What a Scam: Ten great films about con artists

the color of money con artistsWhat is it about con artists in the movies that we like so much? We wouldn’t want to cross paths with these people in real life, but the cinema can’t seem to get enough of clever schemers who separate poor dumb schmucks from their money. The stakes can be small (the amounts of money in American Hustle are fairly petty in the grand scheme) or large (Danny Ocean and his buddies steal millions). In the lingo of the grifter, is it a short con or a long con?

If you’re in the mood to get conned, here are ten great movies about scams and scammers.


The Hustler (1961)

In 1961 Paul Newman was a newly-minted movie star eager to show his acting chops. He plays Fast Eddie Felson, the gifted pool shark who challenges the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Robert Rossen’s direction and Eugene Shufton’s crisp black and white cinematography, not to mention Gleason’s comic turn as the villain of the piece, ensured this tale of low-life’s and smoky pool halls was destined to be a classic, as well as making pool trendy.


The Sting (1973)

Newman again. Now a certified star, reteamed with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) co-star Robert Redford in a highly entertaining, twisty, nostalgic tale of Depression era con artists. The film was a huge hit thanks to its stars and the Joplin music.


Paper Moon (1973)

The Depression again. Father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal travel the Midwest in Peter Bogdanovich’s lovingly recreated 1930s.


House of Games (1987)

No list of movies about con artists would be complete without mention of David Mamet. The Chicago playwright is obsessed with double-dealing, scams, cons, and magic tricks (hence the presence of Ricky Jay). Most Mamet enthusiasts think of the macho salesmen of Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) when they think of con artists, but I think House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner (1997) are more interesting films.


The Color of Money (1986)

Paul Newman reprises the role of Fast Eddie from The Hustler. Here he mentors a young hot headed pool shark (Tom Cruise, when he was still an eager, talented young actor) and his girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). The script is by Richard Price; the frenetic direction is by Martin Scorsese. Watch out for John Turturro and Forest Whitaker, as well as – bizarrely – Iggy Pop.


The Grifters (1990)

Perhaps the con artist movie to end all con artist movies. British director Stephen Frears brilliantly takes on a very American setting of gamblers, racetracks and scams in an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s pulpy noir. Is it a film about con artists or is it a treatise on the Oedipal complex? Angelica Huston, Annette Benning and John Cusack are all on sizzling, sultry form.


The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

David Mamet’s tricky, clever Hitchcockian thriller is a must-see.


Heartbreakers (2001)

An underrated little comedy gem, with all the cast working it for all it’s worth.


Matchstick Men (2003)

Ridley Scott made this breezy, very funny Los Angeles tale of conmen and fatherhood while preparing his medieval epic Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Nicolas Cage is the grifter with OCD. Sam Rockwell (brilliant) is his partner. Alison Lohman is Cage’s daughter, eager to learn the ropes.


Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Technically, I suppose it’s more of a heist movie, and should be on a list with things like The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), The Anderson Tapes (1971), and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974).  But there’s an awful lot of conning going on in Stephen Soderbergh’s tale.


About the Author

Niall McArdle, County-Level Playboy and sometime Warrior Poet, is an Irish writer. Born and raised in Dublin, he is currently at large in Canada. His debut novel, Clay Bodies, will be published this year. When he’s not whining about the arts at silence, cunning, exile … maple syrup, he spends his time collecting rejection letters from The New Yorker. He is still waiting for Uma Thurman to return his calls.

6 thoughts on “What a Scam: Ten great films about con artists

  1. What a fun list, Niall–nice job! What do you think of the potential addition of “The Music Man”? Yes, it’s corny and overexposed, but there are some swell numbers (except for “Shipoopi”–yecch!). And con artistry is definitely the name of the game there. 😀

  2. I love House of Games and will have to check out Heartbreakers. Also like Fabian Bielinsky’s Nine Queens, Mike Hodges’ Croupier, the ultra creepy Nightmare Alley by Edmund Goulding, Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel (despite a weak ending), and for sheer empty calorie fun, John Landis’ Trading Places. “Looking good, Billy Ray. Feeling good, Louis.” Thanks for an entertaining list.

  3. Great idea Niall, and two of my favourite American films, the underrated ‘House of Games’, and the marvellous ‘Grifters’, with Angelica Huston at her very best. Terrific stuff!
    Regards from England, Pete.

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