincere stab of regret for the lack of decent roles Cusack’s netted recently. To say too much about he plot would spoil it, but suffice to say it’s about the short con vs the long con, old masters vs the young triers and the never ending cycle of distrust, immorality and double-crosses that constitutes the rhythm of Thompson’s demi-monde. In fact, connoisseurs of the con movie will note that the big con described by Myra is very similar to that outlined in “The Sting” just gussied up enough to not be instantly recognizable, but it’s only one of the many that the movie details, with others involving everything from duping a barfly out of some quarters, to skimming from your mob boss so he burns holes in your hand with his cigar. But of course the real con in “The Grifters” isn’t even about money, it’s about the desperate dog-eat-dog scrabble for a foothold in the grimy lives these twisted characters have made for themselves, building, with delicious, musky darkness, to an ending of such anticlimactic, downbeat irony it would do Sophocles himself proud.
“Elmer Gantry” (1960)
This list might have given the impression that being a conman is all fun and games, but that’s not so much the case in “Elmer Gantry.” Based, albeit very loosely (it only takes 100 pages of the book, and makes some substantial changes beyond that), on the Great Depression-era novel by Nobel Prize-winner Sinclair Lewis, and written and directed by “Blackboard Jungle” and “In Cold Blood” helmer Richard Brooks, it’s a dark, if old-fashioned, melodrama, a clear, if unstated, influence on Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “There Will Be Blood.” Burt Lancaster takes the title role, of a small town hustler who hooks up, in every sense, with revival evangelist Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), becoming her fire-and-brimstone guy as they travel Kansas. But the fledgling partnership is put at risk when they arrive in the town where Lulu (an Oscar-winning Shirley Jones), whose earlier affair with Gantry ruined her reputation and caused her to become a prostitute, resides. Even going with a clipped version of the novel, there’s a lot of plot to get through, which sometimes makes it feel like a plot machine with little use for subtext, but Brooks and DoP John Alton shoot it gorgeously. And it’s worth a watch just for the performances: Simmons and Jones are terrific, but it’s Lancaster’s film from start to finish, the actor proving charismatic, repellent and, eventually, even sincere. He was nominated for four Oscars in the course of his career, but this is the one that won him the Best Actor statue. Quite right too.
“The Flim-Flam Man” (1967)
The late Irvin Kershner will likely always be remembered as the man who directed “The Empire Strikes Back,” but George Lucas‘ mentor had a career that straddled “Star Wars.” Some of his films (“The Eyes Of Laura Mars“) are better than others (“Robocop 2“…), but if you’re looking for an education in Kershner’s work, you could do a lot worse that starting with 1967’s “The Flim-Flam Man” (also known as “One Born Every Minute“), an enjoyable, albeit forgettable, con/caper flick. George C. Scott toplines as the titular grifter Mordecai C. Jones (who is, as he says, a “Master of Back-Stabbing, Cork-Screwing and Dirty-Dealing”) who enlists army deserter Curley (Michael Sarrazin) to be his partner, until Curley falls in love with one of their victims (“Lolita” star Sue Lyon). Kershner excels at the fun and games with a number of hugely enjoyable con sequences, plus a car chase that must number among the medium’s more underrated. The film’s much less convincing once it kicks into more serious mode, though, but that’s not the fault of the cast: Scott doesn’t quite convince as a character twenty years older than he was at the time, but he’s still thoroughly brilliant, while Sarrazin and Lyon have their charms, and there’s good value in the supporting cast from character actor favorites like Strother Martin, Slim Pickens and Harry Morgan.
”The Hustler” (1961)/“The Color Of Money” (1986)
The pairing of “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money” comprises a continued narrative based around one character and actor and brilliantly follows through on that promise, first from director Robert Rossen and then Martin Scorsese. The former, an adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel “The Hustler,” sees Paul Newman circa ’61 as a cocksure pool shark in Ames, Iowa. We first see Newman’s “Fast Eddie” Felson, the self-proclaimed “best pool player in the country” as he turns a con in a small town Midwest bar with his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick). It’s clear he’s able to turn on the vulnerability to convince others that he’s weak—not only with opponents, but also with an alcoholic “college girl” played by Piper Laurie, with whom he falls in love.After dismantling his entire life in pursuit of beating the legendary player “Minnesota Fats” (Jackie Gleason), Eddie finally breaks even, but he’s also forced out of the professional pool game for life. Flash-forward to ’86, and we see the result of him through Scorsese’s eyes: an embittered outcast-turned-mentor to Tom Cruise. Though ‘Color’ has its charms, it can’t quite match the original, which featured the searing breakout role for Newman as well as gripping sequences of pool cut and compressed as needed by “Bonnie and Clyde” editor Dede Allen. They make an excellent double feature though, so break out a J.T.S. Brown and settle down with two examples of one of Newman’s finest roles.
