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Swindlers, Crooks And American Hustlers: 20 Films About Con Men

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 10, 2013 at 3:03PM

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.
7
Nine Queens

“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.

Boy

Boy” (1969)
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

“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

“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

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.

This article is related to: American Hustle, Features, Feature


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