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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Grifters, Part 1 (originally published 4/01)

Generally speaking, the fictional world created for us by movies breaks down into good guys and bad guys. The good guys are there to be cheered and the bad guys are there to be hissed. Occasionally, however, a bad guy comes along who is just so darned charming that you can't bring yourself to hate him or her. Con artists, in particular, are in the business of being charming. If we are to believe that they are good at their chosen profession, it is necessary for them to charm us, the viewers, as easily as they charm their marks. The latest con artists to attempt to win our approval of their dirty dealings are the characters played by Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt in "Heartbreakers." To see how earlier filmmakers have portrayed con artists, look for these titles on home video.

"The Lady Eve" (1941). Writer/director Preston Sturges created plum roles for Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck as a father and daughter team of cardsharps in this classic comedy. "Colonel" Harrington is a distinguished looking con artist, whose motto is "let us be crooked but never common." His daughter Jean is a willing and skilled accomplice. Together they fleece wealthy pigeons in rigged card games. One of their hunting grounds is a luxury ocean liner, which is where they meet Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), whose family fortune was built on the sales of Pike's Pale Ale. Charles is no ale executive, however. Instead, he has chosen scholarly pursuits, specializing in the study of snakes. Ironically, he is totally unable to recognize the human snakes who manage to lure him into a fateful card game. Charles fancies himself quite a card player, which makes him a perfect target for Jean and the "Colonel." The complication occurs when Jean unexpectedly finds herself falling for Charles.

"The Music Man" (1962). One of the movies' most energetic con artists must surely be Professor Harold Hill, as personified by Robert Preston, who created the role in the stage production of this classic musical. Hill blows into small towns selling a dream: a vision of the town's youth playing together in a big brass band. He promises that it will keep the youngsters off the streets and out of trouble and will add to the grandeur of the town's reputation. After collecting fees from hopeful parents for instruments and uniforms, he quietly leaves town. In River City, Iowa, however, Hill's plans fall afoul of the con artist's perennial Achilles heel - true love. Meredith Willson's infectious score will echo in your ear long after the movie is over.

"The Flim-Flam Man" (1967). Because the reputation of George C. Scott was largely built on heavy dramatic roles, people tend to forget that he was also extremely adept at comedy. One of the most delightful demonstrations of his facility with lighter material is this clever comedy featuring Scott as an old hand at the art of the con game. He has taken on an apprentice, played by Michael Sarrazin, and is showing him the ropes. The youngster proves to be a quick study, but there is some question as to whether he can overcome the handicap of a pesky conscience to take up the trade in earnest.

"The Producers" (1968). One of this year's most talked about hits on Broadway is a musical theater version of this memorable comedy from the slightly twisted mind of Mel Brooks. Zero Mostel stars as a blustering Broadway producer, along with Gene Wilder as his accountant. Drowning in red ink, they come up with what sounds like a foolproof swindle. If they produce a play so bad that it is guaranteed to flop, they could solicit more investments than any successful play could possibly pay back, since no one expects a return on their investment in a known flop. When the resulting play, an astonishingly horrendous pro-Nazi musical called "Springtime for Hitler," unexpectedly catches on as a camp hit, the two con artists suddenly have a problem on their hands.

The exploits of con artists are commonly played for laughs on the screen, as in "Heartbreakers" and in the films we have looked at here. At the same time, there is clearly a dark side to their actions and plenty of potential for suspense, so there are also lots of dramatic films featuring swindlers and grifters. We'll consider those next week.

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