Ever been duped? Taken? Lost a few bucks on something you were told was a sure thing? I have. Hell we all have. From three-card Monty to the good old slot machine, the odds are most definitely not in your favor. Without a doubt the best con is one that is not happening to you and up on the silver screen. Here we compile the best con movies that have played on our good nature and sensibilities and made us realize that when something seems too good to be true, it usually is.While it took me a good long while to come up with a solid story about the best movies in the genre, I discovered how enamored I am with the hustle of a good con. The trust you invest in a con movie is greater than that of a straight up drama and leaves you scratching your head saying, “how did I not see that?” Master con-man, playwright and director David Mamet leads the pack as the ultimate Hollywood master of the genre and locks up almost half of my all-time favorites. I swear…(fingers crossed)
NINE QUEENS (2000)You may not have heard of this one but it deserves its due. I remember renting it on VHS at Blockbuster years ago and keeping it an extra week happily racking up late fees as I was determined to watch the film again and again until I had it figured out. A decade later it still baffles me. And it is a foreign film making it that much more remarkable for American audiences. Let’s face it, here in the States we think that we are the best at everything but Nine Queens happily pulls a rug right out from under the viewer leaving you feeling downright stupid. The story surrounds Marcos and Juan, two Spanish men on the grift looking for a big score. Marcos is a seasoned con man and takes young Juan on as a protégé to teach him the business of the art of the hustle. Juan is desperate to get his mitts on fifty large to get his Dad out of the clink by paying off a corrupt judge. Coincidentally on the same day a legendary stamp known as the “Nine Queens” is up for grabs. After locating wealthy philatelist Vidal Gandolfo, Juan and Marcos know that the elder stamp aficionado is hurriedly leaving the country and will not be able to fully examine the piece’s authenticity. They are able to create a replica of the stamp and pass it off as the real deal. After the fakes are ruined, Juan and Marcos are forced to buy the real stamp for a quarter million that sets the plot twisting into mind-boggling motion. Throw in Marcos’ sister Valerie as a pawn working at the hotel where the deal is set to go down and you have one of the most original and brilliant con movies I have ever seen. The continued twisty tale keeps you guessing until the very last frame. This Argentinian gem is a sleeper if there ever was one.
THE SPANISH PRISONER (1997)David Mamet is the proverbial “King Con” of the genre and The Spanish Prisoner is a movie that has more “didn’t see that coming” moments than his other movies. Campbell Scott leads the story as Joe Ross, a young engineer that has created an ominous sounding “process” that is poised to change industry (and the world) as we know it. His boss is the war horse Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), a cutthroat businessman that Joe worries will screw him out of his due for bringing “the process” to his company. While at a company retreat in the Caribbean, Joe meets a nice girl in Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon). Susan clearly is trying her hardest to be more than friends with Joe but you start to suspect that something is just slightly off with her. More importantly, Joe meets NYC business mogul Jimmy Dell played by Steve Martin in a rare non-comedic role. I never thought that he would be able to pull it off but Martin as Jimmy gives a scarily commanding performance. Jimmy takes Joe under his wing as a protégé of sorts and the young exec thinks that he has found a mentor of sorts. However nothing is as it seems with the mysterious Mr. Dell. While Joe thinks that he has found a new friend in Jimmy, the story begins to unfold as he begins to take his advice as gospel. Jimmy convinces Joe that there is no way that the company he works for is going to include him on any of the profits they reap from his game-changing process. Soon Joe is caught up in a web of paranoia and does not know who to trust as he is suddenly the target of a murder investigation as well as other charges. The ending still gets me all these years later. The title of the film refers to a confidence game that was created in the latter part of the 19th century to bilk “the mark” out of all of their money.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002)For me, CMIYC was the movie that sold me on Leonardo DiCaprio being a terrific actor and deserving of the title “movie star.” Even though I was obsessed with the mystery of the Titanic as a kid, James Cameron’s self-aggrandizing film was not really up my alley and I never thought it was the marvel that the rest of the world thought to be. However Spielberg’s foray into the world of confidence games is truly one of my favorites of his entire canon. The very true story surrounds Frank Abagnale, Jr., a teenager that was a doctor, a lawyer and a pilot all before the age of 21. First and foremost it is a fun movie with Tom Hanks as FBI agent Carl Hanratty on Frank’s tail. Abagnale went on to forge close to $3 million in bogus checks and eventually worked with the FBI as a consultant helping the agency spot counterfeit checks. The production design is brilliant capturing the wonder that was the 1960’s and its bright colors and saturated palette. To think that this is a true story is amazing and it holds up more than a decade later. And yes, Frank really did pass the bar exam after studying for two weeks! Bonus geek points for CMIYC as Frank was a comic book fanboy long before the term was coined and used aliases like Barry Allen (The Flash) before Hanratty caught on!
