A history of the con man in cinema
Con artists, sharks, flimflammers and hustlers have an honourable history on the silver screen. Paul Gallagher goes in search of the best
It was Herman Melville who first used the term ‘confidence man’ in the way we understand it today, in his 1857 novel of the same name. He identified America as the character’s natural home, and Lewis Hyde agrees, noting in his book Trickster Makes This World that ‘the confidence man embodies things that are actually true about America but cannot be openly declared’. Correspondingly, con artist characters can be found in cinema from the earliest of the silents onwards. But when early Hollywood gave a con artist centre stage, he or she was either reformed by love – like Barbara Stanwyck giving up conning for the love of Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’ 1941 classic The Lady Eve – or secured the audience’s affections by ensuring that the only ones getting ripped off were those who deserved it – as with Jimmy Cagney gamely fleecing the fat-cats in Blonde Crazy (1931). This ‘good’ con man is the one who has had the highest profile throughout cinema’s lifetime, with George Clooney and his Ocean’s chums charming and cheating with impunity just as Robert Redford and Paul Newman did almost four decades ago in The Sting.
But Melville saw a darker kind of hero in the image of the smooth-talking stranger who promises much and takes everything, and this incarnation is the one that provides the greatest fascination for filmmakers and watchers alike. He is Gordon Gecko, the corrupt and heartless Wall Street inside dealer who became a beloved icon of cinema and earned Michael Douglas an Oscar; he is Keyser Soze, the master criminal who convinced the world of his non-existence in The Usual Suspects, and notched up another trickster’s Oscar, this time for Kevin Spacey. The simultaneous attraction and repulsion of the movie con man has never been more concisely investigated than in House Of Games, con-obsessed director David Mamet’s first and best film. Joe Mantegna’s Mike reveals the art of the con to Lindsay Crouse by saying ‘I give my confidence to you …’ and she can’t help but be drawn to the knowledge and power that he offers. But even as he is confiding in her he is still tricking her, just as Mamet is further tricking us. Yet we take delight in being tricked, because the thrill of being thoroughly fooled is actually what cinema is all about.
The Brothers Bloom, the new film from Brick writer/director Rian Johnson centres on two con men, played by Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody, who perfectly fit the charming cheaters description. But in the film, Ruffalo’s character Stephen claims that, ‘the best con is the one where everyone gets what they want’. This is the heart of the confidence trick; the trickster gets material gain by creating and sustaining an idealised fiction, telling the story so well that his audience happily suspends disbelief. Johnson’s script continually draws attention to the connections between conning and storytelling, signalling his own position as chief con artist in the greatest deception going; movies themselves. After all, what do we hope for from film but to be moved to feel something real by that which we know is not real? The greatest filmmakers are the greatest con men, because they fool us so effectively, and we love them for it.
The Brothers Bloom, general release from Fri 4 Jun.