Turning tricks

Con artists, sharks, flimflammers and hustlers have an honourable history on the silver screen. Paul Gallagher goes in search of the best

I t 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 (pictured), 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. See review, page 57.

✽✽ 24 City Moving docudrama-style portrait of three generations of Chinese industrial workers, see review, page 56. GFT, Glasgow, Wed 2 & Thu 3 Jun; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Fri 4–Tue 8 Jun. ✽✽ The Killer Inside Me Michael Winterbottom’s fittingly graphic adaptation of Jim Thompson’s corrupt sheriff noir. See review, page 54 and profile, index. General release, Fri 4 Jun. ✽✽ The Girl on the Train Master French filmmaker André Téchiné returns with a bold fictionalised account of recent real life racist incident. See review page 55. GFT, Glasgow, Fri 4–Thu 10 Jun. ✽✽ The Brothers Bloom See feature, left and review, page 57. General release, Fri 4 Jun. ✽✽ Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage Illuminating documentary about the legendary Canadian rock band. See review, page 56. Selected release, Mon 7 Jun. ✽✽ Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans ‘To the break of dawn, baby!’ General release, out now. ✽✽ Four Lions Chris Morris’ fundamentally funny comedy. Out now, general release. ✽✽ Revanche Commendable Austrian crime flick. Cameo, Edinburgh, Fri 28 May–Thu 3 Jun (matinees only). ✽✽ Psycho ‘Mother! Oh God, mother! Blood! Blood!’ Hitchcock horror restored. Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Fri 28–Mon 31 May. ✽✽ Lizard in a Woman’s Skin Lucio Fulci’s lurid and trippy 1971 murder/mystery/ giallo restored and reissued to all its weird glory on DVD. See review, page 58. Out Mon 7 Jun (Optimum). 27 May–10 June 2010 THE LIST 53