The art of the con has long fascinated both filmmakers and audiences. In one of this winter’s most buzzed-about Oscar contenders, director David O. Russell and his all-star cast give it a go in ‘American Hustle’. With that on the brain, today’s Roundtable makes a fine opportunity to reflect back on some of our favorite movies about con artists. What are yours?
My favorite con artist movie happens to be David Mamet’s directorial debut, 1987′s ‘House of Games‘. The movie stars Lindsay Crouse as a psychiatrist who finds herself drawn into the world of a con man (played by Joe Mantegna, in what I still consider to be his best performance) after being suckered by him during a high-stakes poker game. She’s so fascinated by the guy that she wants to follow him around and learn about his lifestyle – but is she learning about his cons or is she part of them? This is a great little movie that not many people are familiar with, but if you love flicks with lots of twists and turns, I highly recommend checking it out. Sadly, it’s still not available on Blu-ray, but can be found on DVD through Criterion.
If you ask me, David Mamet has gone nuts in recent years. Just read some of his latter day interviews if you want proof. Actually, Mamet’s marbles may have started getting away from him around the time of ‘State and Main’. (I’m sorry, but where in the hell is the comedy in that “comic” movie?!). Still, he churned out a few good projects even after that turkey. Anyway, before he went bonkers, Mamet made some great puzzlebox-style con movies. If you haven’t seen them, check out ‘Spartan’ and ‘Red Belt‘. Then, finish your little Mametapalooza with a viewing of his best: ‘The Spanish Prisoner‘. Featuring Campbell Scott, Ed O’Neill, Mrs. Mamet’s Annoying Bangs (and a really stupid hat), and a very slippery Steve Martin, this is the con movie to end all con movies. Great, great stuff. If you haven’t seen it, check out the trailer.
M. Enois Duarte
George Roy Hill’s 1973 classic ‘The Sting‘ undoubtedly belongs at the top of any list of con-artist/hustler movies. But for this topic, I’m going with a movie I believe needs more attention and is often underrated: Ridley Scott’s ‘Matchstick Men‘. Like any great con flick, the movie pulls a veil over your eyes so that you never see the twist coming at the end. This particular film goes one further with the unexpected dramatic element. It’s story that places more attention on the character rather than the con, which is fantastic. I can’t wait until it’s finally available on Blu-ray.
The 1980s saw just about every actor in Hollywood take a turn at being a con artist. From Michael J. Fox to Bill Murray to Danny De Vito to Dan Carvey, the quantity of con artist hijinks was at an all-time high. Fortunately, the quality of such hijinks reached an apex on the French Rivera with Michaal Caine and Steve Martin in ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels‘. Not only do the characters run every kind of con, they also wage a secret loser-leaves-town bet hinging on the conquest of the lead female character (’80s to the max!). Caine (sophisticated) and Martin (boorish) play a grand pair of competitive con artists in the comedy classic, the kind unlikely to be produced today.
I’m a big fan on Ridley Scott’s ‘Matchstick Men‘. It was one of the first films that I remember seeing Sam Rockwell in. Plus, it has a wacky Nic Cage performance and a great story. I particularly enjoy how it makes us believe that it’s a father/daughter reconnecting tale with a little bit of a con going on, while it’s really [SPOILER ALERT !] one huge con flick. The twist reveal is completely unexpected.
Twenty-five years after ‘The Hustler’, Paul Newman returned as “Fast Eddie” Felson in a performance that finally earned him an Academy Award. Eddie had been out of the game a long time, understandably so after the events of ‘The Hustler’, but after discovering the brash, talented Vincent (Tom Cruise), Felson sees the potential to make some money. He takes Vincent and his girlfriend/manager Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) under his wing. Naturally, the two men clash since each has different ideas about how to proceed. Vincent sees hustling as a sprint; Eddie knows that it’s a marathon and that there may be stumbles along the way.
Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus capture some great images, including a very memorable sequence as Vincent dominates a table while Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” plays on the jukebox.
Inevitably, most con movies adopt a light, breezy tone, as exceedingly clever characters stage elaborate ruses to outsmart each other and their marks. These can be enormously fun, as exemplified by the Oscar-winning classic ‘The Sting’ (seen in the banner image above). However, I find myself drawn toward something a little darker.
Stepher Frears’ masterful modern noir ‘The Grifters‘ – scripted by crime novelist Donald E. Westlake from a book by Jim Thompson – is a real grimy affair about a small-time hustler (John Cusack) flanked by two femme fatales: his mother (Anjelica Huston) and his girlfriend (a star-making breakout performance by Annette Bening). Set in then contemporary 1990, the film could easily have been made in the 1940s with only superficial changes, yet the style of the piece rarely feels affected. Bening’s character talks a lot about wanting to pull a big-money con on some wealthy dopes, but this is mostly a story of petty, subsistence-level scams and personal betrayals. It’s a great film, but sadly, the budget Blu-ray from Echo Bridge is saddled with a crummy video transfer. This movie deserves better treatment.
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