Con artists may deceive, lie and trick everyone around them, and for some reason the audience loves them to get away with it. Every con seems to be met with a similar fascination as a kid seeing a card trick.
There’s a magic in their work, not necessarily good or legal magic, but magic just the same, and these movies reveal all the secrets that everybody wants to know, so that they can be in on the secret too.
1. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Based on the life of Frank Abagnale, who, before his 19th birthday, successfully performed cons worth millions of dollars by posing as trustworthy professionals such as a Pan American World Airways pilot, a Georgia doctor, and a Louisiana parish prosecutor; all this without even graduating high school. He became so experienced with cheque fraud that the FBI eventually turned to him for help in catching other cheque forgers.
Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) quickly becomes an expert at deception by using his charm and takes advantage of peoples’ natural assumptions. So if he dresses like a pilot, speaks like a pilot, and goes on airplanes – he’s a pilot.
Through his multiple disguises, he aims to get the respect that has eluded him, girls who had never looked at him before, and most importantly, money he and his family had once had but then lost to the IRS. He is basically just a sad and lonely teenager, who just wants to make his father (Christopher Walken) proud by making money.
His cons escalate from posing as a substitute teacher in his new French class to forging Pan Am payroll checks. Soon, a FBI bank fraud agent, Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) begins tp track Frank, but every time he gets close to catching him, Frank manages to slip away to another city, and another profession.
Probably Steven Spielberg’s smoothest and friendliest film, the brisk tempo echoing Frank’s and Carl’s cat and mouse game creates an effortless flow that is created by brilliant performances. Christopher Walken and John Williams were nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Score at the Academy Awards while DiCaprio was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor.
2. The Imposter (2012)
This British-American documentary focuses on the infamous 1997 case of the French confidence trickster Frédéric Bourdin who impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a Texas boy who disappeared at the age of 13 in 1994. The bulk of the film includes re-enacted dramatic sequences that are narrated by Bourdin himself, as well as interviews with the Barcley family, investigators in charge of the case and archival television news footage of the time.
Bourdin, despite being much older than Nicholas, not looking anything like him and having a strong French accent, had convinced several Spanish and American officials and apparently even fooled Nicholas’ family. He inflated his claim by alleging that he had been kidnapped for purposes of sexual abuse by Mexican, European, and U.S. military personnel and transported from Texas to Spain.
The impersonation was eventually uncovered by a private investigator, Charles (Charlie) Parker, and an FBI agent, Nancy Fisher, both of whom are interviewed in the film. Bourdin manages to be entertaining, sympathetic, and charming despite his actions.
Layton said of Bourdin: “He invites sympathy. He has this childlike quality about him, and he can be very charming. And at other times he can be quite repellent, because he can be remorseless and you’re reminded about what he did. So as a filmmaker, I was asking, How can I find a way of getting the audience to experience a bit of that?
The film was nominated for the Grand Jury’s World Cinema – Documentary prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. The film has been in official selection for several international film festivals, was nominated for six British Independent Film Awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Debut Director, Best Technical Achievement- Editing, Best Achievement in Production, and Best Documentary and was also shortlisted for an Academy Award. It was nominated for two BAFTA’s for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer, which it won, and Best Documentary.
3. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Bryan Singer’s classic neo-noir crime follows the interrogation of Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey), a crippled, small-time con man who narrates an elaborate story about a mysterious mob boss, Keyser Söze, and a first-hand account of a massacre on a boat, which Verbal survived.
The story is told through flashbacks. There is a truck hijacking some weeks earlier, and the five suspects are picked up by the police who, after meeting each other, plot a much bigger crime involving millions of dollars of cocaine and the Hungarian mobster Söze who is so terrifying that, when someone threatened his family in order to get to him, Söze went out and killed his own family himself so they won’t have anything to hold over him. The suspects are played by Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollak, and Spacey.
Verbal lives up to his name and seemingly objectively describes the heist in such a way that the audience forgets that it is from this low-life crook. He is interviewed by Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), who serves as an honorary audience member.
The slow, tight tracking dialogue scenes, which comprise the majority of the film, allows the story to be told through an untrustworthy first source who spins twists and piles layers and layers on an apparently simple plot. McQuarrie won an Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) and Spacey won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.
4. The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013)
Martin Scorsese’s black comedy biopic written by Boardwalk Empire’s Terence Winter that is adapted from the memoir of the same name by Jordan Belfort recounts Belfort’s career as a stockbroker in New York City and how his firm Stratton Oakmont engaged in widespread corruption and fraud on Wall Street.
Starting with honest intentions and a strong will to make some cash, Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) tried to establish himself on Wall Street in the late ‘80s with the help of the coke-addicted, power-hungry boss (Matthew McConaughey) but lost his way straight away due to the bad fortune of starting on the Black Monday market crash of 1987. Stuck with nowhere else to go, he starts working at a much less flattering penny stock boiler room where he takes fifty per cent commission. Maximising on his situation, he starts selling stocks by the thousands to people with barely any money and quickly becomes a legend to his co-workers.
Jordan befriends his neighbour Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and the two found their own company. He reinvents the place by rebranding it with an old money name “Stratton Oakmond” in order to gain the trust of his investors. They recruit Jordan’s accountant parents as well as several of Jordan’s friends, whom Jordan trains in the art of the “hard sell”. And after an exposé in Forbes, hundreds of ambitious young financiers flock to his company.
Belfort and his company specialized in “pump and dump” operations: artificially blowing up the value of a nearly worthless stock, then selling it at a big profit, after which point the value drops and the investors lose their money. Jordan illegally makes $22 million in three hours upon securing the IPO of Steve Madden therefore attracting the attention of FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler).
The controversial film was nominated for several awards, including five nominations at the 86th Academy Awards ceremony: Best Picture, Best Director for Scorsese, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) for Winter, and Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nominations for DiCaprio and Hill, respectively.
The film did not win in any category, although DiCaprio did win Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy at the 71st Golden Globe Awards, where the film was also nominated for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy.
5. The Sting (1973)
Inspired by David Maurer’s “The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man” that is based on the real life brothers Fred and Charley Gondorff, the film follows two professional grifters (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) who both try to con a mob boss (Robert Shaw).
It reunites the co-stars and the director George Roy Hill of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” The title refers to when a con artist finishes his play and takes the mark’s money, without them noticing that they have been cheated, at least not until the con artists are gone.
The complex film is set during the Great Depression in 1936 where grafter Johnny Hooker seeks out the legendary con-man Henry Gondorff who is hiding from the FBI so that he can teach him the “big con”. Gondorff is initially reluctant, but he gives in and decides to resurrect an outdated and elaborate scam called the “the wire”, using a crew of con artists to create a phony off-track betting parlour which lures in their mark, Lonnegan.
The film is divided into sections with old-fashioned title cards which are heavily accompanied with ragtime music, specifically the melody “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin. The Sting was very successful at the 46th Academy Awards, being nominated for 10 Oscars and winning seven, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.
6. The Lady Eve (1941)
This screwball comedy film written and directed by Preston Sturges based on a story by Monckton Hoffe follows the beautiful, young con artist Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) with her equally larcenous father, “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn) as she tries to hook a rich and naïve heir Charles Pike (Henry Fonda).
Although surrounded by many women who are desperate for his attention, Charles falls right into Jean’s manipulative hands. But Jean falls hard for him and tries her best to keep him away from her father’s card games. However, Pike soon discovers her scam and breaks up with her, leaving her spiteful, scornful and ready for revenge.
This gender inverted satirical slapstick manages to balance almost production code breaking romance, deception and revenge through brilliant multidimensional characters, honest acting and a simply great script, so much so that it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story.