The Entertainers: 5 Essential Movies of Scam Cinema

house of games

Hollywood: it’s all a scam, isn’t it?

For all of our lives, the movies have promised us big, big things.  Action and adventure are just out there waiting for us.  Good always triumphs over evil.  A simple confusion of gender will result in a humorous situation.  And everybody is having way more sex than you.  Like the good little marks we all are, we run frantically to these show-biz con-men with fistfuls of dollars, just begging to be parted with our money and our senses.  And then as with any good con, once it’s all over, we stand there on the sidewalk, squinting in the sunlight, our dreams crushed by reality and our pockets empty.  The movies are the longest running scam in world history.

We can read up on the ins and outs of confidence trickery all we want, but it still looks like we’ll never learn to distrust these Hollywood hucksters.  So at the very least we can learn a few lessons from the best in these following pieces of scam cinema.

1. The Sting (1973)—Though many people these days are more familiar with its ragtime theme song, “The Entertainer,” than they are with the film that made it famous, The Sting remains an American classic, and a must-see for any student of scam cinema.  Featuring Butch and Sundance themselves, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, as a pair of charming Depression-era grifters, the film features what has become the standard example of the wire game.  This classic con is when you convince your mark that you have access to horse-racing results before anybody else by tapping into the wire-feed from the track to the bookie.  Of course, that’s easy to do when you’ve set up your own “legitimate” bookie-joint and are running the wire reports of races from last Thursday.  Paulie and Bobby and their compatriots run the wire game on good ol’ Robert Shaw, who’d likely be best remembered for this flick if he wasn’t so goddamn good in Jaws a couple years later.  It’s still one of his finest performances, though, and it also features Harold Gould, Rhoda’s dad from Mary Tyler Moore and Rose’s gentleman friend in the later seasons of The Golden Girls (for my fellow sit-com nerds out there).

2. Matchstick Men (2003)—It might be stretching things a bit to call Ridley Scott’s entry into the scam pantheon (or “the scam-theon,” if you will) completely essential.  But it is a damn fine little movie, chock-full with plenty to learn about the confidence game.  And at the very least, you get to watch Nicolas Cage chew the scenery.  He and the always fun Sam Rockwell play a couple of low-rent hustlers who have a pretty good lottery scam going.  Rockwell, however, wants to move on to bigger things, while Cage just wants to alleviate his raging neuroses by patching things up with his estranged daughter.  In the process, the two attempt a Jamaican switch on D-Day from Animal House.  This movie is a very decent crash-course in cons both long and short, and of course, the biggest con on the audience is the tacked-on happy ending.  I’m eager to check out the original novel by Eric Garcia just to see how it measures up, but regardless, if you’re a fan of Nic Cage and his over-acting, this is the film for you.

3. House of Games (1987)—A lotta folks will try to tell you that David Mamet’s 1997 film The Spanish Prisoner, is a better example of the man’s contribution to scam cinema, but I say bah.  The Spanish Prisoner is a pretty good flick, but to me, one of the real appeals of scam fiction is the notion that one could actually pull off a long con, with several different players working towards the same end.  The Spanish Prisoner, to me, loses that grounding in reality by the very end.  On the other hand, House of Games, Mamet’s directorial debut (from a story developed by Mamet with Dr. Jonathan Katz), keeps the audience right inside the con the whole time and never (for my money) allows its cleverness to get the better of itself.  Lindsay Crouse (the former Mrs. Mamet) plays a psychiatrist (y’know, a bona fide con artist) who meets Mike (played with aplomb by the mighty Joe Mantegna), an unrepentant con-artiste, who agrees to let her follow him around on his scams so she can collect material for a book.  Naturally, the good Dr. Ford gets far more caught up in Mike and his house of games than she expected she would, and that fine line of rationale we all walk between being genuinely good people and elaborate frauds is blurred beyond all hope of recognition.  Though the soundtrack is full of that awful smooth-jazz Mamet seems to love, it’s also full of that crackling Mamet dialogue for which he used to be most famous, before he jumped off the deep end of the right-wing pool.  This flick also lays claim to the finest acting work of magician and scam-expert Ricky Jay, if you’re not yet convinced.

4. Confidence (2003)—It’s weird to think that it wasn’t until thirty years after The Sting that a scam movie would think to play heavily on the double-meaning of the word “confidence”: getting the confidence of your mark so you can properly fleece him and also the confidence one needs in pulling off such potentially treacherous work.  This flick directed by James Foley, director of Glengarry Glen Ross (a film which could have fit on this list as well, and should be added to your to-watch pile, whether or not you’ve seen it before) has got about as near a dream cast as I can think of.  Ed Burns is suitable in the lead role, though I never developed a real taste for the guy’s work in general.  But dig the names in this supporting cast: Donal Logue, Luis Guzmán, Andy Garcia, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Forster, John Carroll Lynch, and the character-actor trump card, Paul fuckin’ Giamatti.  Even Leland Orser, who never gets enough work for my money, has a small, integral part.  The plot in this one is airtight, the dialogue is top-notch, and when you add all that to the cast, you’re easily able to ignore that shitty Coldplay song that plays over the end credits.  Why this flick didn’t do better at the box office, I’ll never know.

5. Fletch (1985)—Okay, I know: this movie is not nearly as scam-centric as the others listed here. But simply put, I can’t think of a better example of the appeal this sort of movie has.  The film stars Chevy Chase in his finest role ever as Irwin Fletcher, investigative reporter.  In his quest to find why air-baron Alan Stanwyk wants to be killed, and also to discover the identity of a major drug-supplier, Fletch jumps from identity to identity, to the point where he can barely keep the names straight.  It’s played for laughs, but this version of the short-con is one we can ascribe as being quite noble in purpose.  In order to get to the truth, in order to scam the truth out of those seeking to cloud it, Fletch has to lie through his teeth with almost each breath.  It’s like that corny old saw about fiction: a lie to get to the truth.  All of the protagonists in the movies discussed in this article, the heroes, they’re all likeable guys, dudes you’d like to have a beer with and maybe introduce to your sister, even.  They’re also lying, greedy scumbags.  When it comes down to it, they’re really just after the money.  But Fletch wants the truth.  And when the scam artist holds this ideal higher than others, higher than fame or money or sex (well, maybe not sex…), he becomes a true hero of the non-tragic variety.  Fletch may be just a “penny-ante Woodward-&-Bernstein,” but he succeeds simply because he’s smarter than his enemies.  And this, I would argue, is the true appeal of the scam-artist: the notion that you don’t have to be the biggest guy or the richest guy or the most good-looking guy to make your way in this world.  You don’t even have to be the smartest guy; you just have to be smarter than your mark.

The Hollywood hero is a large part of the on-going hustle Hollywood has been perpetrating on the world for the last century.  And I love it, continuing as a grown man to idolize the tough guys I’ve worshipped since childhood: Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Bea Arthur, and so on.  It’s all good, vicarious fun, but that’s all it is.  But the wisenheimers, the smart-asses, the guys who have brains as well as balls, they’re the ones I really relate to, the kinda guy I’d really like to be.  Because when it comes down to it, I’m much better at outsmarting people than I am at beating the shit out of them.  Not the baddest-ass way to go through life, but I’ll tell you: it’s much more satisfying seeing the dumb looks on those marks’ faces.

– originally published 2/25/12

+Jimmy Callaway rules over Criminal Complex with an iron fist in a Playtex glove. He lives in San Diego, California.