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  • Nicholas J. Johnson

Every con artist movie I watched to write my first novel

In 2015, I published my first novel, Chasing The Ace, the story of a teenager who dreams of becoming a master swindler after watching one too many con artist movies.

It was a bestseller and was nominated for a Ned Kelly Award for best debut fiction.

For research, I watched every con artist movie I could get my hands on. This was before streaming and so I had to hunt down second-hand DVDs, VHS tapes, and bootleg copies of the movies I wanted to watch.

In the case of The Little Golden Calf, I ripped a copy in the original Russian and then attached a set of subtitles provided by a Russian man living in New York. (Thanks Vlad!)

I recently came across my brief notes on each film and thought I'd share them here.

Some of the movies weren't technically about con artists but rather gamblers, pickpockets, and bank thieves. However, I've included them as the spiritual half-siblings of the con artist movies.

I've added a 🌟 next to my favourites.

$5 a day (2009)

Christopher Walken plays a small-time con artist who detests spending money. He attempts to reconnect with his son as they drive cross country spending just $5 a day. I love seeing a con artist whose motivation comes not from revenge or a desire to pull off a big score but rather from old-fashioned stinginess.

21 (2008)

A group of MIT students learn to count cards and try to win at Vegas. Based on the already exaggerated 'non-fiction' book Bringing Down The House, 21 is a copy of a copy of the truth. The film is now mostly remembered for white-washing the real-life Asian card counters.

A Big Hand For The Little Lady (1966)

A gambling movie about a small family in the old west who get sucked into a high-stakes poker game. The film moves along at a cracking pace despite most of the action occurring at the poker table. Watch closely and you'll notice that no one actually cheats.

Bedtime Story (1964)

The original Dirty Rotten Scoundrels starring Marlon Brando and David Niven. A pair of con artists compete to see who can bed a rich socialite first. The woman is treated as both a sucker and a prize—a double whammy of sexism.

The Black Swindler (2006)

Based on the popular Manga and Japanese TV show, The Black Swinder is a con man who, following the death of his family, seeks revenge on the swindling community by 'eating' other swindlers.

Believe (2007)

A little seen mockumentary about the world of multi-media marketing. I'm currently looking for people interested in helping promote the film through a very special business opportunity. Sit down and let me tell you all about it...

Bluff aka Con Artists aka High Rollers (1976)

An Italian farce featuring plenty of double-crossing, jail breaks and swindles.

Bluffmaster! (2005)

Like Ek Khiladi Ek Haseen, this Bollywood film openly steals from other, better films including Criminal, Nine Queens and Matchstick Men.

Boiler Room (2000)

The inner workings of boiler room investment scam. Boiler Room is to the stock market swindles of the early 21st century what Wall Street and Glen Garry Glen Ross were to the money-hungry 80s. Trivia: The "Yellow Kid" Weil, who inspired The Sting, claimed to have invented the boiler room back in the early 1900s.

🌟 The Brothers Bloom (2009)

This old-fashioned caper about two con artist brothers is great fun. It also features the fresh idea of a con man wanting to go straight so he can live an 'unwritten life."

🌟 Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Based on the life of Frank Abagnale, one of the greatest paper hangers of all time, Catch Me If You Can fudges the facts, stringing together Abagnale's greatest hits into a loose narrative. As a work of fiction, it's a delight; as a historical document, it should be trusted as much as one of Abagnale's cheques.

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

Steven McQueen is an up-and-coming poker player who tries to prove himself in a high-stakes match against a long-time master of the game. As the stakes get higher, he finds himself mixed up with card cheats. Despite the fantastical nature of the game themselves—the chances of the final two hands being dealt in one round are 332,220,508,619 to 1—the film still feels gritty and real.

Colour Me Kubrick (2005)

An English con man pretends to be Stanley Kubrick for both status and money. There is something tremendously sad about this dreary picture. John Malkovich is the star and provides the core of this one-man band.

Colour of Money (1986)

While this sequel to The Hustler doesn't live up to the original, its dark look at the seedy side of pool halls is still top cinema.

Confidence (2003)

Edward Burns plays a con man who cons the accountant of a crime boss. He has to run a big store scam to get the money back. Rather than actually being a great con artist film, Confidence is pretending to be one. The characters drop words like 'shill' and 'mark' into their dialogue to remind you they are con artists.

Conflict (1930)

A lumberjack and boxer is roped into a fixed boxing scam forcing him to choose between money and his friends.

