While fanboys, sci-fi geeks, and fantasy aficionados flock down to San Diego from July 21-24 for Comic-Con, the American Cinematheque is having its own “Con” celebrating flim-flam men, smooth talkers, slick operators, and more than a few swindlers.
“Con-Con: Scams on Screen,” opens July 21 at the Egyptian with two con comedy classics from 1988: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and A Fish Called Wanda. The series, which continues at the Egyptian and the Aero through July 27, also features such comedies as the Best Picture Oscar winner The Sting, Paper Moon, Trouble in Paradise, and The Lady Eve, as well as the stark dramas The Hustler and Night and the City and even foreign cons The American Friend and The Story of a Cheat.
I’ve been keen on con films since I was swept off my feet at the tender age of seven, when I saw Robert Preston playing the toe-tapping con artist Professor Harold Hill in the 1962 musical comedy The Music Man. And I have to admit, I even toyed with the idea of being a librarian like Marian (Shirley Jones) so Preston could sing and dance his way into my heart. And then came 1973’s The Sting, which screens July 22 at the Egyptian Theatre. Female baby boomers couldn’t wait to see this stylish Depression-era con comedy because of its stars Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Truth be told, I noticed that my grades improved, every time I saw a film starring Robert Redford! Four years before, I and most of our friends became smitten with the two actors in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And I was still upset that the duo had gone out in a blaze of glory at the end. So they couldn’t die at the end of The Sting. But then they did and then they really didn’t. The Sting marked the first time I was actually conned by a movie.
“I think The Sting was such a popular movie because there was so much craftsmanship,” said film historian Alan K. Rode. “You had the appeal of Newman and Redford. You thought you knew what was going on, but there were layers to the movie.”
Rode will be at the Egyptian on July 24 to introduce two of his favorite films: The Hustler, Robert Rossen’s 1961 masterpiece starring Paul Newman as pool shark Fast Eddie Felson, and Jules Dassin’s 1950 noir Night and the City, with Richard Widmark as a con man at the end of his rope. The taut thriller was not a hit when it was released, but has grown in reputation over the past six decades. “Widmark is this loser, a con guy who always thinks he’s going to hit it big,” offered Rode. “He is the prototype of a film noir loser. He ends up destroying everyone in his orbit and destroying himself.”
But why do moviegoers have an undying affection for con films? “I think people like to see things where people survive and prosper using their wits,” Rode noted. “Basically, the con is something where it’s a non-violent type of crime. All the people who get cheated in The Sting, you want to see the screws put to them.”
Paired with The Sting is another 1973 classic set in the 1930’s, Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon, a nifty comedy about a little girl (Tatum O’Neal in her Oscar-winning turn) who is every bit the con artist as her slick Bible salesman father (Ryan O’Neal.) “She cons her father,” said Rode. “Quite frankly, for someone who is a father and grandfather, there is no better con artist than children - particularly if they are yours. You are going to go for it every time.” “Paper Moon," said Rode, “is Peter Bogdanovich’s valentine to the Depression. It remains a great movie. And kudos for Peter for filming it in black and white.”
I think the most exciting program in Con-Con is the triple comedy bill July 23 at the Egyptian, which proves that women can fleece some poor sucker just as well as the men. The sparkling comedies were directed by three masters of the genre: Ernest Lubitsch's 1932 pre-code delight Trouble in Paradise with Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, and Kay Francis; Billy Wilder's 1942 The Major and the Minor, starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland; and Preston Sturges’ 1941 masterwork The Lady Eve, with Barbara Stanwyck as a gorgeous con artist and Henry Fonda as her shy, wealthy mark. Stanwyck, said Rode, “just really epitomized the sharpie. Even though you know they are going to fall in love, it’s Preston Sturges, so it doesn't matter if you know or not. It’s kind of savoring each step the dialogue, the sweetness, light and cuteness that takes you there on the way.”
For me con movies are a fascinating subgenre that works within many genres: musicals, Westerns, comedies and dramas. And I secretly think we would all like to be con artists and have the wherewithal and gumption to create and put the con in motion. There’s something sweet in the revenge being playing out. Will they succeed? Will they get caught? Will they change their ways? It’s a cinematic cat and mouse game. And above all, a con movie engages your mind. Attention must be paid to the complexity of the plot or you’ll miss the clues.
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.
Follow her on Twitter: @mymackie