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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
Matchstick Men

"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

"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

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


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