Criminal (2003)

The American remake of Nine Queens minus the political upheaval and economic turmoil of the original.

Diggstown (1992)

A con man bets a millionaire that a faded boxer can beat 24 boxers in 24 hours. This is very much a fight movie that retains elements of con artistry. In others, the ability to box does play a part in the success of the scam.

🌟 Dirty Rotton Scoundrels (1988)

Steven Martin and Micheal Caine play con artists who compete to win the right to con in a small French town by seeing who can scam the most money out of an American tourist. A remake of 'Bedtime Story' that far surpasses the original. The final twist is great fun, even if you see it coming.

Dr Mabuse, der Spieler (1922)

An evil mastermind hypnotises his victims into giving him their money. Features stock market swindles and psychics.

Elmer Gantry (1960)

Elmer Gantry is a con man who teams up with a female preacher to sell religion to the masses.

Flim Flam Man (1967)

A master con man takes a young army deserter under his wing and teaches him the tricks of the trade. The film presents an accurate depiction of depression-era con artists despite being set in the 1960s. Also, a man gets hit on the head with a giant sausage. Includes punchboard scams, three card monte and the pigeon drop.

🌟 F is for Fake (1974)

A semi-fictional documentary about forger Elmyr De Hoyr also features interviews with Clifford Irving, the writer who forged the Howard Hughes autobiography. The final film of Orson Wells.

Freelance (1971)

Ian McShane, of Deadwood fame, plays a small-time con artist who witnesses a mugging and ends up with a hitman on his tail. This is classic 70's Brit noir in the same vein as Get Carter and the other Micheal Caine crime films of the same era.

🌟 The Little Golden Calf (1968)

Ostap Bender, a con man in Soviet Russian, attempts to extort 1 million from an underground millionaire in this classic Russian comedy. The film is based on the Petrov novel of the same name. While not available in English on DVD, this film is available on youtube with English subtitles.

Grapes (2008)

A Czech con artist and his girlfriend spend their days renting apartments and then re-renting it to several people, collecting rent and bonds from all and vanishing before anyone moves in. With the police hot on their tails, the con artist decides to hide out in the family vineyard where he discovers there are more important things than swindling.

The Great Imposter (1961)

Tony Curtis stars as Fred Demara, a real-life imposter who pretended to be a jail warden, a doctor, a priest, a teacher and many more in his long career as an imposter. The film manages to transform the portly and argumentative Demara into a suave precursor to Catch Me If You Can. Demara was supposedly the inspiration for the 1990's TV series, The Pretender.

The Grifters (1989)

Insurance fraud, dice games, race course, pump and dump, bar bets, cackle bladder. Bonus points for not falling into the usual "short con-short con- long con - twist" structure of most con artist films during the period. Loses points by having the mentor do a bad card trick and calling it cheating.

Heartbreakers (2001)

A mother and daughter con artist team scam lonely single men. This broad comedy aims to be an all-female version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but doesn't quite succeed.

Harry In Your Pocket (1973)

A highly accurate depiction of the world of the pickpocket.

Heist (2003)

While this David Mamet film revolves around the theft of gold from an airport, the various twists and turns conjure up images of the Spanish Prisoner and House of Games.

Holy Rollers (2011)

The true story of a group of card-counters who also happen to be devout Christians. A fascinating documentary that explores the ethics of card counting and casino culture:

House Of Games (1987)

A psychologist helps a con artist discover the 'tells' in rival poker players.

The Hustler (1961)

A young, up-and-coming hustler plays "Minnesota Fats" in a marathon pool game.

Leap of Faith (1992)

Steve Martin plays a fake faith healer who travels the countryside, convincing people he can heal and tell their fortunes. Features scams used by Swamis.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Four friends get drawn into the criminal underworld when their leader loses 250,000 pounds in a game of cards. Features Card Cheating and the sex toy scam.

The Hoax (2007)

The true story of Clifford Irving, the man who tried to sell the reclusive Howard Hugh's autobiography. Despite him never having written one. The real Irving was a romantic who loved the thrill of his swindle while Richard Gere plays his Irving as a miserable sad sack.

Honky Tonk (1941)

Clark Gable plays a con man who reveals the three-card monte to save his skin.

It's The Old Army Game (1923)

WC Fields plays a drugstore owner who unwittingly becomes a part of a bogus land deal scam. The poster for the film features WC Fields throwing monte.

