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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
The Color Of Money

”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

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

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

"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

“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-“JunebugAmy 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.

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


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