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.”