Kaledidoscope (1966)

Warren Beatty plays a card cheat who breaks into a card factory and marks the plates used to print the cards allowing him to win any game, anytime.

The Lady Eve (1941)

Like Bedtime Story, Dirty Rotton Scoundrels and Heartbreakers, The Lady Eve combines the con artist genre with romantic comedy. Barbara Stanwyck plays a con woman who falls in love with her mark played by Henry Fonda. With plenty of backstabbing and twists, this is golden era comedy.

Les plus belles escroqueries du monde (1964)

Four directors each tell a tale of swindlers in this French anthology film. Imagine the Twilight Zone movie but with con artists instead of supernatural stories and french new wave cinema instead of 80s B-grade blockbuster.

Ek Khiladi Ek Haseena (2006)

A low-budget Bollywood film jammed full of fairly average musical numbers and product placements. The film steals heavily from both House of Games, Confidence and Matchstick Men.

The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

Frank Sinatra plays a heroin addict who tries to go straight and become a drummer. However, his skills as a card cheat lead his formal associates to try and drag him back in.

Matchstick Men (2003)

A daughter meets her con artist father for the first time and is drawn into his world. Features the Lottery Ticket Scam, Bank Examiner and Advance Fee Fraud.

Maverick (1994)

A card cheat crosses paths and swords with a con woman and a law enforcement officer.

Mississippi Gambler (1953)

A professional gambler takes on a swindler at three-card monte.

Mo Money (1992)

Damon Waynes plays a con man who 'goes straight' to impress a girl but ends up in a stolen credit card scam.

The Music Man (1962)

A travelling con man tries to swindle the people of a small Iowa town into funding a non-existent marching band.

The Music Man (2003)

A 2003 remake of the 1962 film.

My Chauffeur (1986)

Magicians Penn and Teller play con man and victim in this short comedy about three-card monte.

Nightmare Ally (1947)

Tyrone Powers plays a con man who steals the secrets of a phony psychic's act and becomes a star with them.

🌟 Nine Queens (2000)

A master con man takes a young man under his wing to teach him the tricks of the trade against the backdrop of Argentina's economic struggles.

🌟 Ocean's 11 (2001)

George Clooney's heist film, like Heist, plays out more like a long con that a theft. Great fun.

Ocean's Thirteen (2007)

Danny Ocean and his team finally pull some real scams as they rigged dice games, card games and poker machines in a casino.

The Old Army Game (1943)

Cartoon short in which Donald Duck goes AWOL from the army. He hides one of three boxes from his commanding officer in a parody of the shell game. The Old Army Game is another name for the Shell Game.

🌟 Paper Moon (1973)

A con man and his daughter travel through depression-era America. Based on the booked

🌟 The Past Is A Foreign Land (2009)

A law student gets mixed up with a card cheat in this darker Italian thriller. The card cheating 'skills' are more akin to magic tricks but the psychology of the cheat and the psychopathic desire for 'control' make this film a cut above the rest. You may also enjoy the book of the same name.

The Pickpocket (1957)

Robert Bresson's classic film about morality and identity. A petty thief slowly becomes a master pickpocket despite his friend's attempts to help him out.

The Prime Gig (2000)

Vince Vaughn plays a con artist who specializes in boiler room telemarketing. Recruited into a team to make a fortune in a gold mining scam.

Princess Caraboo (1994)

Phoebe Cates (from Gremlins, remember Gremlins? Great film. Scared the hell out of me) plays the titular role as a non-English speaking princess from a faraway land who ingratiates herself in at 19th Century Bristol family. Its inclusion on this list suggests she is not all she appears. Based on a true story.

The Producers (1968)

A theatre producer and accountant try to swindle investors out of money by producing a flop. The resulting play 'Springtime For Hitler" is a smash hit.

The Producers (2007)

A theatre producer and accountant try to swindle investors out of money by producing a flop. A flop movie based on a hit musical based on a hit movie about flop musical that becomes a hit.

The Rainmaker (1956)

A charming con man convinces the residents of a small town he can make it rain...for $100.

Rainman (1988)

A car salesman and his autistic but mathematically genius brother travel cross country. Along the way, they hustle a casino by using Raymond's math skills to count cards. The film implies that Raymond is a genius because he can count six decks. This is untrue.

Rogue Traders (1999)

A fictional retelling of the story of fraudulent trading of Nick Leeson, the man who destroyed Barings bank in 1995.