“F for Fake” (1974)
We’re told early on in Orson Welles’ “F for Fake” that it will contain only an hour of truth, with the rest existing as pure fiction. “Up to your old tricks, I see?” says a woman (Oja Kodar) leaning out of a train car as she watches Orson deliver this opening disclaimer—part of a whimsical, mysterious, and very funny sequence that sets the tone to come. “Of course. I’m a charlatan,” replies Welles with a grin. Yes, Welles is on top mischievous form in ‘Fake,’ as he examines the nature of fakery literally with his own hands. We see him in a smoky editing booth, rifling through film and narrating tales of forgery as he chomps a cigar. He specifically focuses on the case of one Elmyr de Hory, an esteemed art forger living in Ibiza, and also the artist’s biographer, Clifford Irving. However, the footage we see is not Welles’; it’s from a documentary on Irving directed by filmmaker François Reichenbach—just one of the many times that authorship is used to highlight how we perceive art and its makers. Those questions, though, are brought up within the context of an ambitiously grandiose lark. Double exposures, back projection, and a range of special effects keep Welles always in the center, entertaining friends over lobster or walking around darkened streets narrating in a fantastic hat and cape. He also peppers some surprisingly touching meditations in on art’s purpose; the fog-shrouded sequence on Chartres Cathedral in France paints an optimistic picture of whatever form creation takes. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing,” Welles recommends. And even though it occurs well over the hour of truth, the director poignantly shows you that sometimes reality doesn’t matter.
“Jackie Brown” (1997)
For all of its crackling dialogue and the cast of characters delivering it, Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film represents the turning point as he discovered the power in silence—to make the audience track the events, guess an outcome and eventually bristle at just how much worse it can get. Think of the pensive Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), a frustrated flight attendant for a dismal airline, as two FBI agents grill her about the $10,000 in her purse. Or the slow zoom in on guns dealer Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) later as he realizes who’s trying to set him up and cheat him out of $500,000. 16 years on from the release of “Jackie Brown,” it’s fair to say that the knee-jerk disappointment regarding its pace or action has dissolved, especially now that we’ve seen Tarantino’s continued journey in exploring and drawing out tension with “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained.” The tale of Jackie’s escape from Ordell’s grasp with the help of Delfonics-loving bail bondsmen Max Cherry (Robert Forster) enriches with each viewing, simply because of how much technique is pulled back in service of character (aside from the opening credits, you don’t even meet Jackie until 20 minutes in, so affectionate is Tarantino’s view). You find yourself wanting to stay on the couch with Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda’s character’s dim conversations, sit down at the food court with Forster after he’s just seen a movie, and listen to Ordell talk about the specificity of his car levels. Never mind the plot, as taut and well-structured as it is; Tarantino banked on the characters in his Elmore Leonard adaptation to deliver the goods, and they, along with the electric, sexy, and creative Grier, repeatedly do over the course of his duly lauded film.
“The Spanish Prisoner” (1997)
A decade on from “House of Games,” David Mamet revisited the world of con men for a spiritual sequel, based directly on the famous con of the title (essentially a version of the Nigerian prince e-mail scam), that doesn’t quite hit the heights of its predecessor but remains an entertaining couple of hours nevertheless. With a feeling that’s closer to a Hitchcock wrong-man thriller than the hard-boiled feel of ‘Games,’ the film toplines Campbell Scott as an engineer who’s developed a top-secret formula that might as well be called MacGuffin’s Magic Mix. On a corporate retreat, he encounters an enigmatic millionaire, Jimmy (Steve Martin, in a rare straight role), and an attractive young secretary. He soon realizes that Jimmy isn’t who he says he is, but who else is in on the scheme? As you might imagine, it’s pretty much everyone, and Scott makes an appealing lead as he attempts to get out of the fix. The film’s not as rich or resonant as “House of Games”—it’s a slightly empty parlor game, at heart—but Mamet had grown a lot in the intervening decade as a director, with more consistent performances (the casting of Martin is particularly clever, and makes us wish the comic star made more forays into darker fare like this) and a more confident style. Mamet completed his scamming trilogy five years later with the lesser, but still enjoyable, “Heist.”
“Catch Me If You Can” (2002)
A tonal surprise in Steven Spielberg’s post-2000 filmography after “A.I.” and “Minority Report,” “Catch Me If You Can” proves an initially minor effort from the filmmaker that reveals its depth with each new viewing. Charting the true story of Frank W. Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), a New York teen who impersonated a wide range of professions including doctor and airline pilot until the FBI capture before his 21st birthday, the film simultaneously juggles the thrill of these cons while injecting them with the isolation that they cause. A good deal of the film, energetically lensed by Janusz Kaminski, is devoted to the surrogate father/son relationship between Abagnale Jr. and the FBI agent on his tail, Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). This occasionally slows down the otherwise breakneck pace of the 141-minute film, but it also allows for some textured scenes—some reportedly real and some invented—that explore Abagnale Jr.’s rocky relationship with his mother (Nathalie Baye) and proud but weakened father (played wonderfully by Christopher Walken). Hanks, giving a hint of the Boston brogue he would later employ with full force in “Captain Phillips,” gives one of his grumpiest performances as Hanratty, a man who, as he says to Abagnale, smudges his own life story from time to time to ward off pain. And then there are the various gigs in which Frank dabbles: whether interviewing an FAA agent for tips on becoming an airplane pilot or wooing a pre-“Junebug” Amy Adams for an in-road to his hospital residency, they present a breezy but methodical road to Frank’s success, never fully confident but charismatic enough to convince you anyway.
