For every Focus or Matchstick Men there is a smaller, subtler con artist flick that never found it’s audience. These small scale pics often have more complex characters, relying on the moral grey areas of being a professional con man rather than the elaborate, twisty plots of the blockbusters.
Here’s seven con artist movies you might have missed.
Little Golden Calf (1968) How do you become rich in a country where no one has any money? That’s the dilemma facing Ostap Bender, a small time con man living in soviet Russia. But don’t worry, this isn’t a dreary ‘boy meets tractor’ communist propaganda film. It’s more a ‘boy scams tractor, rides tractor cross country in order to scam a secret millionaire’. It’s the kind of subversive film that would have gotten the filmmakers sent to siberia if the KGB had figured out they were being mocked.
Two Faces of January (2014) From the author of the Talented Mr Ripley and starring Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen, it’s surprising that this slick thriller flopped at the box office. Set in Greece in the sixties, only the cigarettes smoulder more than the characters as two very different American con artists clash over a missing fortune and a beautiful woman. The well-dressed cast are filtered through a golden light that makes the film feel less like a thriller and more like the Instagram account of a Mediterranean bespoke tailor.
Il Bidone (1955) Calling Il Bidone one of Fellini’s lesser films is a little like calling Liam Hemsworth the least attractive Hemsworth. The bar is set very high. Like the more famous La Dolce Vita, Il Bidone explores the dangers of hedonism as a group of swindlers impersonator the clergy and government inspectors to scam the old, poor and sick. A beautiful film about ugly people.
Shade (2003) A favourite among magicians and very few others, Shade is a ramshackle tale of cards cheats and swindlers with an all star cast including Jamie Fox, Gabriel Byrne, Sylvester Stallone and more. The film is saved by the numerous demonstrations of sleight of hand and in-jokes only magicians will get. The opening credits are a thing of beauty. It’s a just a pity about the plot.
The Captain from Köpenick (1956) This West German biopic is as absurd as it is true. In 1906, a German tailor got his hands on a Prussian military officer’s uniform, dressed up and took a number of soliders to a nearby town where he confiscated 4000 marks from the local treasury. He served two years in prison but became such a folk hero that the Kaiser pardoned him. He went on to inspire novels, stage plays and five seperate movies including this 1956 classic that, wisely, plays the whole ridiculous affair for laughs.
Nick the Sting (1976) A ridiculous attempt to rip off the premise of The Sting in this Italian film about a con man who tries to avenge the death of his friend by scamming the business man he believes responsible. Packed with gun fights, explosions and a surprising number of fist fights that end with a wacky kick up the backside, Nick the Sting can’t decide if it’s a thriller or a comedy.
Rosalie Goes Shopping (1989) Neon coloured and darkly satirical, Rosalie Goes Shopping is the tale of a German housewife living in middle America who scams and steals from local businesses and banks under the advice that “when you’re $100,000 in debt, it’s your problem. But when you’re $1 million in debt, its the bank’s.”
Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author, entertainer and collector of scams.