“You’re a con artist,” wrote Karina Halle in Sins & Needles. “A liar. A thief. An unredeemable soul.”
She might also have added to that colourful list really interesting movie character.
As despicable as flim flam artists may be, there is no denying they make good film subjects.
This weekend in American Hustle, Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a con man forced to help the FBI ensnare a group of corrupt politicians in the ABSCAM sting operation.
Although American Hustle director David O. Russell says his film is a fictionalized account of events, the ABSCAM operation was headline news in the early 1980s and Hollywood took notice.
In 1982 director Louis Malle was making plans for a May start date on an ABSCAM film called Moon Over Miami starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Belushi was to play Melvin Weinberg, based on the same man as Bale’s character in American Hustle.
The movie was scuttled following Belushi’s death in March of that year.
That con man film never saw the light of day, but many others have.
Everyone knows The Sting and The Grifters, but lesser seen is David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, a complicated story starring Campbell Scott as Joe Ross, a man who invents a process “to control the world market.” Concerned that he will not be properly compensated for his work he contacts Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a wealthy businessman who offers to help. Little does Ross know that he has just stepped into a world of deception that will change his life.
Steve Martin’s performance in The Spanish Prisoner was Oscar worthy, but it wasn’t the first time he played a confidence man on film.
In the comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels he starred opposite Michael Caine as a scruffy con man trying to muscle in on some high end business on the French Riviera. Caine’s suave grifter makes a bet with Martin. Whoever can con Soap Queen Janet Colgate (Glenne Headley) first will walk away with $50,000.
The movie was written for Mick Jagger and David Bowie who were looking to do a project together after the success of their Dancing in the Street video. The rock stars dropped out before cameras rolled — Bowie later said both were, “a bit tweezed that we lost out on a script that could have been reasonably good” — and replaced by Martin and Caine whose hilarious performances earned the movie a spot on Bravo’s 100 Funniest Movies list.