5 Great On-Screen Con Artists

David O’Russell’s crime caper starring Christian Bale’s experienced conman and Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent arrives on UK shores after Christmas. Top 10 Films takes a look at some great con artists…

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Grifters, hustlers, and con-artists are making their way out from the shadows and into the spotlight as the Oscar-baiting American Hustle hits theatres in London today (and the rest of the UK 1st January). David O Russell’s crime caper follows Christian Bale’s elite conman forced to co-operate with Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent and put his very particular set of illicit skills to good use. It is just the latest in a long (police) line-up of fantastic films and television series to feature underhand tricks of the criminal trade.

Crime, we are consistently reminded, does not pay. But it certainly pays to play the hustler. Christian Bale can look forward to a flurry of nominations in the coming months, while Jennifer Lawrence as his firebrand wife is widely tipped to carry of a second Oscar in her loot bag. They wouldn’t be the first to have made a success out of a more morally-ambiguous role. Paul Newman built his reputation as The Hustler, a small-time pool hall shark who challenges a legend of the game. His infamous blue-eyes were the icy finishing touch in a poker face that snookered countless on-screen rivals, and he went one step further partnering with Robert Redford in long con classic The Sting.

Whether scamming on the mean streets like Wesley Snipes in White Men Can’t Jump or Statham’s gang in Lock Stock; or if there are loftier targets in mind such as the victims of the Clooney-led Ocean’s 11, or the blink and you’ll miss ‘em magicians of Now You See Me; con-artists always give off an unmistakable air of cool that not even Bradley Cooper’s ridiculous perm can shake off.

Watch the American Hustle trailer below:

So, without further ado – here are our 5 favourite On-Screen Con Artists…

Frank Abagnale – Catch Me If You Can (Speilberg, 2002)

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Ably played by Leonardo DiCaprio, teen wunderkind Frank Abagnale achieved more before his 21st birthday than most manage in an entire life-time (though his achievements do include being sentenced to a long stint in prison). From his early days fooling classmates into believing he was a particularly youthful French substitute teacher, to his elaborate lies impersonating Pan Am pilots and making off with millions of dollars in loot, Frank is the master opportunist. And, incredibly, the whole thing is rooted in a true story.

Mickey Stone – Hustle (Jordan, 2004)

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Nicknamed Mickey Bricks by his partners in crime, Hustle’s lead stole the show (and his victim’s money) by leading his motley gang through a host of long cons. Introducing a Hollywood slickness to British television screens, and tipping viewers off to the types of scams they might fall victim to, Hustle provided an ultra-entertaining public service. Never coning an honest man, Mickey’s staunch moral code, even as he bent the rules of her majesty’s law, made him impossible not to root for, and spring boarded Adrian Lester towards Shakespearean roles. Catch the show on Sony TV from January 6th.

Lilly Dillon – The Grifters (Frears, 1990)

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The Grifters is a dramatic tale of a family of con artists condemned by the dishonest lives they lead. More a dynamic character study than the typical actioner expected of the genre, it is Angelica Huston’s endlessly fascinating performance as Lilly that lingers longest in the memory. As a veteran grafter caught between her severely-wounded criminal son, and a ruthless bookmaker, Huston dazzles, utilising every last trick in the book to stay on top of the situation. A devastating final scene steals our breath away.

Professor Marcus – The Ladykillers (Mackendrick, 1955)

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How to pick just one? Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers assembles a crack team of liars, thieves, and con-men – each well practised in the art of deceit. But Alec Guinness’ Professor Marcus rules the roost as their leader, engineering an ingenious scheme involving a string quintet, a security van robbery, and a clueless landlady, Mrs. Wilberforce. Brilliantly funny, well-executed, and showcasing some of Britain’s finest acting talent, The Ladykillers has endured, and remains one of Sir Alec’s most treasured roles.

Raymond – Rain Man (Levinson, 1988)

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Tom Cruise might get the sunglasses and the sharp lines, but Dustin Hoffman dazzles as his card-counting accomplice. As the pawn in greedy brother Charlie’s attempts to get rich quick, Raymond’s perfect recall is manipulated and put to use on casino tables up and down the country. An award-winning and sensitive portrayal of autism, Rain Man also succeeds as an invigorating thriller – with each assault on the Blackjack tables of Las Vegas as perfectly crafted as a Michael Mann heist. Essential viewing: it earns its spot at grafting’s top table.

Watch Hustle on Sony Entertainment Television (Sky 157/Virgin 193/BT 454) weeknights from January 6th at 7pm.

  1. Evan Crean Reply

    Love Catch Me if You Can is still one of my favorite Leo roles and one of my top Spielberg films. Haven’t seen American Hustle just yet, but I’m really looking to it. I enjoy David O. Russell’s movies and I love the entire cast, so I have high hopes.

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