“Matchstick Men” (2003)
A decidedly atypical entry in the filmography of Ridley Scott (and yet, arguably, his last really strong film to date, depending on your feelings on “American Gangster“), “Matchstick Men” riffs on “Paper Moon” and “The Sting” for a decent, if rather slight, comedy-drama with a big heart. Nicolas Cage plays an L.A. con artist who’s become stricken by panic attacks and OCD. These start to calm down after his long-lost daughter Angela (Alison Lohman, in a terrific performance that should have made her a much bigger star) turns up on his doorstep, and starts to become involved in the major con that he and partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) are pulling. To his credit, Scott is more interested in character than plot here, and gets a trio of hugely engaging performances out of his leads: Cage is a touch mannered, but still less tic-y than most of his subsequent performances, while Lohman effortlessly pulls off a character a decade younger than she was, and Rockwell is … well, Sam Rockwell, obviously, so awesome. Scott can’t quite reconcile the character drama and the zippy caper tone, but it’s still an enjoyable and affecting film, even if the twist ending feels rather more sour than you’d hope.
“The Brothers Bloom” (2008)
One of the more recent films on this list, and mostly overlooked at the time (it sits as the black sheep in director Rian Johnson‘s filmography, sandwiched between the hugely acclaimed “Brick” and “Looper“), “The Brothers Bloom” is, five years on, well worth seeking out again: it’s a lovingly crafted tribute to con films of the past that, unlike many, brings real emotional heft to the genre. We’re introduced, in a literary rhyming voice-over delivered by Ricky Jay (who else?), to the titular siblings: Mark Ruffalo‘s confident Stephen, and Adrien Brody‘s more neurotic and reluctant Bloom, who reunite for the proverbial One Last Job: a complex scheme to rip-off Rachel Weisz‘s eccentric shut-in heiress. Set in a deliberately timeless world, nodding to Lubitsch and Sturges, among others, some were put off by the artificiality of Johnson’s creation, dismissing it, unfairly in our eyes, as a twee Wes Anderson knock-off. Some of the affectations are a bit much, sure, but the artificiality is key to the way that Johnson’s plan works: he’s using the idea of the con to talk about narrative and storytelling in an intriguingly puzzle-box like way. As with many of these films, there’s a twist in the tail, but Johnson takes your expectations of the genre and subverts them, with a genuinely powerful and emotional wrap-up.
Of course there are plenty other selections that hovered around the final list. Gregory Jacobs‘ (Soderbergh‘s producer and first A.D.) “Criminal” with John C. Reilly, Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Mullan is a memorable and quick-footed modern take on the con genre. Richard Donner’s “Maverick” boasts a charming performance from Mel Gibson as the titular 19th century con man who aims to buy into a Winner Take All poker game and contend with Jodie Foster’s thieving character as well. “The Music Man” oversteps its boundaries more than a bit during its 3+ hour runtime, but the 1962 musical also features some deft and bombastic numbers that truly entertain. Although seen as the weakest of the trilogy, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s lighthearted “Three Colors: White” is still affecting in its story of a Polish bum-turned-entrepreneur, and it also features a young Julie Delpy in a caustic role from the actress. A very characteristic Robert Downey Jr. performance elevates the romantic comedy “The Pick Up Artist” with Molly Ringwald. And finally, for a pick featuring con men but not necessarily hinging on their trade, Stephen Chow’s 2007 action comedy “Kung Fu Hustle” makes it here just for its vivacious energy and rampant visual sense. “Confidence” with Ed Burns is engaging enough if instantly forgettable, while Anthony Minghella‘s “The Talented Mr Ripley” is a strong take on the subgenre of the psychological con. “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is an unreconstructed Steve Martin/Michael Caine comedy that has some pretty inspired moments, while “Sneakers,” “Bound,” “Mister Cory” “Trading Places,” and “Freelance” with Ian McShane were all put forward but didn’t quite make the list. And the recent remake of “Gambit” ensured that we couldn’t bring ourselves to talk about even the original again just yet. But there are many, many more we skipped, any we’re crazy to have left out of the mix? Let us know below.
–Charlie Schmidlin, Oli Lyttelton, with Rodrigo Perez and Jessica Kiang