"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.