🌟 Rounders (1998)

A poker player and his friend, a poker cheat, try to pay off a big debt by a mixture of good poker and good cheating. Perhaps the most accurate depiction of poker and cheating on the big screen, Rounders is responsible for inspiring the breed of poker players and, in turn, the rise in popularity of Texas Hold'em.

Scam (1989)

A female con artist who seduces wealthy men and then robs them for her violent boyfriend is stalked by another con artist who has plans for her talents.

Skin Game (1971)

Two con men play the roles of slave owner and slave. The slave is 'sold' only to escape and return to the 'slave owner' where they split the money. Features the coin collector scam.

Shade (2003)

A group of card cheats get together to take down the best card cheat in the world. This is a fun film but feels very much like a magician's view of card cheats. Most of the characters are named after famous card magicians and, at one point, a player magically produces four jacks at the card table in the middle of a game and DOESN'T get the shit kicked out of him.

Shell Game (1975)

The pilot for a TV show that was never picked up, Shell Game is a classic con artist story filled with long cons, gold mine swindles and the shell game of the title. A con artist, recently released from prison tries to reclaim money stolen from a charity. Despite it being a low-budget, straight-to-video flop, Shell Game is a cut above the average scam film of the time with a great horse racing scam and an excellent take of a gold mining scam.

Shooting Fish (1997)

Two con artists find their unethical lives thrown in disarray by a beautiful woman. It attempts to be a post-trainspotting brit pop independent film but ends up feeling more like a fluffy Ealing studios film from the 1950s.

Our rating: 3 out of 5

🌟 Six Degrees of Separation (1994)

Will Smith plays a con artist who impersonates Sidney Poiter's son in order to gain access to a rich New York family. Based on the play The Kadinski Has Two Faces. My high school staged a production of the play in which 'Sidney Poiter's son' was played by a pale redhead. Didn't quite work.

Sidekicks (1976)

A remake of Skin Game designed as a pilot for a TV series that was never produced.

Simpatico (1999)

Three con artists make a bundle by swapping top race horses for bad ones, cleaning up with big bets on the long odds. 20 years later, their past catches up with them.

Smart Money (1929)

Edward G Robinson and James Cagney share the screen for the first and only time in this story of a small-town barber who is also the 'luckiest man alive'. Keen to turn his skill at gambling into a fortune, he takes 10,000 dollars of his friend's money into a poker game, unaware that the game is crooked.

🌟 Spanish Prisoner (1997)

David Mamet's study of a victim of the classic Advance Fee Fraud. While the premise of the Spanish Prisoner makes up the lion's share of the plot, the execution is a little unbelievable.

🌟 The Sting (1973)

A con man seeks revenge for the death of his friend by teaming up with a master scammer in a classic long con. The Sting is the standard against which all other con artists are judged. The story is based on the life of The Yellow Kid Weil and the book, The Big Con by David Maurer, who sued the filmmakers.

The Sting 2 (1983)

The sequel to the original film with new actors in the lead roles. The filmmakers have created a messy scam full of holes set in the world of boxing.

The Swindler (1997)

A pair of French swindlers, Betty and Victor, cross the country in an RV in this Hitchcock-style comedy.

Swindled aka Incaustos (2003)

In a flashback, a young Spanish con man tells how he got to the edge of a big score. Including his aging mentor, his partner and a beautiful woman, this film feels like a second-rate Nine Queens, but this Spanish scam film ticks all the boxes with a fun twist and plenty of short cons.

The Super (1991)

An average film about a landlord forced to live in one of his slums. Features the best depiction of three-card monte ever featured in a film

Our rating: 2.5 out of 5 for the film but 5 out of 5 for the depiction of the monte

🌟The Talented Mr Ripley (2001)

Matt Damon plays an amoral con artist who pretends to be a school friend of a rich man's son.

Three Card Monte (1976)

A two-bit hustler working the streets in Canada hooks up with a young boy and teaches him everything he knows. Features a note-perfect depiction of three-card monte how it's really played, crooked dice and various short cons.

🌟 The Tichborne Claimant (1998)

The true story of the Wagga butcher who pretended to be the missing son of a wealthy french noblewoman.

Traveller (1997)

Bill Paxton joins Mark Wahlberg's family of nomadic con artists in South Carolina. Wahlberg's family in the movie are Irish Travellers and the film leans heavily on racist stereotypes.

White Men Can't Jump (1993)

Woody Harrelson and Wesly Snipes play a pair of con artists who hustle money on the LA street courts. Many of the scams come from the card table but are altered to suit street basketball.


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