It is interesting to note how often movies about con artists are presented as comedies. As in the recently released "Heartbreakers," the crimes of those who make a career out of swindling others seem to lend themselves especially well to a lighthearted screen presentation. Partly, as we saw last week, this is because the con artists themselves are, of necessity, charming characters. Another reason, it seems to me, is that confidence schemes almost always have an element of justice built into them, in that they are designed to play on the greed of the victim. As W.C. Fields used to say, you can't cheat an honest man. When we feel that the victim of a crime only got what was coming to him, it's easier to have a laugh at his expense.
Not all films about swindlers are comedies, however. The shady pursuits of these fascinating characters offer a great deal of dramatic potential, both in terms of ethical complexity and of simple suspense. To see how filmmakers have presented the more serious side of flim-flam artists, look for these titles on home video.
"The Swindle (Il Bidone)" (1955). Italian cinema master Federico Fellini's tale of sin and redemption among the professional criminal class features two American actors in leading roles. Richard Basehart, who had also appeared in Fellini's "La Strada," and Broderick Crawford, who had established himself as a screen "heavy" in a number of American films, appear as two con artists. Along with a third partner, played by Franco Fabrizi, they travel the countryside bilking gullible peasants with a variety of underhanded schemes. The film begins in a relatively light vein, but the mood gradually turns somber as Crawford's character, Augusto, begins to have second thoughts about his larcenous lifestyle. Aware that he isn't getting any younger, Augusto has begun to question his ability to keep up with the demands of the con game and has even felt unfamiliar stirrings of conscience over the lives he has blighted.
"The Sting" (1973). Having scored a major box office success with "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" in 1969, Paul Newman and Robert Redford had been on the lookout for another vehicle in which to team up. "Butch Cassidy" director George Roy Hill reunited them to even greater success in this entertaining suspense tale of two small time grifters who move up to the big time. Seeking revenge against a mob boss who has had a mutual friend murdered, they decide that the best way to strike back is through a "big con" operation, taking the mobster to the cleaners on a massive scale.
"Paper Moon" (1973). In the mid-1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, we meet Moses Pray, played by Ryan O'Neal, an itinerant con man who poses as a Bible salesman to fleece the flock. While attending the funeral of an old girlfriend, he is persuaded to drive the orphaned daughter of the deceased to Missouri where her relatives will take her in. The youngster, Addie, is played by Tatum O'Neal, Ryan's real-life daughter, which reinforces the suggestion, never entirely confirmed, that Moses may actually be Addie's father. Young Addie proves to be a handful. In fact, the frighteningly precocious nine year old turns out to be a more talented con artist than Moses himself. Director Peter Bogdanovich shot the film in black and white, as he had done with his first big success, "The Last Picture Show" (1971).
"The Grifters" (1990). Based on a novel by hard-boiled author Jim Thompson, produced by Martin Scorsese, and directed by Stephen Frears, this edgy little film is as close as you're going to come to a latter-day film noir that captures the spirit of the good old days of James M. Cain. The seamy story takes the form of a romantic triangle, albeit a disturbingly perverse one. Anjelica Huston and John Cusack play an estranged mother and son, with Annette Benning co-starring as the son's lover. The fact that all three are ruthless con artists lends a certain icy menace to the battle that develops between the two women for possession of the loyalty of Cusack's character.
These are just a few of the many excellent films featuring con artists. It's almost as if those in the movie business had some special insight into the hearts and minds of hucksters and flim-flam artists. Probably just a coincidence.