CONFIDENCE (2003)This little gem from 2003 was overlooked by most but man does it deserve some attention all these years later. With a killer cast that includes Edward Burns, Paul Giamatti, Rachel Weisz, Andy Garcia, Dustin Hoffman and Luis Guzman, Confidence is a brilliantly orchestrated film from director James Foley. He directed a little landmark movie called Glengarry Glen Ross from master con artist David Mamet. The story surrounds Burns’ Jake Vig and his crew that just came off a six-figure score. However the money they grifted was from the very crazy diminutive boss Winston King aka “The King,” a manic ADHD riddled crime boss. So the plot is set in motion to set up a big con that will repay King and make the rest of the gang some sweet coin. In addition to his regular crew, Jake takes on the comely Lily (the stunning Rachel Weisz) to join the gang as well as one of King’s men to assure that the job is done right. Giamatti shines as Gordo, an obsessive compulsive that is more concerned with the cleanliness of public restrooms more than anything else. Rounding out the cast is Morris Chestnut, Leland Orser Donal Logue, Robert Forster and Luis Guzman who I rode an elevator with once and is one of the coolest cats you’ll ever meet. If you are able to predict the ending of this movie then you should be working in a travelling carnival as a psychic. It will pull the rug right out from under you.
DIGGSTOWN (1992)Were we playing the desert island game where you had to pick just ten movies to watch for the rest of your life, Diggstown easily makes my list. I remember how insane I got when the big reveal is given away in the final scene. Not only did I not see it coming I was absolutely baffled at the brilliance of the script. It is no wonder I love this movie so much as the director is the late Michael Ritchie that directed another of my Top 10 flicks, a little movie called Fletch. The story is simple enough: con man Gabriel Caine (the wonderful James Woods) has just been sprung from prison after a lengthy stretch and he is ready to start a long con that will be his best yet. Gabriel gets right down to business and makes a beeline for Diggstown, Georgia where he is determined to take down the slimy town crime boss John Gillon. Bruce Dern does an amazing job portraying Gillon as the small town kingpin. The two things that they are serious about in Diggstown are their boxing and their betting. With the aid of his hustler friend Fitz and over the hill boxing champ “Honey” Roy Palmer, Caine sets a con in motion like nothing I had ever seen before. The town is named after the hamlet’s local hero Charles Macum Diggs who became incapacitated after his final fight that Gillon had fixed using an agent that would cause brain damage on the pugilist. If I had to mash-up two movies then Rocky plus The Sting equals Diggstown.
THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986)Paul Newman makes a triumphant return to the screen as “Fast Eddie” Felson, a role he landed an Oscar nod for a quarter century earlier. Martin Scorsese is behind the camera on this classy sequel directing a script written by the brilliant Richard Price. The 1961 film The Hustler was the first installment in the series and for those that do not remember, Fast Eddie was banned for life from playing pool professional. Eddie takes the brash young dynamo Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise) under his wing to teach him the ropes of how to make a living as billiards pro. If you thought Cruise was cocky as Maverick in Top Gun, you ain’t seen nothing yet as the mega-star chews the scenery in every scene he is in. After taking Vince and doting girlfriend Carmen (Mary-Elizabeth Mastrantonio) on the road, Eddie realizes that he still has the burning desire inside. He sees his younger self in Vince and sets out on the road to redemption while battling a love affair with booze and rampant jealousy. Eddie eventually dumps the cocky Vince after he has taught him everything he knows about hustling pool and the filthy deception that is the bubbled world they live. Eddie comes full circle from the original film and ultimately the film is about second chances and how it is never too late to embrace you dream and your destiny. The scenes with Newman and Cruise as mentor and student are priceless and you realize that you are watching two screen legends duke it out. You do not know who is conning who and that is what is so memorable about the film; its class and art of the grift. Scorsese captures the underworld of pool sharks in only the way that he can. Fast Eddie will always be one of the coolest characters in cinematic history. The final lagging for break between Eddie and Vince will sit with you for a day or two as you realize that Newman is a lasting film icon as he says “I’m back.” So cool.
THE STING (1973)The primer for all Con movies is far and away 1973’s Oscar winner for Best Picture The Sting. Newman and Redford (Butch and Sundance) team up again for this wonderful period piece set in 1936 with Chicago as the backdrop. Directed by George Roy Hill with a script by David S. Ward, The Sting sets the primer for any Con movie of the past four decades. The ragtime story is simple enough as it follows Johnny Hooker (Redford) showing up in the Windy City after his mentor Luther retires and recommends that the young grifter seek out veteran con man Henry Gondorff (Newman). Before leaving, Luther is cut down on orders from the evil mob boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Their mutual friend Luther dead, Hooker heads to Chicago to learn “the big con” from Gondorff. The film is scored with the music of Marvin Hamlisch and the theme titled “The Entertainer” actually became a Top 10 single after the movie’s release. In fact, I defy you not to whistle or hum it after watching the film. The film chugs along at a brisk pace with a long con that is meant to bankrupt Lonnegan and make money for Gondorff, Hooker and the rest of their crew. There is really no way to describe the third act and it would be criminal to spoil it for you but I assure you that there is a reason that The Sting took home the Best Picture Oscar. Cards, the ponies, betting, dames and set-ups litter the film and you have no idea what is going to happen next. Often imitated but never outdone, The Sting is a classic piece of American film that lives on as the movie that made getting cheated out of money never look like such fun.
