The Top Ten Screen and TV Swindles
Lying is what humans do, often and with zest. But lying on a grand scale—propagating an elaborate swindle or scam, grifting, conniving, and deceiving for illicit gains—is a rare skill. When we see such a display of social-engineering artistry, in fiction or in real life, a reluctant admiration is drawn from us, even if we are among the fleeced. An exceptional human has excelled at something we all do in amateur fashion! If additional solace is needed, we can always trot out two famous maxims: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” And “You can’t cheat an honest man.”
1) Ball of Fire (1941)
Howard Hawks, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck—could you ask for anything more? Stanwyck’s cynical bad-girl swindle on a flock of absent-minded professors—all enacted superbly by Golden Age Hollywood craftsmen—veers from mercenary to tender, through a gantlet of belly laughs.
2) Larceny, Inc. (1942)
This film’s swindle was a seminal inspiration for the conception of my own novel, The Big Get-Even. Intent on tunneling into a bank, Edward G. Robinson and posse buy the adjacent luggage store as a cover for their activities, then gradually discover they have a flair for salesmanship. The lure of the straight-and-narrow is powerful indeed!
3) The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954)
With his Nobelist’s skills, Thomas Mann gives our theme of chicanery the bildungsroman treatment, but alas, dies before he can complete the swindle. Our hero starts down his crooked path of deception in youth by forging his father’s name on a letter to skip school. He escapes poverty and life as an elevator boy (shades of Jim Thompson’s biography!) through social climbing and womanizing, all the while maintaining his high self-regard. “No doubt I shall be accused of common theft. I will not deny the accusation, I will simply withdraw and refuse to contradict anyone who chooses to mouth this paltry word. But the word—the poor, cheap, shopworn word, which does violence to all the finer meanings of life—is one thing, and the primeval absolute deed forever shining with newness and originality is quite another.”
4) Purple Noon (1960)
I admire this early adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley for its bold performances—Alain Delon as Ripley—and its sexy Euro-veneer. It captures that global “New Frontier” period between the height of Elvis and the arrival of the Beatles in exquisite, nostalgia-provoking depth.
5) The Producers (1967)
No need to expatiate on the munificent virtues of what everyone acknowledges to be a classic comedic scam. Hard not to quote every scene: “I’m sorry—I don’t like people touching my blue blanket.”
6) Paper Moon (1973)
Beautiful period details, elegant black-and-white cinematography, astonishing performances from both Tatum and Ryan O’Neal, superior direction from Bogdanovich, and glorious scams. Not to mention Madeline Kahn’s lecture on the importance to a young girl of “bone structure.”
7) F for Fake (1974)
That magisterial charlatan, late-period Orson Welles, a hybrid here of Mandrake the Magician, the Shadow, and Tom Wolfe, dominates this looping, scattershot exegesis on many kinds of fraud, centering around art forger Elmyr de Hory. Welles’s promise of “a film about trickery and fraud, about lies” is amply justified.
8) Two Much! (1975)
An unjustly neglected standalone novel from the master Donald Westlake. Our hero lusts after rich twin sisters and manages to bed both—by pretending to be a twin himself, using Clark Kent tricks of hairdo and glasses and demeanor to deceive. After marrying them both, exhausted by the logistical demands of his duplicity and by excess sex, he ends up killing each one—and getting away with the entire abominable scam!
9) Bart Carny (1998)
Homer and Bart Simpson, foolishly imagining themselves the mark-fleecing equals of carnival lowlifes Cooder and Spud, venture too far into a world they know not and find themselves grifted out of house and home. Eventually, however, the Simpsons ramp up their game and win back the hearth. Cooder could be Jim Varney’s best role.
10) Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery (2014)
A brilliant documentary about the insouciant and charming Wolfgang Beltracchi, genius forger of paintings, this film should be mandatorily paired with F for Fake, if only to demonstrate that this gullible old world never learns anything, that con games are forever, and that, as the Mark van Doren character says in Quiz Show, “If you look around the table and you can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you.”
Paul Di Filippo sold his first story in 1977. Since then, he has written and published over two hundred more as well as several novels, amounting to roughly thirty-five books. He is the author of the forthcoming novel, The Big Get-Even, publishing in March 2018, from Blackstone Publishing.