REDBELT (2008)Another David Mamet film set in the world of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) before it really blew up is a Con movie unlike any I had ever seen. I must have watched it three or four times just to catch some of the small details that I missed. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (The Operative from Serenity) as Jiu-Jitsu instructor Mike Terry, Redbelt turns the classic narrative on its head with its dangerous curves and unexpected twists. On a random evening, Mike is approached by an attorney named Laura Black (who you might recognize now as The Newsroom’s Emily Mortimer) is looking for the driver of the car she accidentally hit. While Mike is giving a private lesson to his policeman friend Joe, he innocently tries to take her coat but is alarmed by the gesture forcing her to grab the off-duty cop’s gun and discharging a round into the dojo’s window. Her being a lawyer and all convinces the two friends not to file any charges as it was an honest mistake. Or was it? The insurance on the studio is not covered to replace the window so Mike is forced to ask his fashion designer wife Sondra’s brother Ricardo (a pro MMA champ) for the money. But while at Ricardo’s bar nightclub Mike checks in with his other brother-in-law Bruno asking why off-duty cop and friend Joe has not been paid for his bouncing at the bar. His request for payment on his friends behalf is quashed before Bruno gives Mike a shot to fight on an MMA event card to make fifty large. However Mike is conflicted as he does not believe in fighting for money and that it is not honorable. Veteran Hollywood action star Chet Frank (Tim Allen—yes, that Tim Allen) is trying to have a quiet drink at the bar when he is accosted by a drunk fan. Mike gets involved looking for a peaceful solution but winds up taking out three men with ease. The plot is set in motion as Mike falls into a con orchestrated by the action star, his wife and the rest of his entourage. Mike had taught them about the rules of fighting with three marbles, two white and one black. Whoever draws the black has to fight with a handicap. Without ruining anything, I can easily say that this modern Con movie knocked me out and left me guessing as Master Con artist Mamet leaves the viewer twisting in the wind. The takeaway? Never give anything away for free.
OCEAN’S ELEVEN (2001)While Frank Sinatra’s original film from 1960 was just OK, Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh weaves a modern day caper with a dream cast and winning plot. Daniel Ocean has just been released from the clink and after breaking his parole agreement he heads for the coast to meet up with his food obsessed partner Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) to cook up a new foolproof gig. They set on visiting their old pal Reuben Tishkoff (the terrific Elliott Gould), a former big shot owner of a Vegas casino. The guys present a plan for Reuben to bankroll that will have Danny and company simultaneously rob The Mirage, The MGM Grand and The Bellagio hotel-casinos. Reuben finds the proposal appealing as a way to get back at his longtime rival Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) who also just happens to be dating Danny’s ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts). Rusty and Danny recruit some guys that they have worked with in the past or guys whose reputations precede them. Most notable they are able to wrangle Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon), a legacy and apprentice thief, The Turk Brothers (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan) both gearheads and mechanics, Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle) a specialist in explosives, sage Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner as an old timer looking for one last score), Yen (Shaobo Qin) is a circus acrobat, Frank Catton (the late Bernie Mac as a seasoned casino worker) and Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison) as the team’s tech guru. The film plays out like a classic Hollywood romp with big stars having a great time. Under the cool direction of Steven Soderbergh, the cast is in great hands for a grift that holds up a dozen years later. The final third of the film is one of the best I have seen with a wonderful Swingers-like score and an overall groovy vibe. If ever there was a role that Clooney was born to play, Danny Ocean is it.
HOUSE OF GAMES (1987)Master Con artist, playwright and filmmaker David Mamet’s directorial debut is one for the ages as it weaves a remarkably complex web of a story. House of Games is a Con movie primer that all other films of the same ilk aspire to be like. Lindsay Crouse stars as Dr. Margaret Ford a noted psychologist and author of several self-help books. She becomes involved with long-time Con artist Mike (Mamet regular Joe Mantegna) after trying to assist a patient of hers that is knee deep in gambling debts. Soon the good doctor becomes enamored with the world of the Con and thinks that there just may be a book in these stories of confidence games. Mamet is the puppeteer of this world and gives us a peak of just exactly how it works. He confidently walks us through the world directing as if he has a dozen films under his belt. The good doctor gets involved with Mike and is determined to play a role in a real life Con. However the line between who is being conned starts to become blurred leading up to a finale like nothing you have ever seen before. The brilliant performances all the way around even by the bit players is remarkable. Mantegna is credible as the Con merchant that is looking for the easy buck using people like pawns on a chess board. If ever there was a calling card for David Mamet, House of Games is his go-to movie.